How We Failed Rachel Carson: On the Anniversary of Silent Spring, A Look Back

A Cornfield in Flyover Country
A Cornfield in Flyover Country

Fifty-four years ago tomorrow, on September 27th, 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. In it, Carson detailed the dangerous effects of not only the chemical pesticide DDT, but of many pesticides used in homes, on the sides of streets, in public parks, on school playgrounds and on industrial crops. She wrote that these “new chemicals come from our laboratories in an endless stream; almost five-hundred annually find their way into actual use in the United States alone…500 new chemicals to which the bodies of men and animals are required somehow to adapt each year, chemicals totally outside the limits of biologic experience.” Her words were a glass of cold water thrown on the consciences of many Americans; Silent Spring became an immediate bestseller. At the same time, the chemical companies attacked her, going so far as to orchestrate an intense (and sexist) media campaign that questioned her science and accused her of being “hysterical” and a “priestess of nature.”

Then President John F. Kennedy stepped in. The book inspired him and he wanted to know more. So, he appointed a committee to study Carson’s conclusions on pesticides and what they found more than validated her research.

What many people did not know at the time was that while Carson was writing Silent Spring and defending her research, she was also fighting for her life: she had breast cancer, a cancer now thought to be caused by the dangerous endocrine-disrupting pesticides and other chemicals she sought to malign. She died two years after Silent Spring’s publication. But she was not silenced, even then. Her book was, as Al Gore wrote in the introduction to the 1994 edition,“ a cry in the wilderness.”

In Carson’s wake, during the early to mid-seventies, the modern environmental movement was begun: The Clean Water Act and The Endangered Species Act were passed; the EPA formed, Earth Day inaugurated, the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, was passed, FIFRA, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act was revised and DDT was banned. America seemed to be well on its way, because of Carson, to a cleaner, greener future that included a significant downscaling of toxic chemicals.

Despite all of this progress, something else then happened: Through a myriad of loopholes and huge blind spots in the new regulations—for example, because of TSCA, the EPA couldn’t even ban asbestos, a known carcinogen—industry found ways to actually increase the amount of chemicals they were creating and releasing into our air, water, soil, and onto our food. With the advent of the new GMO plants in the early nineties, herbicide use skyrocketed, followed in the early 2000s by a huge surge in neonicotinoids, a systemic pesticide used on GMO crops.

That annual number of new chemicals Carson wrote about is now a staggering 700 a year. And now there are roughly 85,000 chemicals circulating in the environment and most of those have been “grandfathered,” by the government, meaning that they are above scrutiny. To date, of those 85,000, only 200 have ever been tested by the EPA and a mere 5 have been banned. Those 85,000 chemicals equate to 4 billion tons of chemicals released into the environment every year.

Even more alarmingly, 72 million of those 4 billion tons of chemicals are known carcinogens. When you put that statistic next to today’s cancer rates, it’s hard to believe that this is a circumstantial connection: 1 in every 2 men. 1 in every 3 women. A 40% increase in new cases of childhood cancer since 1970. And then there are the increased rates of asthma (which has tripled since 1980), congenital defects of the male reproductive organs, neurodevelopmental disabilities like autism, ADHD and learning disabilities, obesity (which has also tripled), allergic and inflammatory disease.

Dr. Leonardo Trasande, a pediatrician who focuses on environmental medicine at NYU, said that, to him, there is no gray area. Since the publication of Silent Spring, he said, “we are seeing a rise in all these conditions, and simultaneously we have an increase in chemical exposure.” Furthermore, “These conditions are costly,” he said. In a 2015 European study that examined the costs of endocrine disrupted diseases, it was found “that these diseases cost [the EU] 1.2-2.0 % of Europe’s GDP.” (That’s 150-260 billion Euros annually.) “These are effects that don’t just affect people’s lives; they affect our economy,” he said. He felt that that fact alone should be incentive enough for the government to take a closer look.

And there may be some hope for that.

This past June, the Frank L. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act was signed into law by President Obama. This law is an overhaul to TSCA, the impotent Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, and it attempts to better regulate chemicals, especially in consumer products. Even though environmentalists and scientists have been calling for better laws for years—or even just amendments to TSCA and FIFRA— it took 40 years to get this version through Congress and onto the desk of a President who, like Kennedy, considered environmental risk a priority. Indeed, signing this law may be one of the key victories the President leaves as his legacy.

Andy Igrejas, from the interest group Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, has been working on the Lautenberg bill in some form since as early as 2001. The major success of today’s bill, he says, is that it has removed the “legal barriers that prevented the EPA” from scrutinizing the chemicals that are grandfathered into the law. Now, the EPA will have to name ten chemicals that they will scrutinize for three years. And at the end of those three years they will then name ten more. All the while the EPA is required to be undergoing reviews of twenty chemicals at any one time. “We were pushing for ten a year,” Igrejas says, “But industry was unwilling.”

In an emailed statement, the American Chemistry Council, the trade association and lobbying group for the chemical companies based in DC, wrote that, “The Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act is historic legislation that is the product of years of bipartisan negotiation to develop workable chemical management solutions that promote the safe use of chemicals and innovation by American manufacturers.”

Igrejas said, “Look, there is no argument that is credible that says this law is adequate. At the same time, it should allow the EPA to restrict chemicals and it should allow the EPA to more easily have industry test its chemicals…but how fully that will work is another question. That’s the problem. It just may be inadequate to what we know of the problem [at this time.]”

Unlike in the European Union, where the precautionary principle is a basic tenet and in order to stay on the market chemicals have to be proven to be safe, in this country we have it the other way around, Maine’s Congresswoman Chellie Pingree told me. “With drugs, we say, ‘You’ve got to prove that on every possible mouse in the world it’s fine,’ whereas with most chemicals in the environment, you’ve got to have enough studies that show without a doubt that you’re going to fall down with cancer tomorrow,” she said.

Despite these hurdles and possible inadequacies, Philip Landrigan, a former researcher at the Centers for Disease Control and now a pediatrician who studies environmental medicine at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, says the new law could give the EPA “ a lot of power” compared to where we’ve been for the last forty years. Depending on who our next president is, he says, “if the new administration chooses to use that power, the bill will prove to be a success.”

The lingering question for many, however, is whether we can actually undo the damage that has been done. As Carson wrote in Silent Spring, “Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species—man—acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.”

“We didn’t learn the lessons from Silent Spring we should have,” says Hannah Pingree, Congresswoman Pingree’s daughter, former Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives and an activist working on safer chemical policy reform. She finds this distressing as a mother of two and concerned citizen. But Julia Brody, the director of the Silent Spring Institute in Massachusetts, believes that we can go back to Carson’s pioneering work and still learn from it; it is eerily prescient she says. “You can open Silent Spring on any page and find something that’s completely relevant to today.” “We have the obligation,” she said, not to just endure what is being handed to us, but “to carry her work forward.”