Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

On the 50th anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring –

Still searching for the truth and a better way

Golden Eagle Migrating over the Kittatinny Ridge in Pennsylvania
Photo by Corey Husic

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring – a book that begins with a simple fable and takes its title from a line by the 19th century English Romantic poet, John Keats.  The author of this now notorious book was a girl from Springdale, PA in Allegheny County, which has the distinction of ranking in the 90+ percentile for the dirtiest or worst counties in the country for eight different air pollutant measures.  For the other six measures, it only ranks in the 60th to 80th percentile for worst counties.

Rachel Carson, who was writing creative stories in grade school, chose instead to pursue higher education in science, graduating with honors in biology from what is now known as Chatham College, and going on to earn a master’s degree in Zoology from John Hopkins University.   She was the first woman to take and pass the civil service test, and was subsequently hired in 1936 by the Bureau of Fisheries.  Eventually, she would become both the chief editor of all publications for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as the author of several popular books enjoyed by the public.

When Silent Spring was published in 1962, I wasn’t yet three years old, so didn’t encounter the book until much later.  In fact, I hadn’t even read it until a few years ago, although I knew of its key messages.  I now live in an area filled with raptor fanatics – hawk watchers and counters.  These folks are quick to tell stories of the decline of raptors decades ago, especially of ospreys and eagles, and how some of the fall migration count data from “the Ridge” helped to support the case that DDT might be leading to this decline.  Indeed, Rachel Carson spent time at Hawk Mountain – just down the Appalachian Ridge from where I live.  In her chapter “And No Birds Sing”, Carson speaks of Maurice Brown and Hawk Mountain, and the sharp decline of immature Bald Eagles noted in the 1950’s.  Early in my career, I worked at the same institution as the biologist, Larry Rymon, who was instrumental in successfully reintroducing Osprey to the region. [1] Today, we examine birding records to see if the timing of migration is potentially being impacted by changes in climate, especially the earlier advance of spring in the northern latitudes.

A few years ago, some students majoring in environmental studies asked if I would lead a reading group related to environmental literature.  This was an odd request, largely because I am a biochemist by training.  Over the years, my scholarship has shifted from bench science to ecological restoration, conservation, and climate change.  For fun, I immerse myself in nature, environmental, and conservation writings.  But, by no means am I qualified to teach literature.

Just because you have read a book, doesn’t mean you know the entire story.  Our small reading group became familiar with the messages of Thoreau, Muir, and Leopold, and then moved on to some work by Carson.  I decided to ask the students to investigate the impact that Silent Spring had had on the environmental movement, on environmental legislation, or on the voice of women in activism.  Little did I know the deep impact this exploration would end up having on me.

Given that I had been trained in a predominantly chemistry-based education track and, for a few years did some research in chemical carcinogenesis, for my part in this assignment, I decided to explore the reaction of the chemical industry to the publication of the book.  To say I was shocked is an understatement.  Not that I would expect the chemical industry to be happy about a book (especially one written by a scientist) that took aim at chemical products.  But what I didn’t expect was the vitriolic nature of the criticism that targeted not only the message, but also the messenger. 

A rather negative (scathing, actually) review of book entitled “Silence, Miss Carson” was published in the magazine Chemical & Engineering News (C&E News), a publication of the American Chemical Society.  The review was written by Dr. William J. Darby whose credentials were touted at the beginning of the review[2]:

Dr. Darby is professor and chairman of the department of biochemistry and director, division of nutrition, at Vanderbilt University school of medicine; member and past chairman of the Food Protection Committee, National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council' and a member of the NAS-NRC Food and Nutrition Board.

I include below two excerpts to give you the essence of what was printed.  The first:

Miss Carson's book adds no new factual material not already known to such serious scientists as those concerned with these developments, nor does it include information essential for the reader to interpret the knowledge. It does confuse the information and so mix it with her opinions that the uninitiated reader is unable to sort fact from fancy. In view of the mature, responsible attention which this whole subject receives from able, qualified scientific groups, such as those identified in the foregoing (and whom Miss Carson chooses to ignore); in view of her scientific qualifications in contrast to those of our distinguished scientific leaders and statesmen, this book should be ignored.

Darby latter interestingly states:

The responsible scientist should read this book to understand the ignorance of those writing on the subject and the educational task which lies ahead.
Robert H. White-Stevens, biochemist and assistant director of the Agricultural Research Division of American Cyanamid referred to Carson as "a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature" and stated that

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.

Well, clearly, those in biochemistry who came before me didn’t think too highly of her book.  But criticism came from many other sources including Norman E. Borlaug, a Nobel laureate for his work contributing to the Green Revolution in agriculture, and the Entomological Society of America[3]:


Says a lady who writes of the sea

“I’ve espoused a new cause—DDT.

It’s sprayed all around us

By those pest control bounders,

And threatens my bonnet’s pet bee”

—Hector Monro (1963)

Bulletin of the

Entomological Society of America,

1963. 9(1): 2

Despite significant amounts of scientific research that now supports much of Carson’s claims and the speculation and proposed research directions she set forth in her book, the criticism continues.  In 2007, Rudy Baum, editor of C&E News wrote[4]:

May 27 marked the 100th anniversary of Carson's birth. In the run-up to the date, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) had planned to introduce a resolution celebrating Carson's legacy. However, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) announced that he would block the resolution by the use of a parliamentary device, because, according to a statement from his office, "Carson was the author of the now-debunked 'Silent Spring,' a book that was the catalyst in the deadly worldwide stigmatization against insecticides, especially DDT." As a result, Cardin delayed introducing the resolution [emphasis added].

As someone who does a lot of work in the field of climate change science and policy, the “now-debunked” phrase rings an all too familiar, but unpleasant, bell.  Not only have some individuals labeled Carson as a “hysterical woman” (if you know the history of the word hysterical, you know why I bristle at this phrase) who wrote one of the “most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries”, [5] but there are also those who claim that she has been responsible for millions of deaths. [6]   In “Silent Spring at 50: Reflections on an Environmental Classic,” (published this year) authors Meiners and Morriss comment that the book

…encourages some of the most destructive strains within environmentalism: alarmism, technophobia, failure to consider the costs and benefits of alternatives, and the discounting of human well-being around the world.[7]

And earlier this month, September 2012, this statement appeared in an op-ed in Forbes:

The legacy of Rachel Carson is that tens of millions of human lives – mostly children in poor, tropical countries – have been traded for the possibility of slightly improved fertility in raptors. This remains one of the monumental human tragedies of the last century [emphasis added]. [8]

“Mass murder”, “guilty of genocide”, “responsible for more deaths than Hitler” are all labels that have been applied to Rachel Carson in the last few years.  Clearly, some want to continue the controversy or rather the myth.  While DDT has been banned in the U.S. and several other countries, it still is produced and used in others, mainly for the control of malaria.[9]  I remain stunned at this ongoing level of criticism levied at a scientist, who also happens to be an accomplished author who has been cited more than any other environmental writer except for Thoreau.[10]  Several of today’s climate scientists receive regular death threats.  I wonder if Rachel had these too?

As part of this personal exploration into the aftermath of Silent Spring, I think of the crusaders against environmental toxins that have come since Carson—Theo Colburn, Lois Gibbs, Arlene Blum, Sandra Steingraber, Erin Brockovich, Terry Tempest Williams—journalists, housewives, chemists, biologists, authors, women…and wonder how they dared, knowing the toxic reactions that would be thrown their way, perhaps for decades, for their entire career, life, and beyond (Carson died of cancer in 1964, still in her 50’s.)  And I wonder why it has been mainly women who speak out so publicly.  I know that there are plenty of men who do toxicology and environmental health research, but they tend to limit their voice to peer-reviewed scientific journals.[11]

In searches easily done via the Internet (which admittedly can be a questionable source at times, but I did some fact-checking) we know that there are more than 100,000 chemicals on the U.S. market today, relatively few of which have been tested for their impact on human health.  Over 27 trillion pounds of chemicals, not all toxic, are produced per year in this country.  That is about 250 pounds of chemicals per person per day.  We depend on chemicals in our food, for our health, and in our demand for energy, fuel, and stuff.  (Yes, there are chemicals in those iPhones and iPads.) We know that Scotts, the lawn and garden products company, just received the largest judgment in federal court—$12.5 million in fines—for having insecticides (poisons) in their bird feed products.  Love Canal, Times Beach, and Bhopal are now bad chapters in chemical history.  We know the toxic effects of the 12 million gallons of Agent Orange used between 1965 and 1971 and the 2,4-D, one of the pesticides in that chemical mix is still used at an annual rate of millions of pounds in the U.S. alone.  We know that there are chemical carcinogens and environmental estrogens (hormone mimics) that alter the gender of reptiles.  In humans, accumulating scientific evidence is demonstrating that these persistent pollutants may be increasing rates of breast cancer, lowering sperm counts, and making us obese.

Given my background in chemistry, I am by no means a chemophobe.  But I have seen firsthand what environmental damage chemicals can do through my work at a Superfund site, as well as the cellular impacts they can have from the days when I worked in a chemical carcinogenesis lab.  As a college student, I inadvertently ran head on into one of the protests near Mio, Michigan where state "leaders" were being hung in effigy as a result of the decision to bury in the region livestock carcasses from animals accidently contaminated with PBBs.  This incident from the 1970’s, while not well known in much of the country, became known as the "Poisoning of Michigan" (thanks in part to a book written by Joyce Egginton) and remains the largest chemical accident and incident of human and livestock poisoning in this country.  The anger of the protesters was directed at the chemical company, the Farm Bureau, and the state government.  But I was terrified, so much so, that I didn’t look up what the protest I encountered was about until about a year ago.

At times, I feel conflicted as to how to tell the story of risk to my classes, without creating paranoia.  This quest began at the simple request of some students.  I have since ended my membership in the American Chemical Society and routinely blog about environmental issues.  But somehow, I must continue to search for the truth and for the courage to ask, as Rachel did, “why”?  Why, now that we know the truth—that some chemicals are toxic to plants and animals, some alter our climate, and others damage our ecosystems—do we not work more diligently to find innovative and safer alternatives?

RIP Rachel.  I wish I had your conviction and your courage.

[1] For instance, you can listen to this interview with Dr. Rymon:
[2] Darby, William J. 1962. "Silence, Miss Carson." Chemical & Engineering News (Oct. 1): 62-63.
[3] Krupke, C. H., et al., 2007, Professional Entomology and the Forty-four Noisy Years Since Silent Spring,
Part 2: Response to Silent Spring, American Entomologist 53: 16-26.
[4] Baum, R., 2007, “From the Editor”, Chemical and Engineering News 85: 5.
[6] For example, see Lockitch, K. “Rachel Carson’s Genocide” in Capitalism Magazine (5/23/2007) available at and Swartz, A. “Rachel Carson, Mass Murderer? The Creation of an Anti-environmental Myth”, in Fair (September/October 2007) available at
[7] Meiners, R.E. and Morriss, A.P., 2012, Silent spring at 50:  Reflections on an environmental classic, PERC Policy Series No. 51, p. 1.
[8] Miller, H.I. and Conko, G. “Rachel Carson’s Deadly Fantasies”, an op-ed in Forbes (9/5/12) available at
[9] The Conference of the Parties to the Stockholm Convention “continues to allow the use of DDT for use in public health for disease vector control as recommended by and under the guidance of the World Health Organization.”  A number of organizations, as part of a Global Alliance, are working to find effective, but safer alternatives, to reduce the malaria burden.
[10] Meiners, R.E. and Morriss, A.P., 2012, Silent spring at 50:  Reflections on an environmental classic, PERC Policy Series No. 51, p. 1.
[11] One notable exception is Tyrone Hayes, an African American scientist at U.C. Berkeley, whose own interactions with the chemical industry and the media have taken a very odd twist:


  1. (I'm posting my response in two parts because I accidentally exceeded the character limit. Whoops.)

    I don't know, Dr. Husic. Reading what you had to say in your blog, I'd certainly say that you're more than qualified to teach literature. Besides, you don't need to be a teacher or have a degree to talk about and discuss the things you love or understand, in any depth. A diploma and PhD aren't the be-all-end-alls of education, even if that's what society readily views as a prerequisite for educators.

    But I digress.

    While listening to the facts I felt my heart sinking lower and lower in my chest. I don't get. I mean, I really don't get it. Carson went out of her way to try and hunt down the facts, in order to better people, raptors, and other organisms/ecosystems under threat from pesticides. She had the facts and credibility to back her up, and yet so many people - from journalists, to big business consultants, to other scientists - not only dismissed her work as a falsehood, but blamed her for the "deaths of millions." Did no one pause to consider that her intentions were good? I can't necessarily say the same for big businesses, who in addition to preaching that DT protected people, aimed to make money off of selling their products. That's a glaringly obvious ulterior motive if I've ever seen one. Not only that, but other scientists with backgrounds in the field! Dr. Darby was a biochemist, for Christ's sake! As a scientist he, of all people, should have been the last to refute the hard data, which explicitly attributed DDT to raptor decline and other health problems in all organisms, from humans, to plants, and so on. You've got to wonder if these so-called "scientists" weren't paid by pesticide companies to write false articles vouching for pesticides. It's happened before, hasn't it? Or they could have been threatened into writing articles that debased Carson's work.

    Speaking of threatening... Holy hell. Were there really people who threatened to kill her for the things she wrote? Coming from the critics who claimed that she was "worse than Hitler," that's a bit hypocritical, don't you think? Regardless, how can people make such threats and sleep easy at night? The things that people do and say with frightening ease scares me. Oh, sure, it's okay for them to get away with making death threats, but the moment someone tries to get information out there about how dangerous certain chemicals are, they're automatically branded a terrorist for life. Really! In what universe is that fair?

    Why are there so many people quick to try and write of Carson's work as blasphemy? It was peer-reviewed, wasn't it, therefore verifying the data? Why are people so afraid of the truth? Is it because they're obstinately against change? So what if it means that we can't spray down mosquitoes from pesticides dumped out of the cargo pits of airplanes? We should be looking into safer mosquito-control methods anyway - methods that benefit us and the environment anyway.

  2. Also, so many are quick to blame the absence of DDT for the return and rapid spread of mosquito populations, but has anyone considered that global climate change and skyrocketing temperatures in normally cooler hemispheres might be a cause as well?

    I mean, there's no denying that excess CO2 in the atmosphere will heat the atmosphere. It's a greenhouse gas, after all. But if temperatures in normally cooler regions rise, then summers will become prolonged, and the frosts and snows that help to regulate mosquito populations will vanish, as well. So many are quick to blame Carson for the mosquito rise again, but perhaps they should consider looking elsewhere. In my eyes, humans are just suffering the backlash of their own destructive contributions to the environment. Yes, it's a tragedy, but the mosquito outbreak has been coming for a while. The media (and society) can't fault a single individual for a problem that the ENTIRE WORLD has been contributing to for centuries. Rather than point fingers, perhaps we should focus on finding a sustainable solution?

    Honestly, I'm grateful to Carson. Even though her life was threatened by cancer and DDT advocates, she still went about her work, trying to show people what was happening to the world around them. She was a person whose goal wasn't driven by money, power, acclaim, or other incentives. The only motivation for her work was that she cared. How many people in this day and age can say the same? That they do or say something because they care? Rachel Carson was a person who saw the bigger picture, and tried to remove pesticides like DDT because she recognized the collective harm they did to raptors, and us. She is truly inspirational, and a role model for others continuing in her footsteps who struggle to remain unfaltering before skeptics and critics.

    Ones of these days I intend to read Silent Spring, if only so I can show my thanks to a woman who cared enough to try and save us all. Maybe I can try to honor her through my own actions and continued endeavors in the environmental sciences.

    Anyway, this was a gem to read. Thanks for posting this. See you in class Thursday.

    Alex Bundrick