• Accidents can be can expensive way to learn about problems

    • Posted on May 08, 1988


    We’re flying in a Hawaiian Air-lines 737 jetliner at 24,000 feet above the Pacific,  It's a pleasant afternoon, and the warm ocean shines like tinfoil in the sun below.

    Then WHOOM, the cabin depressurizes, and sunlight floods the for¬ward section. The plane dips and swings, people yell. For most it seems their worst nightmare is about to come true.

    The jet dives, levels out, then heads for an airport. Thirteen minutes later it’s on the ground. Several passengers are hurt, some critically, and a flight attendant is missing.

    “The plane looks like it became a convertible,” an observer said, and it might have been funny if it weren’t so terrifying.

    What we have here is one more instance of getting smart too late. So now we know about cabin metal fatigue. Older passenger jets can’t be pressurized year after year and flown at high altitudes.

    In order to discover that, we had to have an accident.

    We’re right to wonder how many other “accidents” have to occur in how many other situations before we know there is a problem.

    “Gosh,” engineers may someday say. “We had no idea that staring at video display tubes causes insanity. Isn’t that something?

    Meanwhile, those of us who now use computers daily will live our golden years in home for the computer-driven insane.  

    And that brings me to the farm chemical question. I’ve been criticized rather roundly on these pages for not getting the facts straight on herbicides and pesticides.

    The fact is that we don’t seem to know the facts. Dean Kleckner, president of the American Farm Bureau is just as worried as I am.

    He mentions that Farm Bureau members support reasonable regulation of pesticides and herbicides. Then, and here is the chilling part, Kleckner adds that “Unfortunately, there often is little agreement on what constitutes ‘reasonable’ regulation.”

    He adds, “... Very little progress has been made in determining maximum contaminant levels or to properly address the groundwater contamination liability issue. Adequate standards have been agreed upon for only a handful out of hundreds of farm-used chemicals.”

    Now that’s Dean Kleckner talking, not me. All I’ve been saying is that it’s odd we’re opting for efficient production through chemicals when the countryside still holds mountains of last year’s unsold crops.

    I didn’t mean to imply that farmers are evil or insensitive to the land.

    Farmers alone certainly don’t create the problem, nor do merchants and processors, nor does the buying public. Each is trying to do what’s best for themselves.

    A problem arises, in fact, because what’s best for each group may not be what’s best for anyone in the long run.

    Farmers want to stay on the land and make a living from it. So they raise more crops efficiently, using whatever chemicals it takes. (I’ve learned not to condemn all such chemicals, by the way; it’s much more complex than that.)

    Politicians want to support the family farm, so they keep voting huge farm subsidies. Merchants and processors and the buying public want low prices, so they encourage efficiency, even when it means unsold crops.

    Meanwhile, “efficiency” means using chemicals before we fully understand their effects on groundwater, as Dean Kleckner says.

    It’s the metal fatigue problem all over again. Just as we now know that jets fall apart after prolonged use, we may someday know that we will have to pay more for fewer crops in order to protect the topsoil and the groundwater.

    Let’s hope we discover this before the top blows off.

    Go comment!
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