While my “Reflections of the Chemical (and Energy) Industries” as stated on the header of my blog, have generally involved current developments, I want to reflect today on the extraordinary event, now fifty years ago, when Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” awakened the world to the dangers and collateral effects of certain pesticides. Rachel Carson recognized that the extensive use of herbicides and insecticides was responsible for decimating the bird and fish population and that the chemical footprint of certain pesticides was moving up the food chain, threatening children, e.g. with endocrine disorders. In some regions the bird population was being decimated from ingestion of pesticides, thus giving its name to the book. With sales of over two million copies, this book helped to set the world on a path to eliminate the production of the insecticide DDT, as well as other harmful (to humans) chemicals and to start a program of analyzing chemicals suspected to have toxic characteristics. Moreover, it was also instrumental in creating an awareness of pollution in various forms, leading to the creation, in the 1970s, of theEnvironmental Protection Agency and passage of the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in the 1970s! Our world really changed as a result.
Banning the use of certain hazardous chemicals and the push by environmentalists and some scientists to ban many more has, of course, has remained a controversial subject, with industry generally opposed to EPA initiatives when the evidence is unclear and/or when the risks are deemed to be minor or almost nil. DDT, once widely used to spray crops to kill mosquito larvae, has long been banned throughout the world and manufacture essentially suspended. Since banning DDT in Africa and Asia was arguably responsible for the subsequent death of millions of children from malaria, companies went to work to develop substitutes, though none have been as effective as DDT. This was obviously a difficult and tragic tradeoff. Still, awareness of the effects of air, water and earth pollution and of truly toxic and dangerous chemicals has made the earth a much cleaner and safer place and much credit belongs to Rachel Carson.
Industry has become far more responsive to this problem and much progress has been made over the fifty years since publication of Carson’s book. Over the last twenty-five years toxic air releases from chemical plants have dropped from 600 to less than 100 million pounds while our population has almost doubled. ( Ref: Guide to the Business of Chemistry 2011, published by the American Chemistry Council). A huge amount of toxic waste, largely isolated in so-called Superfund sites, has been identified and partly cleared up.(Remember “Love Canal”). Companies that once dumped liquid wastes into waterways are no longer able to do this and must treat such wastes or incur large, including criminal, fines.
The potential threat that pesticides pose with respect to endocrine disorders continues to engage the attention of the EPA, which is conducting a long term Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program, together with its High Production Volume testing program. There is continuing concern about the many chemicals absorbed by the body and found in our blood stream. Rachel Carson’s pioneering book was a groundbreaking achievement that has and will continue to make our world a safer place.