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'Silent Spring' Turns Fifty

  • Zulima Palacio

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Fifty years ago, Rachel Carson wrote and published Silent Spring. Carson was ahead of her time. She said pesticides like DDT were damaging the environment and human health. Although the book became an inspiration for the environmental movement, the battle for the environment continues.

In the 1950s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was spraying more than a quarter-million kilograms of pesticides each year. Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, revealed that pesticides like DDT were lethal not only for insects but for all living things.

Silent Spring essentially told the reading public that human beings could alter the natural world in ways that were quite deadly and that it could be potentially lethal to human beings as well as to other parts of the natural world,” said Linda Lear, the author of a biography on Carson.

More than six million copies of the book have been sold in the U.S. It's been translated into some 30 languages.

In the Washington suburbs, the house where Carson wrote Silent Spring is now a National Historic Landmark.

Carson was a pathbreaker.

“In Silent Spring, she is writing in a voice that I call apocalyptic writing," added Linda Lear. "She is trying to sound an alarm to get our attention.”

Thirty years after Silent Spring was published, public television, in its program The American Experience, called the book one of the most important of our time.

But there were dissenters. Norman Borlaug, the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize winner, led the defense of pesticides.

“We’re having troubles now feeding this hungry world," said Borlaug. "If you remove DDT with the hysteria that is present in the USA, the U.S. will be importing food, only there won’t be any place from where to import it.”

By 1972, DDT was banned for agricultural use in the U.S. But thousands of new chemicals were being developed.

For years, the U.S. Senate's Committee on the Environment has been trying to ban or control hundreds of chemicals from agricultural products and consumer goods.

"This committee heard from CDC [Centers for Disease Control] officials who told us their scientists found 212 industrial chemicals, including six carcinogens, coursing through Americans’ bodies," said Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg.

In 2006, the World Health Organization announced plans to use DDT again - indoors - in its campaign against malaria.

Syngenta is a major producer of agricultural chemicals. Like others in the industry, it says its chemicals are safe if used properly.

"We try to do every single study that is necessary to support the safety characteristics of the product." said Tim Pastoor, the company's principal scientist.

Fifty years after Silent Spring, millions of kilograms of new pesticides and other chemicals are being sprayed across US farmlands. And the environmental movement is still fighting back.
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