The Shot Heard ‘Round the Seasons

We learned of the dangers of herbicides and pesticides 50 years ago. Now there are 4500 new synthesized chemicals registered daily. What would Rachel Carson say?

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Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is a compendium of environmental horror stories. It was, at the time of its publication in 1962, a dire warning about opening the Pandora’s Box of creative chemistry that yielded seemingly helpful but ultimately destructive pesticides and herbicides.

Carson’s overpowering documentation of the dangers of synthesized chemicals used to control plant and animal pests altered the rapidly growing industry by spurring government action to protect the environment. Her evidence clearly linked pesticide use to damaged rural wildlife environments and human health in the short run. Her findings also led her to predict catastrophic long-run damage, including cancer. Although best remembered for her critique of DDT, Carson reported on the toxicity of many chemicals and speculated about the risks of mixing them in the environment.
 
At age 50, Silent Spring is a historic benchmark. It reveals how limited our knowledge was when it was published. It also suggests how much we have learned since. Whatever its flaws, it is a cautionary, wise book that warns us to be careful with our Earth.

Silent Spring challenged and helped change the world. This wasn’t easy. Chemical production and related pollution were then, and remain, highly controversial: human-ecological relationships are complex, releases into the environment are extensive, and the chemical and agricultural industries possess tremendous power.

In the decades leading up to World War II, the emergence of synthesized chemicals was considered a sign of human progress; new chemical products aided disease control, improved agricultural productivity, and provided new consumer products. Chemistry as a discipline was moving away from an emphasis on understanding natural chemical processes and toward rearranging molecules and atoms into a host of chemical structures not found in nature. By the late 1950s, chemicals were having widespread impacts.

Chemical synthesis troubled Carson. Her basic argument still holds true today: The widespread introduction of synthesized chemicals into the environment presents immediate and unknown future ecological dangers. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), where she worked from 1936 to 1952, Carson hoped someone would “’publish an expose’ on DDT but eventually realized that only she had the background as well as the economic freedom to do it” based on proceeds from earlier books.

Like her earlier works, Silent Spring was a bestseller. Her lucid argument was an evidence-based challenge to the chemical industry and tdangerous agricultural and household practices. The book, based on four years of research, uses rhetorical devices that rankled critics. From today’s perspective, it contains some errors, partly the result of limited knowledge at the time. Carson also might have made some minor research mistakes. But her evidence is overwhelming. As a result, Silent Spring shaped the public mind and government policies.

A story in the New York Times, July 22, 1962, reported the chemical industry’s vehement reaction to a new book by a “quiet woman author,” marine biologiust Rachel Carson.

Silent Spring sparked “a firestorm of controversy as well as attacks on Carson’s professional integrity,” according to FWS. “The pesticide industry mounted a massive campaign to discredit Carson even though she did not urge the complete banning of pesticides but called for research to ensure pesticides were used safely and to find alternatives to dangerous chemicals such as DDT.”

The book prompted congressional hearings during which Carson testified. For example, DDT diminished the reproductive capacity of eagles (driving them close to extinction) and other birds. It was banned in 1972, eight years after Carson’s death.
 
In retrospect, Carson’s book didn’t change of the way the chemical industry was heading. But it did have enduring impacts, including:

•    Increased government and public awareness that reshaped the country’s approach to chemical regulatory policies. Carson’s legacy includes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) formed in 1970 and eventual limitations or outright bans on long-lasting pesticides and herbicides.

•    Creation of herbicides and pest controls that degrade more quickly, lessening their environmental impacts.

•    Increased awareness of biological pest-control alternatives that are more compatible with natural ecological systems.

The number of new chemicals developed since the 1960s is staggering, however. In 1965, the Chemical Abstracts Service Registry listed about 212,000 chemicals. Today that registry adds 4,500 chemicals each day and totals more than 35 million substances.

Timothy Collins
Redbud leaves in the author’s yard likely manifest effects of herbicide sprayed on a nearby cornfield.
Not all chemicals produced today enter the environment, but it is difficult to ascertain what is out there. Fifty years ago, Carson noted that perhaps 500 new chemicals found their way into the environment each year. In a self-reported database through the Environmental Protection Agency, companies have revealed 2,200 high production chemicals made in or imported into the United States in quantities of 1 million pounds or more per year.

EPA’s Toxic Releases Inventory provides information on disposal or other releases of over 650 toxic chemicals from thousands of U.S. facilities. It also provides information about how facilities manage those chemicals through recycling, energy recovery, and treatment.

EPA’s Toxic Chemical Substance inventory contains about 84,000 substances. According to a 2010 blog by Scott Hensley of National Public Radio, information on about 20 percent of the chemicals is considered confidential, protected as “trade secrets” and, in recent years, “95 percent of companies have invoked the privilege, sometimes even concealing the name of the substance and where it’s made.”

Testing of synthetic chemicals based on government regulations is crucial to understanding and limiting pollution. But the sheer number of new chemicals is daunting, especially as EPA faces federal budget cuts and vocal opposition to the agency and its environmental regulations.

Bob Hines and Rachel Carson conducting research in Florida, 1952.

Rachel Carson died of cancer in 1964 at the age of 56, two years after publication of Silent Spring. She would have been gratified by the environmental movement, followed by establishment of the EPA and passage of the Toxic Chemicals Act in 1976.

If she were alive today, she also might have been gratified that some of her most dire predictions have yet to come true, partly because of her own efforts. But she would hardly have rested on her laurels. Her desire for a clean environment would continue to make her a worthy adversary for those who claim that human activities do not harm the environment.

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

 

Topics: Environment
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