Debate on pesticides lingers


Book: Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," published 40 years ago, changed the way Americans think about the chemicals.

September 27, 2002|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

As West Nile virus spreads across the United States, people debating whether to spray disease-carrying mosquitoes find themselves referring to a book published 40 years ago - either to blame its long-dead author for the virus' victims or to repeat her warning that widespread use of pesticides is poisoning the planet, and us as well.

The controversy would be all too familiar to Rachel Carson, the biologist-turned-writer whose seminal work, Silent Spring, hit the bookstands Sept. 27, 1962. Its publication helped launch the modern environmental movement and stirred a furor that continues today over the hazards of chemicals.

"More than any other [book], it changed the way Americans, and people around the world, looked at the reckless way we live on this planet," Philip Shabecoff wrote in his history of U.S. environmentalism, A Fierce Green Fire.

At a time when the Cold War seemed about to erupt into nuclear holocaust, Carson - best-selling author of three earlier books about marine biology - suggested that people should worry about perishing from a more insidious threat - synthetic chemical pesticides.

"Elixirs of death," she called DDT and the thousands of other compounds increasingly used since World War II to exterminate unwanted insects and weeds. The nation's soil and water were becoming tainted with insecticides, she warned, causing fish and bird kills, interfering with animal reproduction and threatening many species - possibly even humans - with extinction.

"How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?" she wrote.

Aided by advance publication of excerpts in The New Yorker, the book caused a sensation and rocketed onto the best-seller list. Though hailed by many, her contentions were disputed by the chemical industry; a Harvard University professor dismissed them as "baloney." A former agriculture secretary even suggested she was "probably a Communist."

Yet the book's clarion call against misuse and overuse of pesticides eventually led to the enactment of federal environmental laws and regulations. A decade after its publication, DDT was banned in the United States, chiefly on the threat it posed to eagles and other birds. Research indicated DDT ingested by the birds may cause a fatal thinning of their eggshells.

Carson did not live to see any of that. She died in 1964 after a long battle with breast cancer - an illness she never publicly blamed on pesticides, though in Silent Spring she suggested that growing exposure to toxic chemicals may be behind an increase in cancer rates.

Perhaps her reticence on that score stemmed from her intense sense of privacy. She never seemed quite comfortable with her celebrity, limiting her public appearances and telling interviewers she was no crusader.

"The beauty of the living world has always been uppermost in my mind - that, and anger at the senseless, brutish things that were being done," she wrote a friend. "Now I can believe that I have at least helped a little."

More than a little, judging by the accolades her work has received in the decades since her death. Time magazine, which initially panned Silent Spring as emotional and alarmist, later named her as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.

Shy and bookish as a child growing up in Springdale, Pa., Carson forged a career out of her twin passions for writing and nature. An English major in college, she earned a master's degree in zoology at the Johns Hopkins University and taught briefly at Hopkins and the University of Maryland before taking a job with the federal Bureau of Fisheries.

She supplemented her meager government income by free-lancing feature articles for The Sun - making her debut as a professional writer under the byline of R.L. Carson. "It'll Be Shad Time Soon" was her first piece in 1937, for which she was paid $20, according to Witness for Nature, a biography by Linda J. Lear.

She went on to publish three books about the sea and the wonders beneath it, two of which were best sellers. That financial success enabled her to retire from the government and pursue writing full time.

But, by the late 1950s, she resolved to write a different kind of book after hearing from biologists at the federal Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and elsewhere about huge bird kills and reproductive problems that seemed linked to pesticide exposure.

The book's title, Silent Spring, came from her fear - outlined in the opening chapter - that pesticides and other toxic chemicals would deplete bird populations to the point that communities would no longer hear the songs of robins, warblers and other birds to herald the end of winter.

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