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.

Fermenting Dissent (with Determination, Cabbages and Salt)

Later this week, I’ll post about the news on toxics out of the U.S. Senate, which last week passed the Safe Chemicals Act out of committee on a party-line vote. I’m scanning the testimony, much of which is worth a gander. Really, the Safe Chemicals Act is a bit of a no-brainer, so it’s terribly disappointing to see partisan political deadlock on something so common-sense and fundamental to health.

Andy Igrejas, Campaign Director for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, wrote a great piece highlighting the problems for Republicans and the chemical industry if they continue obstructing progress on this issue. As he points out, educated consumer demand and our skepticism about the safety of products is a real threat to corporations when so many serious questions remain about the chemicals in our products and food. So keep asking questions, my friends, and letting the companies know we are all watching and taking names.

When life is such a mix of sweet and sour, that always feels like an invitation to pickle something. And over the weekend, a golden (or really purple) opportunity presented itself when my new pal Sharon offered to teach me how to make sauerkraut the old-fashioned way.

Here’s what the Nourishing Traditions cookbook says about the power of pickled cabbage:

Captain Cook loaded 60 barrels of sauerkraut onto his ship. After 27 months at sea, 15 days before returning to England, he opened the last barrel and offered some sauerkraut to some Portugese noblemen who had come on board….This last barrel was perfectly preserved after 27 months…and had also preserved sufficient quantities of vitamin C to protect the entire crew from scurvy.

Fermented foods are terrific for health, as they help to balance out the elaborate ecosystems in our gut. Traditional diets around the world use fermented foods far more frequently than we do in the Western diet, where half-limp dills tend to be the only sign of a once-robust spread of zingy condiments.

From kefir to kimchi to kombucha, miso to mango pickle, preserved lemons to pickled beets, fermented foodstuffs are commonplace in other cuisines, and are considered essential to good digestion. In my husband’s native India, meals typically included at least three kinds: intensely spiced pickles of many flavors, as well as fresh-made, live bacteria yogurt (or “curd”) and buttermilk.

Don’t tell the drug companies, but it turns out that making a high-powered new ecosystem to better service one’s digestive plumbing is simple, fun and deeply satisfying. Under Sharon’s expert tutelage, we drank some wine — fermented again! — and kneaded stringy pulpy cabbage pieces until they gave up their water and our hands were stinging from the salt. It was a wonderful and relaxing way to spend our daughters’ nap time on a summer afternoon. Below I provide all the details so that you, too, can share in the fun.

Sharon’s Easy Sauerkraut

Ingredients:

1 head (organic) cabbage

1 Tbl Celtic Sea Salt per head (you want pure, high-mineral salts for this)

Optional: Pickling spices

Optional: a small amount of whey, to jump-start the fermentation (more on homemade yogurt in a future post)

Directions:

Chop cabbage into chunks and then into fine strips and place in a large bowl.

Optional: Sip your wine. Laugh and talk. Discuss the cool new cookbook on fermentation that just made the Amazon bestseller list.

Wash your hands well and add 1 generous Tbl of sea salt per head of chopped cabbage.

Get your hands in there and squeeze and knead the salt into the cabbage. It will begin to give up its water and you’ll learn all about any small cuts and hangnails you may have. After about 12 minutes of kneading, it was limp and beautiful, and about half the volume.

If you like, add the pickling spices at this stage and knead them in a bit.

Stuff the proto-sauerkraut into a crock, glass jar or other non-toxic container (Note: Ball jar metal lids, and most other metal lids, have a coating of BPA on them!) and push it down so that the surface of the cabbage is below the water it has generated. Add the whey in this process if using it.

Leave some room for more water to develop at the top (mine started to leak violet juices after a day when not enough room was preserved).

Cover, put it somewhere where it will stay around 70 degrees F. Wait anxiously for 4 to 7 days before opening and sampling your creation.

After opening, store it in the refrigerator, where it will keep for a month or more. Makes about 3 and 1/2 cups of royal purple goodness. Serve over greens, next to sausage, in soups, or just as a nice condiment.

If you have variations on this recipe, other additions, or great ideas for how to use and serve sauerkraut, please share them in the comments!

Stroller Brigade for the Safe Chemicals Act

Today before work, I stopped by the Capitol to check out the National Stroller Brigade in support of the Safe Chemicals Act (S. 847), a bill to reform chemical safety and protect families introduced last year by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D.-NJ), with the strong support of Sen. Dick Durbin (D.-Ill.) and others.

Sen.’s Lautenberg and Durbin were there, of course, along with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D.-NY), as well as children, parents and activists from all around the country, including Michigan, Maine, and New York. It was a heartening show of support, kicked off by words of encouragement from Andy Igrejas, of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition that is leading the push for the legislation.

Sen. Lautenberg pointed out that the current chemical reform law is badly broken, given that of the more than 80,000 chemicals on the market today, only 200 have even been investigated. Sen. Durbin recalled his days in the U.S. House of Representatives, decades ago, when he teamed up with Sen. Lautenberg (he’s been in the Senate for a long time!) to pass a new law that took on the tobacco industry to get a federal limit on cigarette smoking on airplanes (remember that??), saying that this singular action to emphasize the health hazards of smoking became a tipping point in the national discourse on cigarettes. If they could do it then up against Big Tobacco, he said, we can do this now on chemicals.

Sen. Schumer quoted his mother, who evidently is a wise woman: “You’re only as happy as your least happy child,” she told him. He went on to speak sympathetically about families grappling with childhood illnesses, like asthma and other conditions, linked back to toxic chemicals, and to describe the effort for the bill as a way to ensure that no more families and children needlessly suffer these health impacts.

A mom from Michigan with three young sons, Polly Schlaff, who lost both her husband at age 33 and other family members to non-genetic forms of cancer, also spoke very movingly, saying that, as a mom, she can’t “un-know” what she knows to be the truth about chemicals and health. And although she now knows better, she said, she can’t do better without government action to make the world safer for families and children.

And last, Hannah Pingree, former Speaker of the House in Maine, wrapped up the program, talking about her own body burden test, which showed that, despite the fact that she lives on a rural island in Maine, there are hundreds of chemicals in her body, many known to be health-threatening.

Virtually everyone talked about the Chicago Tribune series last week, the despicable tactics of the chemical companies and their link to similar malfeasance by the tobacco lobby. The solution to the problem, of course, is a far stronger federal law that requires companies to test chemicals to determine their safety and health impacts before letting them into products and our bodies.

What You Should Know About the Safe Chemicals Act

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.

Sounds pretty great to me. Now, we just have to get Congress to pass it.

Are your Members of Congress supporting the Act?

Here are the Senate cosponsors:

Sen Begich, Mark [AK]
Sen Blumenthal, Richard [CT]
Sen Boxer, Barbara [CA]
Sen Durbin, Richard [IL]
Sen Feinstein, Dianne [CA]
Sen Franken, Al [MN]
Sen Gillibrand, Kirsten E. [NY]
Sen Kerry, John F. [MA]
Sen Klobuchar, Amy [MN]
Sen Leahy, Patrick J. [VT]
Sen Menendez, Robert [NJ]
Sen Merkley, Jeff [OR]
Sen Murray, Patty [WA]
Sen Sanders, Bernard [VT]
Sen Schumer, Charles E. [NY]
Sen Tester, Jon [MT]
Sen Whitehouse, Sheldon [RI]

If your lawmakers are already on the bill, great! Thank them for their support, as they are the ones that have to push this forward.

One thing I notice about this list? No Republicans. Yet consumer safety and the health of families should be a bipartisan concern. Here’s how to contact your Members of Congress today, and ask them to support the Safe Chemicals Act.

My postscript: Sen. Lautenberg and Sen. Durbin have been working together a long time, and it’s a pleasure to watch such collegiality and warmth. I’ve also worked with them (or really, their staff) for years, and I can honestly say that they are both incredibly smart and caring, as well as right on the issues. Politicians get such a bad rap for being craven, and it’s mostly well deserved. At a time in which finger pointing and polarization is more the norm, the clear mutual regard and affection between these two Senators shows that it doesn’t have to be that way, and is certainly something that people outside Washington should see about the very best among our lawmakers: