50 Years After Rachel Carson: There's Still Hope

Rachel Louise Carson, a pioneer in the conservationist movement, poses at her home in Washington, D.C. on March 13, 1963. Car
Rachel Louise Carson, a pioneer in the conservationist movement, poses at her home in Washington, D.C. on March 13, 1963. Carson is the author of "Silent Spring," a book that has drawn public attention to problems caused by agricultural pesticides. (AP Photo)

*Co-authored by Silent Spring Institute Executive Director Dr. Julia Brody.

Fifty years ago, Rachel Carson died from breast cancer, a disease connected to exposures to toxic chemicals and radiation in our environment. Just two years earlier, Carson had published her landmark book, Silent Spring. In this book Carson described the impact of chemicals (in particular, the pesticide DDT) on ecosystems, wildlife and human health.

She warned that the issue of pesticides and chemicals in our environment should be of concern to us all:

If we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones -- we had better know something about their nature and their power.

The chemical industry came out in full force against her and threatened to sue her publishers. She was called a communist sympathizer and a spinster. But, she continued to speak out, even when she was dying from breast cancer. In 1963 she testified before Congress, and wore a wig to hide the effects of radiation treatment.

She died half a century ago from breast cancer, but her words about nature and humanity still ring true today. Her warnings about the link between chemicals, our environment and human health catalyzed the Clean Air and Water Acts and other vital protections. Yet far too little has changed. With the "innocent until proven guilty" rules for consumer product chemicals in this country, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has required safety testing under TSCA for just 200 of the 80,000 chemicals in use today. And, despite enormous advances in our scientific understanding of the connection between chemicals and disease, TSCA has not been updated in 38 years.

Breast cancer rates rose dramatically in the last decades of the 20th century, and are now 25 percent higher than in the 1970s. Though DDT has been banned, there are chemicals in our couches, frying pans and food packaging that raise concerns about cancer. And as Carson wrote, we shouldn't stand for it:

We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost's familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road -- the one less traveled by -- offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.

Because of Carson, our world will never be the same, and it's up to all of us to uphold her legacy into the future. There is hope that we can take the world on a safer path.

Dr. Julia Brody is senior scientist and executive director of Silent Spring Institute, a scientific research organization that studies the links between environmental chemicals and women's health with a focus on generating the knowledge to reduce breast cancer risk. For more than a decade the Silent Spring Institute and the Breast Cancer Fund have collaborated to advance the science on the links between breast cancer and the environment.