Rachel Carson’s Unfinished Work: Passing the Safe Chemicals Act

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept, and sigh’d fill sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dream’d—Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream’d
On the cold hill’s side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—“La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!”

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.

– John Keats, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”

Several Sundays ago, the fates conspired to give me a gift. A friend proposed we go for an easy hike close to home, and she found the perfect place northwest of Silver Spring, the Rachel Carson Conservation Park, a small, beautiful park marked with easy walking trails and decorated this time of year by gorgeous milkweed pods.

The minute after I got in the car to drive out there, Maya fell asleep, mercifully allowing me to turn the radio on. At just that moment, WAMU was re-broadcasting a re-run of The Diane Rehm Show’s interview with William Souder, an author of a new biography about none other than Rachel Carson entitled On a Farther Shore. The interview was great, filling in a fascinating picture of Rachel Carson as a loner who lived with her mother and had a years-long romantic attachment to a female friend. She lived near Silver Spring, Maryland, when she wasn’t at Woods Hole or a seaside cottage in Maine.

Tragically, and even ironically, despite her status as a biologist, she was deceived by a sexist, paternalistic doctor about the seriousness of her own cancer, and the delay in treatment likely cost years of her life. Even as she faced death, she was savvy enough to keep the news of her illness to herself, fearing that it would cast a shadow of self-interest over the publication of Silent Spring.

It would be hard, today, to underestimate the cultural and political importance of Silent Spring. As Souder noted, it is widely credited with giving birth to the modern environmental movement as an oppositional movement of complaint about the excesses of chemicals, corporations and the lack of protective standards for health. It was the hinge on which the environmental movement turned from a Roosevelt-era conservation and stewardship mindset into a full-blown critique.

The title of the book is a brilliant reference to Keats’ poem, and to our capture by a seductive maiden tinged with death. The book made such an impact on public consciousness, and was so deeply frightening to the chemical industry, in particular, that it also occasioned the first major effort in counter-environmentalism, inspiring companies like Monsanto to organize a comprehensive public relations campaign to discredit both author and book.

In Toxic Sludge Is Good For You, John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton describe how the National Agricultural Chemical Association (now called the American Crop Protection Association (ACPA)), created a multi-layered buffer of pseudo-science front groups and PR offensives to offset the anticipated negative publicity in 1962 from publication of Silent Spring. As the recent Chicago Tribune series on the chemical industry’s use of front groups to scare lawmakers into requirements for flame retardants shows, these kinds of tactics remain stunningly common today.

So we’ve had 50 years of “malarky” on chemicals, really. Fifty years of obfuscation, delay, and ineffectual state and federal efforts to balance the benefits of certain chemicals with the threat to public health that some of them pose. Fifty years of “buyer beware” policies that expose people to chemicals first — sometimes in massive doses, such as in factories — and ask questions about their impact on our health later.

Fifty years of chemical Wac-a-mole, in which we celebrate a product becoming “BPA-Free!” (like in tomato cans) only to find out they are now using vinyl instead, thereby replacing an endocrine disrupter with a known carcinogen. Yay.

Fifty years from today, my hope is that we will look back and think of the twentieth century as the Wild West for chemicals — the painful growing pains we endured before development of a sensible system of safeguards signaled our maturity. When my daughter Maya is my age, I hope that the essentially unregulated use of chemicals throughout our agriculture and households will seem as distant a threat to her as the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire seems to us today — an unthinkably wasteful expenditure of human lives in pursuit of easy profits.

And fifty years after the publication of Silent Spring, I can’t help but think that Rachel Carson would be appalled by this state of things. Her scientific faith in rational methods would, it would seem, want us to have arrived upon a more elegant and reasonable solution. As many of her defenders have noted, even as to DDT, Carson’s criticism was balanced with an acknowledgment of its benefits for pest reduction (and malaria prevention). She urged that indiscriminate spraying was not the best use of the chemical, and should be replaced with more targeted and effective use. (Even Wikipedia has a nice write-up on this point.)

In striking such a balance, the most compelling proposals are in a law already pending today, the Safe Chemicals Act. That bill, which passed out of committee over the summer in the Senate, would create important new protections for health, while still allowing many safer chemicals to be sold. It’s similar to a law that is already on the books in Europe, in that it would require chemicals to be shown to be safe before we are all used as guinea pigs by the chemical companies.

From a fact sheet on the bill from Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families:

  • The Safe Chemicals Act improves chemical safety. For the first time, the chemical industry must develop and provide information on the health and environmental safety of their chemicals, in order to enter or remain on the market. If no information is provided, the chemical would be prohibited from use in products and workplaces. Where there is data that shows potential concern, chemicals must be proven safe before entering commerce, just as is already required of pharmaceuticals and pesticides under other laws.
  • Immediate action on the worst chemicals. EPA must immediately reduce exposure to the “worst of the worst” chemicals, specifically PBTs (chemicals that are persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic). Common PBTs include lead, mercury, flame retardants, and other toxic compounds that build up and persist in our bodies, breast milk and the environment.
  • The Safe Chemicals Act protects our health using the best science. Many toxic chemicals especially threaten the health of pregnant women, developing fetuses, babies, young children and teens. Other uniquely vulnerable groups include the elderly, people with preexisting medical conditions, workers, and low-income communities—predominantly people of color—located near chemical hot spots. When determining a chemical’s safety, EPA would be required to ensure protection of vulnerable sub-populations, such as children, pregnant women and hot-spot communities, from all sources of exposure to that chemical.
  • The Safe Chemicals Act informs the market, consumers and the public. As a consumer you have the right to know the safety of chemicals you encounter everyday. The Safe Chemicals Act requires that basic health and safety information on chemicals be made public.

And here’s how to contact your Members of Congress today to ask them to support the Safe Chemicals Act. Even if it may not pass the Senate this term, your support will be duly registered for the next session of Congress.

As we strolled around the small, sparse sanctuary named after Carson, with scratchy mouths from munching on wild persimmons tempered by the sweetness of some late-season blackberries, I couldn’t help thinking about her solitary life and intense privacy, her untimely death, her hard work and courage. As her parting act, Carson gave us all a fundamental critique of carelessness, of our lack of intention in how we do things and who we do them to.

Fifty years out, the least we can do to honor her life and legacy is to enact commonsense standards that protect wildlife and our lives from chemical excess. All politics and spin aside, it seems so simple, really, to do the two things she would ask of us: to care for one another, and to think before we act.

5 thoughts on “Rachel Carson’s Unfinished Work: Passing the Safe Chemicals Act

  1. So relieved to see your website. I was beginning to wonder if anyone else remembered Rachael Carson’s work. As the result of a vicious smear campaign, she was vilified, and her findings were downplayed by the scientific community. As a victim of toxic environmental exposures, I was appalled to find that none of my doctors were at all familiar with her name nor with any of her publications, For that, we can thank the smear campaign launched by the chemical inndustry on the publication of “Silent Spring.” This book should be required reading for all medical students. Isn’t ironic that I cannot tolerate formaldehyde and glutaraldehyde, used liberally as cleaners and sterilants in medical facilities? Two more things I cannot tolerate: ignorance and cover-ups.

  2. Wacamole. The description is adapt. I have sensitivities to chemicals (9 years now), and I’ve been thinking about this PBA thing: once a consumer finds out about PBAs, like I did, then they go out and buy all PBA free containers. But who knows whats in them? They smell strong when new but don’t ‘seem’ to affect me like other chemicals do. Still, this PBA selling point weighed heavy on my mind, and I’ve since shifted to glass. I use the plastic ones in the fridge only.

    I really like this post. I want to use some to further my research so that I can write an article at Uni next year. Thank you.

    All the best, and I wish you and your child a future free of harmful chemicals

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