Throughout most of the 1950s, consumers and most policy makers weren’t concerned about the potential health risks in using pesticides. Food was cheaper because of the new chemical formulations, and these new chemicals, on their face, were much safer than the forms of arsenic that had killed people in the 20s and 30s.
With the new pesticides, there were no documented cases of people dying or being seriously hurt by their “normal” use. There were some cases of harm from misuse of the chemicals. But the new formulas seemed rather safe, especially compared to arsenic. There was not real debate over pesticides because the debate lacked drama.
Then came Rachel Carson.
Rachel Carson was a noted biologist and nature writer at a time when there were few women scientists. She grew up in the industrial pollution of Pittsburgh and couldn’t wait to escape. She worked for a time at the Bureau of Fisheries as a biologist and wrote a successful appreciation of oceans in 1951, entitled The Sea Around Us.
In June 1962, the New Yorker magazine carried the first of three articles by Carson that charged that pesticides were being used excessively with little regard for their impact on nature as a whole and on humans. The articles caused a stir, in part because of three outside factors –
- Carson’s articles came on the heels of the “thalidomide baby” tragedy where a new sedative was prescribed to pregnant women in Europe to help with sleeplessness and morning sickness. The drug caused 10,000 children to be born without arms or legs. The public were sensitized to the fact that science is sometimes wrong.
- Her articles came just as a new, more liberal crop of Senators and Representatives were descending on Washington. The Kennedy administration and Congress were more receptive to the ensuing debate.
- Other media outlets – including network television that was just discovering its power – picked up on the story.
In less than four months, Houghton-Mifflin brought out a full book edition of Carson’s work now named Silent Spring. That’s a very short time frame for the production of the book, but the editors were wise to take advantage of the furor. Advance sales of the book topped 40,000 and the Book of the Month Club sent out another 150,000 copies to their members shortly thereafter. In six months, the book reached the half-million mark in sales.
Rachel Carson found the drama in the pesticides debate in her first chapter. She outlined an idyllic community in America “whose life seemed in harmony with its surroundings.
“Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death. The farmers spoke of much illness among their families. IN the town the doctors had become more and more puzzled by new kinds of sickness appearing among their patients…
“There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example – where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.”
Carson went on for the next 350 pages to document the science behind her bleak portrait of America. She drug out cases of pesticide poisoning that had been buried in the back pages of the newspapers. She took particular note of how DDT, the miracle pesticide of only a decade before, was accumulating in the fatty tissues of species all the way up to humans. Traces of DDT were discovered in mother’s milk and in their babies.
Some scientists blasted the book as propaganda, but Carson shot back that most of the scientists on the government’s pesticide review board were working for the industry and were biased.
Despite the controversy, public awareness reached new heights when CBS News aired an hour-long, prime time special documentary on April 3, 1963. Before the broadcast, three sponsors pulled out – Standard Brands, Ralston Purina and the makers of Lysol – but the public tuned in. The documentary simply presented Carson’s viewpoints and let the industry state their case. Narrator Eric Sevareid provided short informational bridges, but he summed up the program forcefully –
“In Silent Spring Miss Carson stresses the possibility that pesticide chemicals may be working harm to man in ways yet undetected – perhaps contributing to cancer, leukemia, genetic damage. In the absence of proof, her critics concede that these are possibilities but not probabilities and they accuse Miss Carson of alarmism. Yet few scientists deny that some risk may be involved.”
It was a simple theme that caught the attention of the public and lawmakers – some risk may be involved.
After the broadcast, President Kennedy ordered the President’s Science Advisory Committee to study the issues raised. Sen. Abraham Ribicoff announced hearings into the federal programs overseeing pesticides. Other jumped on the bandwagon.
At the time the book came out, Alex Martin was studying to become a pesticide scientist. He says the book was sensational. “Silent Spring was effective and constructive in focusing our attention,” he admits now. “We weren’t looking. We were looking primarily at the desirable aspects of these things, and you need to look at the whole profile.”
But Don Reeves notes that DDT almost wiped out malaria in the Philippines, where he was, before the mosquitoes developed a tolerance for the chemical. “I’m inclined to be suspicious of anybody who’s going to have the world end next week,” he says. “I’m more inclined to think in terms of cost-benefit ratios.”
It’s not overstating the case to say the Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring ignited a dormant environmental movement and shaped the debate for the rest of the 20th century.
Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2007. A partial bibliography of sources is here.