Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

15 Jun 2022

Marking an era

Posted by Michael Keating

When I was a little boy in the late 1940s my father gave me a hand sprayer loaded with the pesticide DDT. With this new toy I ran around the house shooting at flies like some anti-aircraft gunner.  Little did I know that I was participating in not just the killing of a few houseflies but the start of civilian chemical warfare.

It was more than another decade before people realized our use of pesticides was out of control and threatening our environment and health. On June 16, 1962, The New Yorker magazine began to serialize chapters from a book by U.S. biologist and ecologist Rachel Carson. It was Silent Spring, the most influential environmental book until then. It was a bombshell. Carson wrote about declines in bird populations linked to pesticides. She took a complex subject—the damaging effects of persistent pesticides—and captured it in one powerful image: a spring in which no birds sang. By this time the bald eagle, an American icon, was heading for extinction because DDT was causing eggshells so thin they broke. The same was true for other birds. Carson did not call for the elimination of pesticides but for minimizing their use to protect other species and to limit the ability of pests to develop resistance to the chemicals.

photo of Rachel Carson
Rachel Carson

Silent Spring is often seen as the launchpad for the environmental movement and for laws and regulations to protect people and nature from pollution. It led to controls and bans on a number of pesticides, notably DDT, the most notorious of the pesticides developed in the middle of the twentieth century. It changed public thinking about industrial claims that such products were safe when in fact a number were not.

Despite the many controls on specific chemicals we are still awash in pollution. The latest crisis is over so called “forever chemicals” as PFAS are widely known. These compounds, found in non-stick cookware, food packaging and water-repellent fabrics, are highly persistent in the environment. They have been found in the bloodstream of virtually every human tested. It shows that our approach to regulating hazardous substances still fails to protect us from new harmful substances. Companies have to run certain safety tests but these are clearly inadequate and we end up with dangerous substances widely dispersed in the environment and in our bodies.

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