by Barry Edelson


The Poisoned Land

"Silent Spring" Revisited

A leisurely browse through a used book sale turned up an original edition of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring", the book that is often credited with sparking the modern environmental movement. It will celebrate the 50th year of its publication next year, if "celebrate" is not too laudatory a word with which to endow a work that is known mostly for its alarming depiction of a world poisoned by chemical insecticides. The book arouses a new-found respect for the courage and foresight of its author in exposing a host of lethal practices, as well as a queasy feeling that in the intervening decades the situation that Carson describes has, if anything, gotten much, much worse.

The book is a paradox. While the subject matter is painfully grim, Carson's prose is eloquent, flawless, beautifully cadenced, even poetic at times. In chapter upon chapter, she describes in excruciating detail how the indiscriminate use of chemicals, intended to eradicate unwanted insects and, to a lesser extent, plants, is having a widespread and deleterious effect on many other species, including homo sapiens. Those who are familiar with her earlier books about the oceans, most notably "The Sea Around Us", would probably not be surprised to discover that, in addition to being a scrupulous and exhaustive scientific researcher, she was also an exceptional writer. In countless passages, Carson skillfully defines the realities of nature in contrast with man's clumsy attempts to control it. Consider one such example:

"Most of us walk unseeing through the world, unaware alike of its beauties, its wonders, and the strange and sometimes terrible intensity of the lives that are being lived about us. So it is that the activities of the insect predators and parasites are known to few. Perhaps we may have noticed an oddly shaped insect of ferocious mien on a bush in the garden and been dimly aware that the praying mantis lives at the expense of other insects. But we see with understanding eye only if we have walked in the garden at night and here and there with a flashlight have glimpsed the mantis stealthily creeping upon her prey. Then we sense something of the drama of the hunter and hunted. Then we begin to feel something of the relentlessly pressing force by which nature controls her own."

What is striking in these exquisite lines is her utter lack of sentimentality. She describes in elegiac terms the intricate processes of the natural world, but is thoroughly wide-eyed about the brutal reality of nature. The "tree hugger" label that has unfortunately attached itself to many subsequent partisans of environmentalism would be a thoroughly inapt description of Carson's infallible rationality.

The acclaim and popularity that accompanied Carson's earlier books did not prevent the torrent of critical abuse she endured, at least at first, for the effort of "Silent Spring." Understandably, she was marked out initially as an enemy of the chemical industry and its many proponents in government. She was accused of naivete and ignorance of the subject matter, since she was by training a marine biologist and not an entomologist. She was accused of siding with insects against human beings, of wishing to turn the clock back to an era when insect-borne plagues laid waste to human populations. She was even labeled a communist, which is not surprising given the era in which she worked. Eventually, the vitriol poured upon her head subsided, and the public overwhelmingly came to see the enormous harm that was being done by the spraying of chemical agents over millions of acres of American territory, much of it heavily populated.

Nowhere does Carson argue that nature is perfect and inviolable, or that people ought not to take measures to protect themselves and their livelihoods from its ravages. She describes in some detail the varied efforts by entomologists, who were not in thrall to the chemical companies, to devise biological methods of pest control that were lethal only to the intended species of concern. Her argument is that the threat from insects that transmit deadly diseases to humans and livestock, or that destroy the food supply, does not ipso facto justify the use of chemical insecticides, as if they were the only, or even the most beneficial or cost-effective, means of combating them. She goes even further, strongly suggesting that the chemical poison industry is a solution in search of a problem. She enunciates several cases in which the government unleashed vast quantities of lethal chemicals with the goal of eradicating an insect species — the fire ant, for example — that did not even pose a serious threat to people, their animals or their crops. In so doing, these programs inadvertently (or indifferently) wreaked untold damage upon populations of other insects (many of them, like honey bees, useful to humans), not to mention the incidental mass killings of birds, fish and mammals.

These ill-considered campaigns of insect annihilation may be considered a sub-set of the "military industrial complex" that President Eisenhower saw reason to warn the country about at the very time that Carson was gathering her data for "Silent Spring." The poison industry grew enormously during the Second World War in response to the government's demand for pesticides, defoliants and nerve agents. After the war, these companies and their scientists lost their raison d'etre, but instead of fading into history, they sought new applications for their apparatus of death, ensuring their survival through intensive lobbying, public relations efforts ("Chemicals are good for us") and the subsidizing of entomological research at many major universities. Carson notes that at the time of her writing, 90 percent of the working entomologists in the United States were either in the direct employ of the insecticide industry or conducting research paid for by it.

The tragedy of these efforts is that they were almost total failures. Sometimes the spraying of insecticides helped to control the undesired creatures for a period of time, but within a few years they invariably returned in larger numbers than before, and were often resistant to the poisons wielded against them. A chilling example comes from right here on Long Island, where in 1957 the United States Department of Agriculture directed the dousing of many densely populated areas with DDT in a futile attempt to eradicate the gypsy moth. (Residents went to court to try to block the spraying, and the case wound its way all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in the end declined to hear it.) Between 1957 and 1961, the program covered more than four million acres of New York and other northeastern states with DDT — to no avail. Carson writes, "During this interval, the control agencies must have found news from Long Island disquieting. The gypsy moth had reappeared in numbers. The expensive spraying operation that had cost the department dearly in public confidence and good will — the operation that was intended to wipe out the gypsy moth — had in reality accomplished nothing at all." To this day, residents of this region are still plagued by periodic infestations of the gypsy moth, which is indeed a destructive pest. All we have to show for the government's efforts is a residue of DDT in the soil and groundwater, and in the bodies of most living creatures in the sprayed areas, still detectable all these decades later.

The failure of various eradication programs prompted the application of even more toxic substances. Carson is most associated with the ultimate banning of DDT, but she actually documents the misuse and overuse of many other toxins, some of them far more toxic even than DDT. Among these are dieldrin, aldrin, heptachlor, dinitrophenol, benzene hexachloride, parathion, malathion, lindane and chlordane. One or more of these substances was no doubt in the spray bottles that our parents attached to garden hoses and let loose upon the trees and shrubs in our suburban backyards, in the hope of keeping annoying bugs at bay on summer days. I am quite sure that I had a container of ant killer containing chlordane in the shed until quite recently, even though it had been off the market for many years.

Contrary to the assertion by chemical companies that none of these pesticides has ever been proven to do harm to anyone, some workers who handled them directly were poisoned and died. In much smaller quantities, these toxins still show up in the tissues of living creatures up and down the food chain, even decades after they were banned or abandoned in favor of more potent agents. Carson painstakingly shows how, even if a single chemical could be deemed "safe" in small quantities, the accumulation in the same organism of many chemicals whose interactions have never been thoroughly studied is a much more serious concern. Even from the vantage point of the early 1960s, Carson could point to "a disturbing rise in malignant diseases of the blood-forming tissues," in particular, a dramatic increase in the incidence of leukemia, most distressingly in children.

As one reads "Silent Spring", one is discomfited by the persistent thought that, if things were already this bad in 1962, how much worst must the threat to public health be today? There have always been naturally occurring compounds that caused malignancies, but these are so few in number that they pale into insignificance alongside the more than 80,000 [sic] chemicals currently on the Environmental Protection Agency's list of compounds used in commercial and consumer products — of which only about 15,000 have been tested for their potential effects on human health. According to studies concerning the "body burden" undertaken in the last decade or so, the average person has been shown to carry between 80 and 100 of these unnatural chemicals in his body at any given time. (Bill Moyers once had himself tested to make this point; his body revealed 84 such chemicals.) A study in 2004 found an average of 200 chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of a small sample of infants. Of the 287 total chemicals detected, 180 are known carcinogens, 217 are toxic to our brains and nervous systems, and 208 have been shown to cause birth defects or abnormal development in animal tests. Dramatic breakthroughs in cancer therapy mask the fact that, if not for our daily exposure to so many industrial chemicals, many if not most of these breakthroughs would not be necessary.

Most of us probably imagine that the EPA, founded in 1970 during the environmental awakening that was engendered in large part by Carson's book, helps to keep us safe from death by pollution. That is its mission, of course, but it is constantly thwarted by friends of industry and enemies of regulation. For example, the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 does in fact require companies to test new chemicals for toxicity and to register them with the EPA. The good news is that fully 50 percent of new chemicals fail EPA tests. The bad news is that in its 40-year history the agency has succeeded in restricting or banning the use of a chemical a grand total of five times. Hardly anyone would argue that the offending substances were not worthy of oblivion: PCB's, chlorofluorocarbons (CFC's), dioxin, hexavalent chromium (familiar to those who saw the movie "Erin Brockovich") and asbestos — though the ban on asbestos was subsequently overturned by the courts. Such is the power of this federal leviathan, which is constantly demonized for its supposedly rabid anti-business approach to public policy. A new campaign to discredit the agency has only recently been undertaken by elected members of Congress.

With the profoundest irony, Rachel Carson died of breast cancer at the age of 57, just a few years after the publication of "Silent Spring." She was, in fact, already ill while she was writing it. The book understandably leaves the reader feeling defenseless against the onslaught of toxic pollution, which would seem by now to have seeped, like life itself, into every remote inch of the natural world. But Carson herself was not a pessimist. She believed that an aware and determined public could reverse the tide of chemical poisoning. Certainly the government can no longer get away with being as cavalier about exposing the population to toxic or radioactive substances as it once was. Certainly the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act have been very successful at making our air and water safer, compared to what it was like in the 1960s.

As painful as it is to read this book, it is vital that we be reminded that the struggle for a healthy environment must be fought anew in each generation. When public authorities still consider it prudent to overspread communities with insecticides in the name of public health, seldom stopping to consider whether the small number of cases of some mosquito-borne virus they may prevent in a given year may in the long run be eclipsed by the cancers these agents will cause, we would be foolish to avert our gaze. When natural gas companies see fit to inject hundreds of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals into the ground in hundreds of thousands of sites all over the country, and attempt to keep the list of these chemicals secret in the name of corporate propriety, we would be prudent to pay attention. We have no choice but to look these questionable practices in the face, and to confront them with all the energy we can muster. Is there any matter more critical than our ability to breathe, eat and drink without having to worry about whether we are slowly poisoning ourselves to death?

August 28, 2011


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