Sounding the alarm

Sounding the alarm

A month before World War II ended, a relatively unknown writer named Rachel Carson proposed an article for Reader’s Digest about the effects of the pesticide DDT on what she called “the delicate balance of nature.” The shy woman assured the editors that “it’s something that really does affect everybody.” They turned her down.

Perhaps they felt a story about pesticides would be too depressing. Or maybe it was that DDT, then widely used in the United States, had likely saved thousands of American Marines and soldiers by killing disease-carrying insects on far-off beachheads, Carson filed the subject away and went on to write best-selling books on the wonders of the sea, A dozen years later, she decided to take up the topic again. This time would be different.

While authors and publishers like to believe that a single book can change the world, few books actually have had such an impact. Yet the day it hit bookstores more than 40 years ago, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring fuelled a vigorous public debate about the use of chemicals in our environment that has yet to be resolved.

“Without this book,” wrote former Vice President Al Gore in the introduction to a 1994 reprint of it, “the environmental movement might have been long delayed or never have developed at all,” This complex, lyrical volume led not only to the banning of DDT but eventually to the formation of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

“After Silent Spring,people began to think about the chemicals they were handling, what they were doing to the environment, and what scientists weren’t telling them,” says Carson biographer Linda Lear (Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, 1997). “They began to question the very direction of technology.”
Carson had no intention of starting a movement. Working against time following a diagnosis of cancer, she sounded her wake-up call in the name of songbirds, “If I kept silent I could never again listen to a thrush’s song without overwhelming self-reproach,” she wrote. But in the fall of 1962, many scientists and people in the chemical industry wished she had kept silent.

Growing up in western Pennsylvania, Rachel Louise Carson, known to friends as Ray, immersed herself in nature and books, especially the sea sagas of Melville and Conrad. At the Pennsylvania College for Women in the mid-1920s she changed her major from English to Biology, but retained a deep love of writing. Eventually she earned a master’s degree in Marine Zoology from Johns Hopkins University and became a junior aquatic biologist for the US Bureau of Fisheries in Washington, D.C.

Her first book, Under the Sea-Wind, was published in 1941 and sold fewer than 2 000 copies. But it put her in contact with scientists who were beginning to ask hard questions about the fate of the earth.
In the late 1940s, while working as publications editor for the Fish and Wildlife Service, she began her second book, The Sea Around Us. The literary sensation of 1951— topping best-seller lists and winning a National Book Award—it outlined the latest science informing our understanding of the ocean. Carson almost instantly became the nation’s unofficial spokesperson for the sea.

“Heavens!” she wrote a friend after winning another accolade. “Is this all about me—it is really ridiculous!” Sea’s success enabled her to become a full-time writer and buy a cottage on the coast of Maine, which would become a sanctuary for the rest other life. While she would write another book about the sea, she continued to harbor nagging questions about the effect of pesticides on the land.
Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) was first used as an insecticide in 1959, just a few grains of the white powder would miraculously wipe out colonies of mosquito larvae. During World War II, B-25 bombers sprayed DDT prior to invasions in the Pacific.

After the war, DDT would all but wipe out malaria in the developed world and drastically reduce it elsewhere. (The National Academy of Sciences reported in 1970 that DDT had saved more than 500 million lives from malaria.) Paul Muller, the chemist who first turned it on unsuspecting flies, won a Nobel Prize in 1948 for his work.

By the late 1950s, DDT production had nearly quintupled from World War II levels as municipal authorities took to spraying the chemical on American suburbs to eradicate tent caterpillars, gypsy moths and the beetles that carried Dutch elm disease.

But the chemical had a disturbing characteristic, it killed indiscriminately. After finding seven dead songbirds in her yard after the area had been sprayed against mosquitoes, a Massachusetts friend of Carson’s wrote a letter to the Boston Herald in 1958 demanding that officials “stop the spraying of poisons from the air.” Carson read the letter and realized that “everything which meant most to me as a naturalist was being threatened.” She decided to make DDT the subject of her next book, tentatively entitled Man Against the Earth.

But working on it in 1960, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. Subsequent radiation treatments left her nauseated and bedridden. The book she had expected to finish in a few months dragged on for four years. Finally, in June 1962, the first of a three-part excerpt from Silent Spring appeared in the New Yorker magazine. Before the final instalment hit newsstands, the Velsicol Corporation, which manufactured the pesticide chlordane (banned in 1988), threatened to sue the magazine for libel. “Everything in those articles has been checked and is true,” replied the New Yorker’s legal counsel. “Go ahead and sue.” The company never did, but the attacks had only begun. One reader wrote that Carson’s work “probably reflects her Communist sympathies.”

Then, in July, news broke that a supposedly harmless drug given to thousands of pregnant women in Europe for morning sickness had been determined to cause widespread birth defects. Newspapers and magazines ran photographs of babies born without arms and legs or otherwise physically deformed. “It’s all of a piece,” said Carson. “Thalidomide and pesticides—they represent our willingness to rush ahead and use something new without knowing what the results are going to be.”

Suddenly in a single summer, chemical science had fallen from its pedestal. By late August, reporters were asking President Kennedy if federal officials would be investigating the long-range effects of pesticides. “They already are,” he answered “I think particularly, of course, since Miss Carson’s book, but they are examining the matter.”

Silent Spring went on sale September 27 and raced to the top of the New York Times best-seller list where it stayed for most of the fall. By Christmas, the book, which begins with Carson’s fable about an idyllic countryside that teemed with wildlife until “a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change,” had sold more than 100, 000 copies. In subsequent chapters, the author followed the trail of pesticides from farm to family table, provided a “Who’s Who” of toxic chemicals—DDT, chlordane, malathion, parathion—and noted that pesticides accumulate in fatty tissues of organisms.

Reaction to Silent Spring was quick, strong and largely negative. Life claimed that Carson had “overstated her case.” Time, citing scientists’ claims that insecticides were “harmless,” dismissed it as an “emotional and inaccurate outburst.” The chemical and food industries came after Carson aggressively. Chemical and Engineering News, a chemical industry trade magazine, linked Carson with “pseudo-scientists and faddists,” denounced her “high-pitched sequences of anxieties” and belittled her credentials. The Nutrition Foundation mailed scathing reviews of the book to newspapers. The National Agricultural Chemicals Association launched a $250, 000 campaign to refute it, and the Monsanto Corporation published a parody of Carson’s opening fable, describing a world without pesticides, overrun by insects and disease. In a cartoon in the November 10, 1962, issue of the Saturday Review, a man lamented “I had just come to terms with fallout, and along comes Rachel Carson.”

But there were voices of praise as well. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas called Silent Spring “the most important chronicle of this century for the human race.”

While undergoing debilitating radiation treatments, Carson answered her critics.
No civilization, she said, “can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized.”

She insisted she was not against all pesticides and had never called for banning them, only for restricting their use. Public opinion wavered. Then television tipped the scales in her favor.
In April 1963, 15 million Americans watched CBS Reports’ “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson.”
“We still talk in terms of conquest,” Carson said. “I think we’re challenged, as mankind has never been challenged before, to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature but of ourselves.”
Her thoughtful and reserved presentation struck a chord with viewers: hundreds wrote concerned letters to Carson, CBS, the USDA, the Public Health Service and the PDA. A month later, President Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee released its own report on pesticides, which backed Carson’s thesis, criticized the government and the chemical industry, and called for “orderly reductions of persistent pesticides.”

Today, despite the banning of DDT in 1972, pesticides are still widely used, and Carson, who died in 1964 at age 56 of heart disease and the cancer she battled so valiantly, still comes in for criticism. “Rachel Carson’s book was a brilliant piece of writing and a seminal work, but it’s clear now that she was more fearful of pesticides than was warranted,” says Dennis Avery, former senior agriculture expert with the State Department and author of Saving the Planet With Pesticides and Plastic. While admitting that some dangers exist to the farmers who handle concentrated amounts of pesticides, Avery maintains that the “Green Revolution” of fertilizers, pesticides and genetically improved seeds has tripled crop yields since 1950 and saved 12 million square miles of natural habitat that otherwise would have been cleared for farmland in order to maintain the nation’s food supply.

But veteran environmentalist Barry Commoner insists that pesticides remain a significant danger to the environment and human health.

“Enough is known now that we could greatly reduce and eventually eliminate the harm caused by our use of pesticides and herbicides through organic farming and integrated pest management,” he says. “We are still exposed to pesticides in our diet, and not much is known about their medical consequences. Since Silent Spring, the only real improvement has been for the birds. Thanks to the elimination of DDT, the osprey are better off, but I don’t think we are.”

Silent Spring reported that chemical companies in the United States produced about 32 000 tons of pesticides in 1960. Today the EPA says that farmers, consumers and the government use about 615 000 tons of conventional pesticides each year. (Most pesticides used today, however, are less toxic and break down faster in nature than those used 40 years ago.) And, as Carson warned, insects continue to develop chemical resistance.

According to the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental policy think tank, a higher percentage of crops in America are now lost to pests than before pesticides were first widely used. In an attempt to safeguard Americans’ food, the US Congress passed the Food Quality Protection Act in 1996, giving the EPA a decade to re-evaluate the safety of 9 000 pesticides.

If debate over Carson’s thesis continues, few doubt her impact. “Rachel Carson’s legacy has less to do with pesticides than with awakening of environmental consciousness,” says biographer Lear.
“She changed the way we look at nature. We now know that we are a part of nature, and we can’t damage it without it coming back to bite us.”