Shattering the silence

In 1957, Olga Owens Huckins was horrified to find dead and dying birds throughout her private bird sanctuary. Only days before, local agencies had sprayed massive amounts of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) over her two acres of woods in Duxbury, Mass., as part of a mosquito-control campaign. Huckins implored her friend Rachel Carson, a biologist and writer working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to find out what could be done to regulate chemical spraying.

Carson's interest in the subject was not new. As early as 1945, she had become alarmed by government overuse of new chemical pesticides. Carson could not find anyone to publish an article on this gloomy subject, however, and she had placed her idea on the back burner.

Beginning her investigation anew, Carson reviewed lawsuits being brought by victims of pesticide poisoning. She compiled mountains of data and documentation she received by contacting other biologists, chemists and geneticists. The evidence was overwhelming. She realized that here was the material for a book.

A firestorm of controversy
Silent Spring was published in 1962. Carson's chilling scenario of a world laid to waste by poisonous chemicals ignited a firestorm of controversy. Even before publication, this meticulous scientist was assailed by threats of lawsuits and attacks from skeptics who labeled her a "hysterical female."

The chemical industry, supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), mounted a counterattack. Carson was "a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature," said Dr. Robert White-Stevens of pesticide manufacturer American Cyanamid. As a spokesman for the chemical industry in the 1960s, White-Stevens told the public, "If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth."

However, the chemical industry's smear tactics backfired. The attempts to villainize Carson only increased public interest. Upon the completion of Silent Spring in 1962, only the New Yorker was willing to acquire prepublication rights. The condensed three-part series prompted more mail than any other article in the magazine's history.

The reverberations
The book became a runaway bestseller and was translated into many languages. Silent Spring planted the seeds for the modern American environmental movement, the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the 1972 ban on DDT.

Government action
Parts of the New Yorker article were read into the Congressional Record by Sen. William Proxmire and Rep. John Lindsay. Not long after, President John F. Kennedy announced the formation of a special government group to investigate the use and control of pesticides under the direction of the President's Science Advisory Committee.

Despite ill health, Carson endured the attacks on her person and work with remarkable serenity. She was secure in her facts; every detail in the book had been checked and rechecked. She responded to the skeptics who discounted her exhaustive research by testifying at Congressional hearings, appearing on special televised segments of CBS Reports, and conferring with President Kennedy and his Science Advisory Committee.

The committee's report, The Use of Pesticides, issued May 15, 1963, confirmed every point highlighted in Silent Spring and called for decreased use of toxic chemicals. Shortly after the report's release, Carson testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, where she recommended the establishment of a commission to deal with pesticide issues that would make decisions based on the broad public interest, rather than the profit motives of a few. This commission exists today, in the form of the Environmental Protection Agency, described by an EPA journalist as "the extended shadow of Silent Spring."

The ban on DDT
Inheriting USDA pesticide regulation functions, EPA was created in 1970, coinciding with the culmination of the public debate over the use of DDT. Though others had warned of the dangers of unbridled pesticide use, the vivid metaphors of Silent Spring had caught the public imagination. By 1968, widespread opposition to DDT led to a ban on its use by several states.

A federal ban was not far off. Carson's research had inspired the founding of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a group of 10 scientists and one lawyer who espoused the then-radical idea of using litigation to tackle environmental problems. The organization's first goal was a federal ban on the use of DDT. EDF first won an injunction stopping the spraying of DDT in Suffolk Country, Long Island, and then pursued a series of legal actions that ultimately led to the banning of DDT nationwide in 1972.

The debate continues
While the ban has led to the recovery of many wildlife species, the controversy it originally created continues to rage. Carson's critics accuse her of shallow science. Some contend that DDT's power to kill disease-carrying insects outweighs its effects on wildlife and humans. Others question whether DDT affects humans and wildlife adversely at all.

Carson's supporters point to recent studies confirming DDT's carcinogenicity, its reproductive effects and its tendency to increase in concentration at higher levels of the food web. However one views her conclusions, Carson began a vitally important debate when she raised these issues to public awareness.

"I have at least helped a little"
Rachel Carson did not live to see the far-reaching implications of her work. She died at the age of 56 in 1964, two years after the publication of Silent Spring, after a long battle with breast cancer. Carson seemed at peace with her impending death, however. She wrote to a friend in 1962, "The beauty of the living world I was trying to save has always been uppermost in my mind - that, and anger at the senseless, brutish things that were being done... But now I can believe that I have at least helped a little."

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This article originally appeared in the December, 1999 issue of Environmental Protection magazine, Vol. 10, Number 12, pp. 18-19.

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/1999 issue of Environmental Protection.

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