I have just finished reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a book she wrote 50 years ago. While I have already shared a few thoughts about the book from when I was just part way through it, my response to finishing the book came in at several more pages of thoughts—too much for one blog post! So, here is Part I:
What were they thinking?!
I was amazed to read story after story of the incredible harms unleashed over and over. Highly poisonous chemicals were sprayed from trucks and crop dusters over the land and the water with no regard for the exceedingly obvious and unintended obliteration of life that it caused. While the chemical was intended for one recipient—generally an insect—it nevertheless devastated countless other life forms in horrific ways. I’m not a scientist but it’s not hard to understand something appalling when you read it: birds, forest and meadow animals, fish, farm animals, and pets by the thousands all perishing by horrible deaths when exposed to those chemicals. Effects on humans were less obvious but still present. And, the success of the desired result? Dismal. Oftentimes the natural predator of the pest was killed instead, leaving the pest to flourish. Other times the pest became resistant to the poison.
Chemical Use Continues Despite What We Knew
In working my way through the pages of her approachable writing, I was also surprised by what we knew ‘way back then’. I’m sure I am not alone in feeling that we know more today than we did yesterday and obviously more than decades ago. We ought to. But I am also starting to see that important truths have been kept from us.
Carson’s book is full of stories about chemical pesticides, herbicides and insecticides and their unimaginable negative impacts. But are pesticides, for example, now banned? No, they are still legally used. In only a few places after hard-fought battles, are pesticides for cosmetic use banned. But even then they are still used, along with herbicides and insecticides, in farming, on government lands and even still on golf courses. And their harmful effects are still being seen and felt.
We haven’t learned from the past. We still use harmful chemicals and the consequences of those applications are not minor. Today we see the feminization of aquatic life, eutrophication that can destroy aquatic life in lakes and rivers, and reduced sperm count in males, to name a few. Regarding feminization and reduced sperm counts, humans are included in this. Humans are also being affected (feminization, lower sperm counts).
Carson also wrote about the interaction of chemicals with other chemicals outside of the lab. Often times the result was vastly worse. Some chemicals that combined became many times more lethal than they were alone. And today hundreds of new chemicals continue to be introduced every year. One would wonder if some scientists or perhaps the companies they work for, just really think of the whole world as “the lab”? Of course they do put labels on: “handle with care”, “use properly” “hazardous”. But they don’t know what other chemicals are in your garden shed or under your sink. And once out of their hands, it is incredibly difficult to say that their chemical caused this illness.
Another type of unintended result that Carson points out is that one chemical may create the situation for another chemical to cause an undesired and expected health impact. On page 31 she gives the example of one chemical destroying an enzyme in the liver that would have rendered another chemical harmless. Often the result may occur days or years after exposure and it is still the same today. Are you still harmed by those chemicals? Yes. Can you prove it and not only be compensated but possibly healed of the ailments beset you? Extremely challenging to answer.
Today, over 80,000 chemicals are available for use in everything from pesticides to cosmetics and according to information revealed in a recent documentary I saw called Unacceptable Levels, we typically have over 200 of them in our bodies at any given time. Few chemicals have been tested or are even required to be tested for safety to humans or animals. Sadly, few people really know what we are truly spraying on our fields or back yards or even applying to our hands and faces, or those of our children.
Truth kept from us
In the last few years, it has just started to be revealed that chemicals can have intergenerational impacts. That is, chemicals that you are exposed to may be harmful not only to your unborn child, but also to the child you are planning to have in a few years! Furthermore it may affect their children, too. ADHD in a child is the example in a documentary film called A Chemical Reaction that came out a few years ago. It reveals the consequence of chemical exposure in a parent years before conceiving his child.
This is shocking news!
Even more shocking is …..this isn’t breaking news. OR it shouldn’t be. Carson wrote about the casualties among the newly born of animals exposed to chemicals, even in small doses. From chapter 3 of this book that was written 50 years ago:
“By one means or another, the new generations suffer for the poisoning of their parents. No one knows whether the same effect will be seen in human beings, yet this chemical has been sprayed from airplanes over suburban areas and farmlands.” Page 26
I think a lot of people wonder why we’re all so sick. I’m beginning to wonder if instead of asking our scientists for cures, we should be asking them to stop selling us products that harm us. We have a century of examples of harms.
I thank Rachel Carson for being an environmental leader. In writing Silent Spring, she took a risk in revealing the negative effects of an unfettered chemical industry that was determined to remain active even after the end of World War II. But she could not remain silent as she saw the harms unfolding across her country and continent. She connects many dots with her writing and revealed the extent of a very huge injustice being perpetrated against nature—harms that were affecting humans and animals alike.
Today, we still live in a chemical culture and the harms have not gone away. They are increasing and it remains for everyone to be vigilant in the protection of their health and that of their children.
What are your thoughts about our chemical world?