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Monsters in the Shed

We’re a long way from the time when DDT trucks rumbled down the street to spray and children chased them on their bikes. But a troubled inheritance from that less-informed time persists.



Decades ago, my father and grandfather conspired to create a fearsome beast, the Gypsy Lion, using crude ethnic stereotypes of child-kidnapping Gypsies from that era. The Gypsy Lion wasn’t after just any bad child; it preyed upon children who ventured into Grandpa’s garage, a wonderland of fascinating but dangerous old saws, heavy things perched on wobbly shelves, rusty roofing nails lying points-up on the floor and easily broken glass containers that smelled odd. Back then I had no idea that these glass jugs and jars were the worst monsters of all. Nor did I imagine that they’d still spread terror five decades later.

Lindane. Malathion. Diazinon. Permethrin. These aren’t the names of Sith lords from the mind of George Lucas. But chances are, for buyers of older houses, one of these creatures may be lurking in the shed, garage or crawl space. Even their criminalized friend DDT may be hiding in the shadows to spread havoc. That could happen as soon as a flimsy cardboard box, chaining DDT in the damp darkness under the house, gets devoured by camelback crickets. Those same crickets may even bring the monster’s spoor into the house at 2 a.m., when, most nights, one jumps on my leg as I go for a glass of water.

Whatever short-term studies have revealed, we have little idea of the health effects of gradual, long-term exposure to legal and legacy herbicides and pesticides. We’re a long way, thankfully, from the time when DDT trucks rumbled down the street to spray, and children chased them on their bikes. But a troubled inheritance from that less-informed time persists. As people in their 70s and 80s — a generation that enjoyed using these products — leave this world, younger folks will inherit their homes and outbuildings. In those structures quite often there’s a monster or two skulking in some forgotten nook. In many cases our bodies can’t process these poisons, so they accumulate in our fat and in mothers’ breast milk. Even with more cautious applications of purportedly safer chemicals today, they’re breathed in, eaten in minute quantities and absorbed through the skin.

The logical response is to get rid of them all, period. Yet if people try safely to dispose of pesticides or herbicides in any quantity in Virginia, I wish them good luck. After finding an open box of DDT powder on a country property my wife and I purchased, our hearts sank and we began searching. Soon I had two five-gallon plastic buckets full of toxins, carefully sealed and labeled. The next step should have been easy. As a grad student in Indiana, I’d have taken them to what was known as “tox-away day,” held one Saturday per month at the farmers’ market.

While the Hoosier State made collection public and well advertised, in Virginia, collection dates are infrequent and often fall during the workweek. Publicity is limited in urban areas, though most rural extension offices have posters and advertise in the local weeklies. Even then, a form must be found at the extension office or online and completed. Given my innate persistence, I got things right: After a long game of telephone tag, I contacted an extension agent with the Office of Pesticide Services and arranged to have my chemicals disposed of properly.

That happened only because my passion for organic gardening borders on the obsessive-compulsive. I’m not an absolute purist: I’ve used less than a quart of Roundup herbicide in 20 years, and usually I apply it with a small paint brush. Yet I recognize that not too many other Virginians would bother with a month’s work locating dates and paperwork online, filling out forms, labeling a few “unknown” chemicals, and driving 100 miles round trip. I assume that the average homeowner would just toss the toxins into the trash, and the monster would go to rest in a local landfill, perhaps to sleep down the eons, perhaps to become airborne and roam the land again, baying at the moon.

Others might simply pour the poisons onto the ground. Once in a big-box store, an old woman near me asked an employee to help her load five one-gallon jugs of paint thinner into her cart. When he mentioned that she must be doing a lot of painting, she grinned and said “that’s for the weeds. Roundup costs too much.” The clerk and I locked eyes, not needing to say anything, knowing that there’s no law against buying paint thinner.

I’ve banished my own stock of chemicals, yet one beast still lives in my shed: half a dozen tubes of liquid containing cadmium. This once was used in antique wet-cell batteries, and they showed up in a shed at the farm of a deceased relative. I put the cadmium inside another sturdy plastic container and I slept easier, thinking that disposal would be easy. In theory, it is. With one phone call, a state employee put me in touch with a private company that would take and dispose of the liquids safely.

It would cost only $200.

Our state and municipal governments need to make this issue a priority, even for those with legal chemicals that need disposal and especially for those without Internet access and research skills. I will be fine: I already have a bag of Sevin, which puffed out a tiny cloud of lethal dust as I sealed it, waiting for next year’s collection date.

Perhaps one day, a sane government, one more accountable to the people than the major corporations that make and market poisons, will force makers to accept and dispose of unwanted poisons in ways not harmful to humans and the environment. Perhaps we’ll see placards in city buses and hear public-service announcements on the radio, frequently advising people about how to be rid of our toxins.

It’s the least we can do for ourselves and the children who come after us. I don’t want them growing up afraid of the Gypsy Lion, or worse things, out in an old garage.

Joe Essid teaches writing at the University of Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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