SMOKINCHOICES (and other musings)

September 25, 2012

Rachel, we’re getting it


Alarm sounded 50 years ago

‘Silent Spring’ awoke American public to dangers of pesticides


 Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, a book published in 1962 that is credited as a catalyst for the modern environmental movement.

None of the following is a news flash: Time flies. Knowledge increases. Problems persist. People forget or are just plain unmindful.

Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring, a book ranked No. 5 on the Modern Library List of Best 20th-Century Nonfiction and No. 78 in importance by National Review.

The report by Rachel Carson, a marine biologist born in 1907 and reared on a farm not far from Pittsburgh, made the case — in prose understandable to nonscientists — that the widespread use of pesticides, particularly “safe” DDT, was destroying a lot more than insects.

Silent Spring, published in 1962 and serialized in The New Yorker, became a bestseller and its author a villain to the chemical industry, which mounted a public-relations onslaught that did everything except refute the findings.

By 1972, the use of DDT was banned in the United States, though it continued to be sprayed widely in African, Asian and South American countries until the insects it was designed to kill became largely immune.

DDT had done plenty of temporary good, particularly in wiping out mosquitoes that carried malaria and other diseases. Research showed, however, that the unintended consequences of DDT had gone unrecognized, perhaps deliberately so.

  • One result of the chemical industry’s response was to heighten awareness that consumers ought to be skeptical about the products they use and claims the manufacturers make.
  • A silent spring was the metaphor Carson used for a world in which birds had vanished because they had eaten insects and other food made poison by the DDT sprayed and by the residual levels of the chemical that persisted after spraying took place.

She had been alerted by copied letter from a friend to The Boston Herald describing the large number of dead birds around the letter-writer’s property in the wake of DDT spraying to eliminate mosquitoes.

Ultimately, a link was established between dead robins and DDT: The DDT on leaves was washed off by rain and fell to the soil. DDT also reached the soil with the falling leaves in autumn. Feeding earthworms ingested the chemical, and foraging robins picked up lethal doses from eating earthworms.

Carson, who was not strictly a social activist but thought people had too little notion of humankind’s impact on nature, looked further. Among the discoveries she wrote about was that persistent chemicals in the food chain were being passed to predators in concentrated amounts as they moved “upward.”      

Ultimately, what had been ingested by bugs, worms, smaller birds and fish ended up in eagles, ospreys, falcons, hawks, owls, herons and egrets, among others. As a result, certain raptors — bald eagles, peregrine falcons and merlins — could no longer reproduce successfully. Females were producing eggs too fragile to withstand the normal rigors of incubation.

The prognosis for bald eagles, ospreys and peregrines is much improved since the banning of DDT, but the toxin continues to kill robins, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported recently.

Robin deaths at St. Louis, Mich., made public in the spring have been linked to the former Velsicol Chemical plant that manufactured pesticides along the Pine River until 1978 and is currently a designated Superfund site, the agency said in a news release.

Numerous toxin-filled Super-fund sites lie untouched for lack of government cleanup funds, a burden borne by the public and often not by the companies that poisoned the sites. Further, the agency’s budget is being squeezed, and some politicos, fully supported by producers of pollutants, want to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency and virtually all citizen oversight of what gets into the food, air and water.

Those familiar with Silent Spring understand that DDT itself is a metaphor, more as a symptom than as a malady. Carson, who died of cancer complications at age 57 less than two years after the publication of her most important book, suggested that humans repeatedly fail to comprehend not only their influence on nature but also their dependence on it.

  • The elimination of DDT has done wondrous things for some bird species. Yet, what continues to be wrought by a juggernaut of consumption has meant death in the United States to bats, bees, trees, frogs, salamanders, reptiles, mammals, birds and fish.


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