Silent Spring Spurs Sore Fingers

Lately I’ve been thinking about the book "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson. Here in Cleveland the weather has been mild so I’ve been puttering around the yard pulling weeds to get ready for summer. As my fingers start to show signs of too many brushes with the patio bricks to snare the unwanted dandelion, I’ve entertained the thought of spraying weed killer. Last year I had a yard-maintenance company come to my house to fertilize and apply weed killer. While my fingers thanked me, I was alarmed when my Henry Sweetspire shrub was void of honeybees. Normally the shrub is alive with motion. That’s when Silent Spring popped into my mind.

According to a commemorative booklet produced by the National Historic Chemical Landmarks program of the American Chemical Society, in "Silent Spring," Carson assembled information on chemicals used in aerial sprayings, in industrial settings and on food to characterize the impacts of these agents in ecological terms. The years following the controversy over Silent Spring saw the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the passing of numerous laws protecting the environment and human health, including a ban on domestic use of DDT in 1972 due to its widespread overuse and harmful impact on the environment.

In 2012, "Silent Spring’s" 50th anniversary, Mark Rosenzweig’s column highlighted the book’s impact: Chapter 1, A Fable for Tomorrow, presents a foreboding scenario — a town in America robbed of its vitality by the thoughtless actions of its people. Birds had disappeared, fish had died, and plants and trees had withered. Chapter 3, Elixirs of Death, explains how this could happen. It starts: "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." Carson is railing against the unchecked use of synthetic pesticides, particularly DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane). The chapter ends: "We are rightly appalled by the genetic effects of radiation; how then, can we be indifferent to the same effect in chemicals that we disseminate widely in our environment?"

Since the publication of "Silent Spring," the chemistry discipline has grown to include green chemistry—the design, development, and implementation of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of substances hazardous to human health and the environment.

Indeed, Chemical Processing ran a story, Design Out Endocrine Disruptors, that points out that scientists have developed a test to ensure products are free of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. These chemicals can cause adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological and immunological effects in humans and other animals. The article’s author, Seán Ottewell, sites "Silent Spring" as a catalyst for this development.

This year I will forgo well-manicured hands in hopes that the honeybees come back to my yard. I also plan to re-read "Silent Spring." Here’s to buzzing bees.


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Traci Purdum is Chemical Processing’s senior digital editor and manual weed eradicator. She knows she should don garden gloves but prefers to get her hands dirty. You can email her at tpurdum@putman.net.