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50 Years After 'Silent Spring' We Have Ignored Rachel Carson’s Findings to Our Peril

Rachel Carson challenged the metastatic growth of the synthetic chemicals industry that grew out of World War II and helped ignite a burgeoning environmental movement.

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Many regard Carson as the founder of the American environmental movement. Yet the movement had already begun. Albert Schweitzer, well-known scientists such as Linus Pauling, pediatrician Benjamin Spock, and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas had already been speaking out against the dangers of above-ground atom-bomb testing. Citizen groups like Women Strike for Peace organized increasingly large demonstrations against such tests.

But to a large extent,  Silent Spring sparked the movement that endures today. In 1967, scientists and activists founded the Environmental Defense Fund. On April 29, 1970, one week after widespread demonstrations on the first Earth Day, President Nixon’s Advisory Council on Executive Action proposed the Environmental Protection Agency, which became a reality later that year. And in June 1972, after three years of federal hearings and scientific inquiries into the question Carson raised in  Silent Spring, EPA Director William Ruckelshaus issued an order that banned the use of DDT in the United States. The environmental movement was in full swing.

Despite the efforts of Carson and others who followed, a long list of chemicals is still in daily use—arguably more than ever. It includes pesticides, herbicides, industrial agents, fuels, preservatives, food additives, dyes, household products, medicines, and more.

The benefits of chemicals must always be weighed against their risks—but those risks must be objectively calculated. As Carson wrote in  Silent Spring:

The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials. This pollution is for the most part irrecoverable: the chain of evil it initiates not only in the world that must support life but also in living tissues is for the most part irreversible. In this now universal contamination of the environment, chemicals are the sinister and little-recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world—the very nature of its life.

Fifty years after the publication of the book, the corporations that produce and market the chemicals are far larger. Their lobbyists and PR machines are more well-funded and sophisticated and exert unprecedented influence over regulators, the media, and, most critically, elected officials.

A Congressional resolution introduced by Maryland Democratic Senators Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski, honoring Carson on what would have been her 100th birthday in 2007, was blocked by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), who complemented his vote with disparaging remarks about the author. “Millions of people in the developing world, particularly children under 5, died because governments bought into Carson’s junk-science claims about DDT,” he said in response to the resolution.

Today, the industry and its trade associations echo Coburn’s remarks and depict Carson as the leader of a mass-murder campaign that today allows diseases such malaria to proliferate because there is no chemical check on mosquitoes. In 2009, Todd Seavey of the industry-backed American Council on Science and Health wrote on World Malaria Day: “We need DDT Day.... Anti-chemical greens (inspired by Rachel Carson’s fear-mongering book  Silent Spring) may already be humanity’s most prolific killers.”

The EPA never banned DDT for use against malaria, and Carson herself never supported a universal ban on pesticides. Instead, she wrote, “Practical advice should be ‘Spray as little as you possibly can’ rather than ‘Spray to the limit of your capacity.’”

Man-made chemicals will always be a part of life on earth. The volume of chemicals is massive, and the slow decay of many means they will be part of the biosphere for decades and centuries. The legacy of  Silent Spring is that much can and should be done to reduce the health risks they pose, without sacrificing progress. About 41 percent of Americans will develop cancer. The current generation of children, compared to their parents or grandparents, has higher rates of disorders including low weight births, cancer, asthma, diabetes, autism, and ADHD. While multiple factors influence disease risk, exposure to toxic chemicals is one factor.

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