Editor’s note: To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book, “Silent Spring,” we are running essays to highlight the environmental challenges we still face.
Fifty years ago, Rachel Carson wrote, “I have made the suggestion that pesticide chemicals should be viewed with great suspicion as possible agents of genetic damage to man.” Fifty years later, we are dealing with more chemicals than Carson could ever imagine.
How did this happen? According to the book Naturally Clean by Hollender, Davis and Doyle (2006):
“At first, no one questioned all this chemistry. In the post-World War II boom of the 1940s and ’50s, chemicals and the products made from them were seen as the shining symbol of a modern new prosperity being built by American ingenuity. All across the country, natural was out and synthetic was in. In the kitchen, new time-saving frozen meals and instant just-add-water foods were the height of haute cuisine. In the garden, laborious weeding and bug-infested crops were replaced by a few quick sprays of the latest miracle weed killer or pesticide. … From plastic wrap to spray wax, people marveled at the amazing wonders science seemed to be inventing every day, and the slogan of the DuPont Company, ‘Better living through chemistry,’ was adopted as the unofficial mantra of a grateful nation.
“The modern chemical revolution is a by-product of the petroleum revolution. Experimenting with crude oil, researchers discovered that the chains of hydrocarbon molecules it contained could easily be broken into segments (distilling) that could then be combined with other materials to create a dizzying array of new substances and materials. When this secret was revealed, the Petrochemical Age was born, and soon hundreds and then thousands of seemingly miraculous new products were making their way into American homes, each of them hiding any number of never-before-seen substances inside.
“Then in the early 1960s, the first ripple in the pond of progress appeared. A young marine biologist, Rachel Carson … began investigating whether or not there were any ecological side effects being created by the widespread use of DDT and other chemicals.
“Today, there are an estimated 80,000 different chemical compounds being made and used around the world. Each year, the Environmental Protection Agency receives approval applications for another 2,000 more. That’s more than five new chemicals being created every day. In the United States alone, some 500,000 chemical products are available to consumers, and according to various estimates, the average home contains anywhere from 3-10 gallons of these toxic substances.
“Astonishingly, less than 10 percent of these chemicals have been adequately evaluated for human and environmental safety. Of the 2,800 chemicals produced in or imported into the U.S. in amounts over one million tons per year, 43 percent lack even basic toxicity data, and only 7 percent have what was termed by the San Francisco Chronicle ‘reasonably complete’ data regarding their toxicity.”
Rachel Carson was so right to fear the consequences of indiscriminate pesticide use. According to Naturally Clean:
“There is a wealth of emerging evidence that all this chemical use isn’t good for us. Scientists are at last beginning to delve into the mysteries … of these relatively new materials, and they’re discovering that many of the things we’ve surrounded ourselves with are quite capable of causing disease.
“Our use of chemicals has skyrocketed in the last 50 years. We know that today we’re making and using greater amounts and more different kinds of these synthetic compounds than at any other time in human history. We know that our bodies have been and continue to be contaminated by hundreds of these chemicals. (Hundreds of pollutants are found in each man, woman and child.) We know that many of these pollutants can cause serious problems.
“We also know that during the very same period of time that our use of chemicals has exploded, cancer has reached epidemic proportions, and asthma has crippled vast numbers of our children. We know that unusual hyper-allergic reactions have inexplicably developed among significant portions of the population.”
The question is: What do we do about this?