Remembering Rachel Carson…..

Rachel CarsonWhile 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.

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3 Responses to Remembering Rachel Carson…..

  1. Joe Pilaro says:

    Sorry, Peter, but when it comes to killing millions of children to save the birds, it is a lot more than a difficult and tragic tradeoff. The fifty year tragedy approaches the genocidal crime level of mass murder. I know that the Chemical Industry already had started many programs of understanding and studying the toxicity of synthetic organic chemicals before Rachel Carson wrote “Silent Spring” and the New Yorker magazine aroused politicians to her thoughts on the subject in 1962.

  2. Peter Spitz says:

    Joe, you remember the situation better than I do. Did the United Nations (Unesco?) ban or recommend not using DDT in Africa as a result of Rachel Carson and environmentalist pressure in general? If so, it was the African nations that were responsible for the “tradeoff”, leading to mass deaths from malaria. DDT continued to be manufactured for a while and these nations could have amassed a stockpile, waiting fo ra more benign pesticide to be developed.

    • Joe Pilaro says:

      Peter, the following is quoted from a research article in a Commission for Environmental Cooperation reference article. I believe that the DDT ban on production and use was initiated in the US, not by the UN. I was unable to determine if DDT is produced anywhere in the world at present, December, 2012. The below indicates that Mexico had DDT production in 1999 and my research found that it was only available for Government-controlled uses.

      “At the peak of its popularity in 1962, DDT was registered for use on 334 agricultural
      commodities and about 85,000 tons were produced (Metcalf 1995). Production then declined and by 1971, shortly before it was banned in the United States, production had dipped to about 2,000 tons. The cumulative world production of DDT has been estimated as 2 million tons. As of January 1, 1973, all uses of DDT in the United States were canceled except emergency public health uses and a few other uses permitted on a case-by-case basis (Meister and Sine 1999). Currently, no companies in the United States manufacture DDT (Meister and Sine 1999). DDT is presently produced by DDT is presently produced by companies in Mexico and China (Meister and Sine 1999).”

      China ceased production in 2007 and made about 4000 tons that year. Production in India may still exist but I have not been able to locate a current manufacturing site there.

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