A Quiet Spring

In June, 50 years ago, the modern environmentalist movement was born. The seminal bestseller Silent Spring by Rachel Carson was published in June 1962 as segments in New Yorker Magazine. In September of that year, the book was published and, with it, Rachel Carson’s words awoke the general consciousness that humans are a part of a precarious balance of the natural world and not detached from it. With the first sentence in the book, “There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surrounding,” Carson’s journey exposes the vital, but delicate, connections between environmental health and human health.

A marine biologist by trade, Carson became interested in the pesticide DDT, commonly used to control mosquitoes and others insects, after noticing deaths of birds following aerial sprayings. The book meticulously reports the consequences widespread aerial spraying of synthetic pesticides, such as DDT, dieldrin, aldrin, chlordane, and heptachlor had on birds, raccoons, fish, bees, and humans. As she carefully pointed out in her book, given the grave consequences in human and animal health, the general public and the government could no longer ignore the state of the environment.

As a result of increasing awareness and urgency to right the environmental harm before it was too late, the Environmental Protection Agency was formed. Congress also passed landmark legislation with the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Air Act in the early 1970s, all in hopes of reversing some of the damage already done. Carson’s fierce opposition, in part, even resulted in banning DDT in the United States in 1972.

Poignantly, Chapter 12, The Human Price, points out that humans, for the most part, no longer have to fear disease organisms due to improved sanitation and medicine; but we do have to concern ourselves with a hazard “we ourselves have introduced to our world.” For example, Carson reported residues of synthetic pesticides, which linger in soil, water, and the body, “are now stored in the vast majority of human beings. They occur in mothers’ milk, and probably in the tissues of the unborn child.” This, and many other health consequences of pesticides have been further proven today. Many studies, especially of farmworkers who live and work surrounded by pesticides, show increased pesticide metabolites in the participants’ bloodstreams, and higher numbers of diseases associated with pesticide exposure, such as cancer and birth defects.

“Sprays, dusts, and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests, and homes – non-selective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’…all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects,” Carson says in her book. Farmworkers today are still sprayed by accident and exposed through pesticide drift as they work and in their homes. They become the victims, or the unintended target, of pesticide use. While the information that Carson’s book amplified 50 years ago resulted in significant policy changes and raised the consciousness of the general public, the fight is not over yet.  Pesticides have been attributed to colony collapse disorder for bees and farmworker children are still being born with severe birth defects after their mothers’ were sprayed by pesticides.

Often, it seems as though 50 years was a long time ago: John F. Kennedy was president, the Rolling Stones had their first concert, the Cuban Missile Crisis ended, and Marylyn Monroe died. Since that pivotal book was published, DDT has been banned in the U.S., yet, its effects are still palpable today. Rachel Carson knew, way before her time, that environmental factors account for a vast amount of health issues and preventable deaths in animals and humans. Hopefully, it will not take another 50 years to go beyond Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and make lasting changes that protect the environment and the precarious role it plays in our health and well-being.

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