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‘Silent Spring’ turns 50, much work remains

It is the very first entry box in the World Watch Institute’s “Environmental Milestones” map for the last half-century.
“Marine biologist Rachel Carson,” it states in June 1962, “publishes Silent Spring, calling attention to the threat of toxic chemicals to people and the environment.”
An article in the Audubon Magazine this month marks this 50-year anniversary.
Silent Spring, it notes, launched the modern environmental movement, which, only a decade later under President Richard Nixon achieved such landmark environmental laws as the Clean Air, Clean Water, Endangered Species and National Environmental Policy Act.
An allegorical town is the setting for Carson’s exposure of the hazards of toxic chemicals in the environment.
It is a town anywhere in America, where life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings, but then “a strange stillness” descended.
Backyard feeding stations were deserted and the few birds seen anywhere were moribund. They trembled violently and could not fly.
In the fable’s town there is no more dawn chorus of robins and scores of other bird voices; instead, “only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.”
Effects on birds and other animals from chemical poisoning of the Earth may be the best known aspect of Silent Spring.
But Carson’s similar, if not stronger concern was with its threats to human health.
In protest against a campaign for chemical eradication of fire ants by the Department of Agriculture, she pinpointed the many dangers and questioned the appropriateness of the action.
“The poisons [involved] are recognized,” Carson said, “beyond possibility of denial, as extremely toxic even in minute traces. They are absorbed through the skin and other portals. They are stored in the human body, are toxic to the human nervous system and liver and almost certainly interfere with many of the basic processes of the body. The threat of the fire ant is insignificant compared with the serious and long-lasting damage inflicted” by your action for control of it.
As the Audubon article reveals, Carson had an ally in President John F. Kennedy, who admired her earlier scientific writings on ocean life.
Aware of the birth deformities in babies through the chemical thalidomide, Kennedy had awarded a public-service gold medal to another U.S. scientist, Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey, for discovering this link.
When Silent Spring was published, he established a Presidential Science Advisory Committee to study health and environment related questions about the broad use of pesticides.
The committee’s report a year later recommended a strong public-education effort by government agencies regarding toxicity and biological hazards from widespread use (even “while recognizing the value”) of pesticides.
In this seminal work, Silent Spring, Carson sought to raise awareness of the health dangers from chemical pollutants and seek protective regulation of their use.
Though these goals were realized to a significant extent through legislative and policy changes enacted in the 60s and 70s, much work to contain their menace to living systems, and to future generations, remains to be done.