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Happy Birthday Rachel Carson!

(Beyond Pesticides, May 25, 2007) Rachel Carson, a timely and key voice responsible for warning the public about the dangers of chemical pesticides, would be turning 100 this weekend. Despite succumbing to breast cancer in 1964, her legacy lives on – Rachel Carson’s fight continues today, as her work is more relevant than ever.

Rachel Carson authored the seminal book of the modern environmental movement, Silent Spring, published in 1962. The book detailed detrimental effects of pesticides on the environment, focusing on bird decline and DDT use. Her message had and continues to have a profound effect, calling on people to think beyond wilderness conservation efforts when protecting the environment – to think about what is happening in every ecosystem, including our own backyards. Silent Spring was instrumental in setting off a chain of events, including Earth Day and the formation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which subsequently banned almost all DDT use in 1972.

Despite all of the honors, awards and praise that have been given in the memory of Rachel Carson, her cause continues to be controversial, especially regarding the dangers of DDT. The latest row has surfaced over claims that the decline in DDT use internationally has led to preventable malaria deaths. This stance ignores the fact insecticides lose effectiveness as insects become resistant – DDT resistance was reported as early as 1946, and that the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, a global treaty, identifies discontinued use of DDT as a priority to protect human health and the environment.

Earlier this week, Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) intended to submit a resolution celebrating the 100th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s birth. An action that has been delayed by Senator Tom Coburn’s (R-OK) stated intent to block the resolution, reports the Washington Post. Sen. Coburn has publicly blamed Rachel Carson’s work for turning public opinion against chemicals, using DDT as an example.

Last fall, environmentalists were shocked by World Health Organization officials’ announcement of a new policy encouraging the indoor application of DDT for malaria control in developing countries. Environmentalists believe that dependence on toxic pesticides like DDT causes greater long-term problems than those that are being addressed in the short-term, such as cancer and nerve damage, given that there are safer alternatives available for malaria prevention.

Indeed, these posthumous attacks on Rachel Carson neglect to take into consideration the long-term effects of her message, which are immeasurable. Her leadership has not only indirectly led to the reduction and elimination of many other toxic pesticides, but also has bolstered the call for exercising the precautionary principle in the interest of our environment, our children and our selves.

While she focused on wildlife impacts, Rachel Carson also raised many of the human health concerns of pesticides that scientists are confirming today. Not only did she lay out an eloquent explanation of the possible connection between pesticides in use then and cancer, she also described a connection with sterility, leukemia, Hodgkin’s disease, hormonal imbalances, and reproductive effects. She spoke of chemicals passing the placental barrier and affecting unborn children. She noted the increase in environmentally related diseases, and warned of combined and synergistic effects. She also made it clear that safer and more effective non-chemical controls were widely available.

Each decade since Silent Spring has brought a new generation of pesticides that manufacturers claim are safer only to find newer health and ecological impacts of concern. However the news is not all bad. The increasing abundance of organic farms, produce and landscaping products, pesticide-free landscapes, and buildings managed with integrated pest management is testimony to progress. But we need to be more persistent than ever.

It is evident that Rachel Carson’s work is just as important today as it was when Silent Spring was first published, and she will continue to inspire others, whether they be environmentalists, activists, professionals or non-profits, to continue to fight for protective measures to secure a healthy future.

Happy Birthday Rachel Carson!!!


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