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← How one scientist took on the chemical industry - Mark Lytle

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Showing Revision 1 created 03/16/2020 by lauren mcalpine .

  1. In 1958, Rachel Carson received a letter
  2. describing songbirds suddenly dropping
    from tree branches.
  3. The writer blamed their deaths
    on a pesticide called DDT
  4. that exterminators had sprayed
    on a nearby marsh.
  5. The letter was the push
    Carson needed to investigate DDT.

  6. She had already heard from scientists
    and conservationists who were worried
  7. that rampant use of the pesticide
    posed a threat to fish, birds,
  8. and possibly humans.
  9. She began to make inquiries
    through government contacts
  10. from her years working
    in the United States Bureau of Fisheries.
  11. She asked: “what has already silenced
    the voices of spring?”
  12. In 1962, Carson published her findings
    in "Silent Spring."

  13. Her book documented
    the misuse of chemicals
  14. and their toll on nature
    and human health.
  15. "Silent Spring" immediately drew both
    applause and impassioned dissent—
  16. along with vicious personal attacks
    on the author.
  17. How did this mild-mannered biologist
    and writer ignite such controversy?
  18. Carson began her career
    as a hardworking graduate student,

  19. balancing her studies in biology
    at John Hopkins University
  20. with part time jobs.
  21. Still, she had to leave school
    before completing her doctorate
  22. to provide for her ailing father
    and sister.
  23. Carson found part time work
    with the Bureau of Fisheries
  24. writing for a radio program
    on marine biology.
  25. Her ability to write materials that could
    hold the general public’s attention
  26. impressed her superiors,
    and in 1936,
  27. she became the second woman
    to be hired at the Bureau full time.
  28. In 1941, she published
    the first of three books on the ocean,
  29. combining science with lyrical meditations
    on underwater worlds.
  30. These explorations resonated
    with a wide audience.
  31. In "Silent Spring,"
    Carson turned her attention

  32. to the ways human actions
    threaten the balance of nature.
  33. DDT was originally used during
    World War II to shield crops from insects
  34. and protect soldiers
    from insect-borne diseases.
  35. After the war, it was routinely sprayed
    in wide swaths to fight pests,
  36. often with unforeseen results.
  37. One attempt to eradicate fire ants
    in the southern U.S.
  38. killed wildlife indiscriminately,
    but did little to eliminate the ants.
  39. In spite of this and other mishaps,
    the US Department of Agriculture

  40. and chemical companies
    extolled the benefits of DDT.
  41. There was little regulation or public
    awareness about its potential harm.
  42. But Carson showed how
    the overuse of chemicals
  43. led to the evolution
    of resistant species—
  44. which, in turn, encouraged the development
    of deadlier chemicals.
  45. Since DDT does not dissolve in water,
  46. she asserted that over time
    it would accumulate in the environment,
  47. the bodies of insects, the tissues
    of animals who consume those insects,
  48. and eventually humans.
  49. She suggested that exposure to DDT
    might alter the structure of genes,
  50. with unknown consequences
    for future generations.
  51. The response to "Silent Spring"
    was explosive.

  52. For many people the book
    was a call to regulate substances
  53. capable of catastrophic harm.
  54. Others objected that Carson
    hadn’t mentioned DDT’s role
  55. controlling the threat insects
    posed to human health.
  56. Former Secretary of Agriculture
    Ezra Taft Benson demanded to know
  57. “why a spinster with no children
    was so concerned about genetics?”
  58. and dismissed Carson
    as “probably a Communist.”
  59. A lawyer for a pesticide manufacturer
    alluded to Carson and her supporters
  60. as “sinister influences”
    aiming to paint businesses as “immoral.”
  61. In reality, Carson had focused
    on the dangers of chemicals

  62. because they weren’t widely understood,
    while the merits were well publicized.
  63. She rejected the prevailing belief
    that humans
  64. should and could control nature.
  65. Instead, she challenged people
    to cultivate
  66. “maturity and mastery, not of nature,
    but of ourselves.”
  67. Carson died of cancer in 1964,

  68. only two years after
    the publication of "Silent Spring."
  69. Her work galvanized a generation
    of environmental activists.
  70. In 1969, under pressure
    from environmentalists,
  71. Congress passed
    the National Environmental Policy Act
  72. that required federal agencies to evaluate
    environmental impacts of their actions.
  73. To enforce the act,
  74. President Richard Nixon created
    the Environmental Protection Agency.
  75. And in 1972, the EPA issued
    a partial ban on the use of DDT.
  76. Long after her death, Rachel Carson
    continued to advocate for nature
  77. through the lingering impact
    of her writing.