Toxic Chemicals and the Legacy of Rachel Carson (Part 1)

…the central problem of our age has therefore become to contamination of man’s total environment with such substances of incredible potential for harm – substances that accumulate in the tissues of plants and animals and even penetrate the germ cells to shatter or alter the very material of heredity upon which the shape of the future depends.       ∼ Silent Spring, p. 18

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson wrote these words in 1962. Silent Spring is one of the most significant publications in environmental writings, because it was the first time anyone had chronicled the human health and environmental horrors of pesticides and toxic chemicals. She was a marine biologist who dedicated her life to writing about scientific research, bridging the wide gap between social sciences and life sciences. She had the unique ability to translate facts and data into compelling and influential stories. Her ability to bring environmental issues into public conscience made her a pioneer in the field of ecology and many credit her as the spark that ignited the 1960s environmental movement.

Carson was instrumental in the banning of DDT, a toxic pesticide that is the focus of Silent Spring; this marked the beginning of a long struggle against the pollution of our environment from man-made substances.

Furthermore, we should remember that Carson was working during the 1950s and 1960s. She died in 1964 from breast cancer, which she chose to keep secret because she felt it would discredit her as a scientist. Most likely, this is true. As a female scientist, she had to work even harder to prove her worth to her colleagues and to a male-dominated Congress that she would address in 1963. Thus, she is rightfully known as one of the great women in history that made waves.

Although written over half a century ago (yeah, it sounds crazy when you frame it that way), it is frightening how relevant Silent Spring remains today. At the time of publication, chemical manufacturers were well underway in their total pollution of our ecosystems.

So, how did this start? In the early 1900s, chemists began experimenting with synthetic plastics and nylons derived from petroleum. These plastics were used in abundance in military equipment during WWII as a cheap, durable, and versatile alternative to natural materials. After the war ended, the petrochemical industry turned to the consumer market to maintain profits. DuPont’s motto of “better living through chemistry” became a motto for the 1940s and 1950s as pesticides, plastics, chemical beauty products, and miracle cleaning products became all the rage. With basically zero testing before introduction to consumer markets, no one really stopped to think about how all these new chemicals would impact humans, animals, and our environment.

Most of the damage done by environmental toxins is long lasting and slow to appear. Unlike the choking smog of London during the industrial revolution, much of our pollution creeps into our soil, our water, our very DNA, and stealthily tweaks essential biological functions for generations. It has taken massive and obvious tragedies, deaths, disfigurements, and communities ripped apart for us to take any action.

One of the most famous cases, which helped instigated the formation of the EPA’s Superfund program, took place in a small town called Love Canal. The short story is that a chemical company dumped toxic waste, covered it with dirt, sold it to the town, and disaster struck after a large rainstorm in the form of chemical burns, birth defects, mental retardation, and cancer.

This is the history upon which our fight against toxic chemicals stands. While there may be irreparable damage from persistent substances in our environment, we must remember that not all threats to our existence are transparent and immediately obvious; they are however, still urgent.

In part two of this post series, I will discuss the formation of toxic chemical regulations and current policy in regard to the oversight of the personal care industry.