Nothing like pfiesteria to kill a little smugness

March 20, 1998|By Dennis Shaw

Dennis Shaw

One of the best things about recycling is that it lets me feel I'm doing some specific for the environment. That's especially nice when I find myself worrying about the bigger stuff, like global warming or overpopulation or the loss of wetlands. When I recycle even one aluminum can, I've done something, however small.

But just when I start feeling pretty smug, along comes something called pfiesteria. It's not easy to do something about that. Heck, I don't even know how to pronounce it.

It is a problem in Maryland, though the Eastern Shore seems far away from Washington County. The only way it really has affected me is that I've had to pay a little more for seafood. But I know it's part of the bigger problem of water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.


Our legislators in Annapolis have been arguing all winter over ways to deal with it. They seem to agree that it's caused partly by too much chicken manure being spread on farm fields, but that's about all they agree on.

I wrote to Del. Bob McKee and Sen. Don Munson and put in my two cents' worth. I told them the big poultry companies - "Big Chicken" - and not just farmers, should be responsible for disposing of the wastes properly.

They wrote back, but I don't think they agreed with me.

So I figured I'd have to find some other way to tackle pfiesteria. And the more I learned about it, the more I realized there are some simple, concrete things I can do.

I almost wish I had a nice lawn. People with lawns put chicken farmers to shame, applying up to 10 times more toxic chemicals per acre than farmers do. I assume they also apply a lot more fertilizer that can also get into waterways and create the conditions that can cause pfiesteria.

But I can't stop using fertilizer, because I don't use it in the first place. I suppose I could start using it, and then give it up, but I don't think I'd really fool myself.

One thing I can do is make sure my septic system is working properly.

Chickens aren't the only creatures that create manure. If I lived in town, I could call my councilman and ask that the sewage treatment plant be upgraded. That can be a factor, too.

Alas, the simplest thing of all to do is to stop eating chicken. That would put the chicken companies out of business, and there'd be no manure to worry about. But I don't think I could do it by myself; I'd need a little help from my friends. But I can't really ask them to do it, because I don't want to stop eating chicken. I gave up eating beef for environmental reasons, and I'm trying to become a vegetarian, but so far I've been too weak.

Even campylobacter didn't do the trick. That's a bacteria that can sicken or occasionally kill people and can be found on chicken. But it's no use; I'll risk it.

I wish I could get over that, but I'm addicted. And when I bite into a piece of fried chicken I don't want to think about the thousands of tons of manure produced each year in Maryland. And what about the rest of the chicken, feathers and such? I wonder where that goes and what environmental problems it causes.

Dennis Shaw is a former Herald-Mail editor. Write to him at P.O. Box 276, Clear Spring, Md. 21722 or call 301-842-3863.

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