By Stephanie Noda
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was the single publication that started the environmental movement back in the 1960s. Her research informed the general public about the dangers of pesticides that most individuals had never been aware of. Carson’s eloquent writing, which was free of environmental jargon that could confuse those who do not normally read environmental literature, was able to accurately describe to Americans how these chemicals were affecting their lives. The increased use of pesticides first began during World War II, primarily through the use of a pesticide called DDT.
Carson’s book helped bring to light to issues associated with these chemicals. For example, Carson discusses the hazards of DDT, which is short for “dichloro-diphenyl-trichloro-ethane”, and how people erroneously believed that DDT is safe since there are no short term effects: “Perhaps the myth of the harmlessness of DDT rests on the fact that one of its first uses was the wartime dusting of many thousands of soldiers, refugees, and prisoners, to combat lice. It is widely believed that since so many people came into extremely intimate contact with DDT and suffered no immediate ill effects the chemical must certainly be innocent of harm. This understandable misconception arises from the fact that – unlike other chlorinated hydrocarbons – DDT in powder form is not readily absorbed through the skin. Dissolved in oil, as it usually is, DDT is definitely toxic.” Once the public became aware of the fact that DDT could be toxic if dissolved in oil, they were prompted to pass measures to remove this harmful substance from pesticides.
In Silent Spring, Carson dramatically portrays the extent of pesticide’s reach: “for the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death. In less than two decades of their use, the synthetic pesticides have been so thoroughly distributed throughout the animate and inanimate world that they occur virtually everywhere.” There is no escaping pesticides, even if an individual does not even use pesticides for their lawn; it has become entrenched in the earth. For example, Carson reveals that pesticides “have been recovered from most of the major river systems and even from steams of groundwater flowing unseen through the earth. Residues of these chemicals linger in soil to which they may have been applied a dozen years ago. They have entered and lodged into the bodies of fish, birds, reptiles, and domestic and wild animals so universally that scientists carrying on animal experiments find it almost impossible to locate subjects free from such contamination.”
Naturally, humans are not exempt from this contamination. Carson found that “these chemicals are now stored in the bodies of the vast majority of human beings, regardless of age. They occur in mother’s milk, and probably in the tissues of the unborn child.” These cases, of course, are not as common as they are today; not all mother’s milk has residue of pesticides. This reduction in contamination, however, is due to Carson’s influence. If Carson had not included these facts into Silent Spring, these issues would have continued to persist, with no telling how much more damage these pesticides would cause.