Originally printed in the June 23, 2004 edition of the Illinois Valley News
There are three dates coming up in the near future that will probably receive some attention from the publishers of magazines, newspapers and producers of educational television programs.
Beginning in June 1962, The New Yorker magazine, began publishing excerpts from a book that did not go on sale in bookstores until Sept. 27 of that same year. The book was Silent Spring. It immediately became a best seller, and still today creates strong feelings, good and bad, with many people.
On June 14, 1972, 10 years later, the United States Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of DDT within the United States. Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane is a highly effective insecticide. It was used in killing harmful agricultural insect pests, forest insects, and also mosquitoes, that cause malaria and yellow fever. DDT also killed many other harmless insects and even beneficial ones if not properly controlled.
The third date is May 27, 1907, the birth date of Rachel Carson. She was the scientist who wrote the book that created the turmoil and public pressure that caused the formation of the EPA that banned DDT, in the country that George Washington helped to build.
Rachel Carson, born in Springdale, Penn, a rural area where she grew up and developed a love of nature and a love of writing. She graduated from Johns Hopkins University, with a MA in Marine Biology, in 1932. She then taught zoology for a while at the University of Maryland and then began working for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. At first she wrote educational radio programs and pamphlets and eventually became Editor-in-Chief for all U.S. Fish and Wildlife publications. In her spare time she wrote magazine articles and published three books about the sea which became best sellers which gave her financial security. This allowed her to leave the government service after only fifteen years and work full time as a writer.
Silent Spring, her fourth book, was a direct attack on chemical pesticides and DDT in particular. In scientific terms, the book shows that DDT not only kills insects, but it is picked up by plankton in the water. The DDT accumulates in fat cells and so is passed up the food chain and becomes more concentrated at each level because it is not broken down by body processes. Therefore, in the top predator of each food level it can become lethal or destroy their ability to reproduce. The idea was that all the birds would eventually die and hence a silent spring.
Carson also enlarged on this concept to include DDT causing cancer in human beings. This aspect of her book is still hotly debated because an increase in cancer rates has not been demonstrated in countries which still allow DDT. The term “carcinogen” comes from a Greek word that means “crab,” and is not a derivative of Rachel Carson’s last name, as some people have thought. By the way, the Latin word for crab is “cancer” and so they are both dealing with the same topic.
Since the banning of DDT in 1972, the population of some aquatic birds, and peregrine falcons, have increased. The dark side of this story however, is that studies show deaths due to malaria have increased by millions of persons yearly, mostly in underdeveloped countries.
Silent Spring is reputed by many as the springboard that launched the environmental protection movement and a world wide interest in ecology. It is still going strong today, but there are negative issues in this movement that need to be investigated and solved before the world is perfect.