My Bookshelf: Silent Spring

The book: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

I’ve mentioned this book in another post, but it very much deserves its own spot on the series My Bookshelf. This book is an essential read for anyone interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the ecological and health impacts of toxic chemicals.

This is my old, heavily used copy, printed in 1964.

Written in 1962, Carson was the first person to identify clearly the connection between our own health and our environment’s health. Silent Spring focuses on DDT primarily, but this pesticide is a vehicle for her broader message: the entire contamination of our world caused by an intense drive to control and manipulate nature to suit our immediate needs and accelerate economic growth.

Carson’s writing is unique, because she communicates scientific evidence and data through powerful stories that describe concrete experiences and occurrences in our natural world. Her writing is not fiction, but is intensely descriptive and captivating.

Silent Spring opens with a tale about a town in which the people fall ill, and all the plants and animals around them slowly wither and disappear, leaving a silent wasteland.

No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the birth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it to themselves.

The following few chapters give a detailed description of the chemistry and toxicity of several different pesticides including arsenic, DDT, Chlordane, Aldrin, and phosphates.

The next two chapters focus on pesticide contamination in water and soil. This is a primer for the subsequent several chapters, which describe the aerial spraying of pesticides in the United States, and the impacts of pesticides on birds, insects, plants, and humans. Carson cites specific instances of spraying and describes the aftermath that scientists found – dead house pets, birds falling in convulsions from the sky, dead salmon washing up on riverbanks, and lasting impacts on reproductive health in wildlife populations.

By acquiescing in an act that can cause such suffering to a living creature, who among us is not diminished as a human being?

The ending chapters turn their attention to the human health risks of exposure to pesticides, primarily in terms of rising cancer rates. Carson highlights the connections between exposure to toxic chemicals and the development of breast cancer and leukemia.

The final chapter of this book focuses on alternatives to toxic chemicals for pest management. Additionally, Carson argues for a fundamental reworking of our relationship with insects and nature, to foster appreciation and understanding of biological systems and to work in harmony with ecological processes, rather than continually fighting against them for man’s dominion over nature.

The trouble is that we are seldom aware of the protection afforded by natural enemies until it fails. Most of us walk unseeing through the world, unaware alike of its beauties, its wonders, and the strange and sometimes terrible intensity of the lives that are being lived about us.

I will be honest; this book can be a tough and sometimes heartbreaking read. Carson does not sugarcoat the travesties of toxic chemicals. However, I still think this is an incredibly important book.

You can find this book on Amazon, with a range of buying options:

I would also recommend checking any local used booksellers for copies!

Toxic Chemicals and the Legacy of Rachel Carson (Part 2): TSCA & Personal Care Industry Regulations

Post Highlights: This is a dense one, so here are the main points:

  • TSCA (1976) grandfathered in 62,000 chemicals
  • 80,000+ chemicals in use, EPA has banned 9
  • 2016 law updates TSCA, but still doesn’t regulate personal care
  • Personal care products “regulated” by industry’s CIR
  • States are taking some action to regulate industry
  • Industry constantly fighting against us: we need to fight back!

June 22nd, 2016 was a historic day. It was the day President Obama signed into law the bipartisan Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, after it passed by a landslide in Congress. This law improves the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which has never been updated since its creation 40 years ago.

TSCA has been little more than a national travesty with all of its loopholes that undermine regulators, ridiculous expectations of the EPA to evaluate chemical safety, and obvious catering to industry. First off, TSCA regulated commercially used chemicals, which means it didn’t regulate pharmaceuticals, food/food packaging, pesticides, or personal care products. Second, TSCA grandfathered in an existing 62,000 chemicals that were already in use. Third, TSCA operates under the opposite of the precautionary principleˆ. Any chemical in use before 1976 could remain in use unless the EPA found “unreasonable risk” and any new chemicals could be introduced into the marketplace without regulation unless the EPA found “unreasonable risk” for said chemicals. The problem is that the EPA had only 90 days to make a decision, and they rarely if ever had sufficient toxicological data to make an informed decision. Plus, they couldn’t require companies to conduct testing unless they had reason to believe the substance might be harmful. Seems like a bit of a catch 22 here…

As a result of TSCA’s stipulations, the EPA has investigated only a couple hundred of the 80,000 plus chemicals used today, and even worse, only 9 have been banned.

The revised TSCA law still does not provide sweeping regulation for personal care products, but it’s a huge step in the right direction.  Considering how many chemicals have multiple uses, this law could prove beneficial in reducing toxins in personal care products. The new law makes it easier for the EPA to regulate chemicals, and it requires testing for all substances. As in, the EPA is going to go back and rule on existing chemicals, and all new substances must pass safety testing before they can be used. However, it’s been about a year since this was signed into law and much has changed. The plan was that the EPA would have a few years to complete their review of substances they decided are top priority to regulate (they needed some prioritization because it would take them decades to do all chemicals in use).

Given the funding cuts, an amoral EPA director, and a federal government attempting to time travel to 1950, things may change course for this law. I’m no politician, so I don’t know the minutia of how it all works, but the EPA’s ability to evaluate and regulate environmental harm is correlated with their ability to function as an agency – with leadership, support, and money. A recent reversal from the EPA on their decision (under Obama) to ban a dangerous pesticide may be an indication of what is to come.

So where do personal care products stand under this regulation? Pretty much where they stood beforehand. There is really no government oversight for the cosmetics and personal care industry. The FDA only regulates color additives and any “personal care products” that are for medical purposes, including dandruff shampoo, anti-cavity toothpaste, and ointments. However, these products are still no safer than their un-FDA-regulated counterparts – they use the same toxic chemicals without scrutiny.

Personal care products are overseen by the Cosmetics Ingredient Review panel, which is an independent industry controlled group that reviews ingredients on a voluntary basis. Since the industry polices itself, they’ve naturally placed few restrictions in terms of ingredients; since the CIR started 30 years ago, they’ve only marked 11 ingredients as unsafe. Bottom line, this method of oversight is like the fox guarding the hen house. In her online video, Story of Cosmetics, Annie Leonard does a fantastic job of outlining the history and function of the CIR.

Although humans and ecosystems have long suffered the consequences of toxic chemical pollution, public concern over chemical regulations and product safety only started gaining traction during the past decade. Today, if you do a google search on toxic chemicals in cosmetics, you will find a plethora of articles from prominent magazines and newspapers. Toxicologists and ecologists are picking up from Rachel Carson and illuminating the damage of toxic chemicals in the environment. Organizations like the Environmental Working Group and Toxic-Free Future are working hard to push legislation that protects our health and our environment.

On a state level we are slowly making some progress, which is still faster than at the federal level. In 2005 California’s pro-business republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law the California Safe Cosmetics Act, making it the first state to require companies to disclose ingredients that may cause birth defects or cancer. In 2008, Washington State (my home!) passed the Children’s Safe Product Act that requires companies who make children’s products (personal care included) to disclose any ingredients that are on the WA State Department of Ecology’s list of chemicals of high concern to children.

While these laws don’t ban chemicals, they are a step in the right direction of corporate accountability and transparency when it comes to ingredient labeling. Some states have started banning specific chemicals, which is good, but also makes for a complex and inconsistent method of establishing safety policies in regards to our nation as a whole.

If you’re interested in learning even more, here are some great resources about human and ecological impacts from toxic chemicals, consumer safety, and personal care policy reform:


ˆ Denotes a term that is defined/explained under the terms/concepts/glossary page of blog. Symbol found following the word the first time it’s used in a post.

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.