Fifty years ago, a marine biologist named Rachel Carson began publishing a series of articles in The New Yorker, sounding the alarm about the dangers of exposure to chemicals and the failure of the chemical industry and government regulators to protect people from those dangers. Later collected in the book Silent Spring, Carson's prescient insights are the subject of an anniversary feature this week by HuffPost's environmental reporter Lynne Peeples. She delivers not only a tribute to Carson but a reminder that her work is more relevant than ever.
Despite Carson's warnings, our leaders are still not doing nearly enough to regulate the potentially harmful chemicals we're exposed to every day. As Lynne notes, more than 80,000 chemicals currently used in our country have never been fully tested, so we don't even know how damaging they might be to humans or to the environment. And as Harvard Medical School's Eric Chivian explains, when it comes to determining if a chemical is dangerous, the U.S. does not put the burden of proof on those who introduce it; that burden is on the watchdogs to prove the danger, after the substance has already been introduced. Which is to say, we have it backward. We'd rather perform autopsies than biopsies. And it's yet another instance in which we're failing to keep up with the rest of the world.
Our low level of concern and urgency is especially shocking when you consider the high level of potential to harm our most precious resource, our children. Decades after Carson wrote in Silent Spring that harm from chemical exposures begins in the womb, scientists learned she was right. We now know that early exposure to toxic chemicals can impact a child for his entire life, even if the effects take decades to manifest. Even though Carson's key points have been widely affirmed by the scientific community, the pace of progress has been remarkably -- unacceptably -- slow, in large part because, as one expert tells Lynne Peeples, "things are far more complicated chemically than they were in Carson's time." And thus, harder to regulate.
Meanwhile, we are playing a dangerous game of catch-up. Just this year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that any level of lead in a child's bloodstream is dangerous and can cause brain damage, no matter how small the amount. Today, "more American school children die of cancer than from any other disease" -- yet another quote from Carson that remains tragically true today.
For some, the signature image that shows how real the threat is to our environment is the disappearing snowcap atop Mt. Kilimanjaro. For me, it's the image of millions of kids suffering from asthma caused by the explosion of toxins in our environment, kids who are afraid to go out and play without bringing along their inhalers. But instead of a hair-on-fire response, our approach has been more like wait-and-see.
By highlighting Carson's work, Lynne Peeples reminds us that when it comes to the explosion of chemicals in our world, tomorrow is today. And what we do today will deeply affect our tomorrows -- and the tomorrows of our children.
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