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Rachel Carson's AHA! Moment, Chapter 8 - all chapters at www.bryantwieneke.com/blog

8. Sadly, Rachel’s family situation changed in November 1958, when Maria suffered a stroke. She died a few days later from pneumonia.

Rachel had always been close to her mother. Maria had nurtured Rachel’s imagination and love of nature when she was a child, and she had typed many of her daughter’s papers over weekends when she was at PCW. Despite not feeling well much of the time as she aged, Maria always had time for tender moments with Rachel, reliving memories or talking about whatever aspect of nature Rachel was exploring. They almost never delved into the pesticide situation, which Rachel studiously avoided because it was such a depressing topic, but there was still plenty to discuss.

Rachel took a few months off from writing, but not from reading. She had received voluminous material relating to a lawsuit filed in Long Island, including data from a respected physician that showed a link between chemical pesticides and cases of leukemia and lymphoma. Nonetheless, the court had ruled that the state acted legally – and effectively – in spraying for the gypsy moth.

It was a disappointing decision, but Rachel knew the courts were loath to place obstacles in the way of operations like this, especially given the zeal with which governments and landowners were using these chemicals. The problems they were addressing with the pesticides were not the type that could wait a year or two for scientists to study the situation.

Overall, the Long Island case provided insight into the kind of resistance Rachel might encounter in writing her book. She was not deterred, however, and did recognize a bit of good news in the Long Island case. Although the court dismissed this particular lawsuit, it did uphold citizens’ rights to request injunctions against potential environmental damage.

Rachel decided that the best course of action for her was to write her book and do it quickly. However, she was not a fast writer, even in the best of times, and this was not the best of times. She often found herself tired and slightly depressed these days. The loss of her mother had affected her deeply. And while she loved Roger as much as if he was her biological child, the demands of raising a very active boy could be exhausting.

And, of course, learning all the negative information about pesticides, and their impact on nature, was distressing. In the short time she had been devoted to researching the topic, she had become convinced that it was nothing less than a crime against nature to use pesticides in the indiscriminate way in which they were being used, without any understanding of the short- and long-term effects.

At the same time, there was another threat to nature being perpetuated in the mid-twentieth century: nuclear testing. It was the height of the Cold War, and the two primary nuclear powers were trying desperately to gain an edge in the race to nuclear superiority. Of course, the other nuclear powers were also testing nuclear weapons, but they were a drop in the bucket compared to the U.S. and U.S.S.R.

Testing began with the U.S. detonating the world’s first atomic bomb on July 16, 1945 in Alamogordo, New Mexico. After dropping bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to bring the war in the Pacific to an end, the U.S. conducted six tests between 1946 and 1949. When the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb in August 1949, the Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. had begun, leading to many more tests. The U.S. opened the Nevada Test Site in January 1951.

The mushroom clouds of the atmospheric tests could be seen from a hundred miles away and were a source of amazement to the spectators who sometimes traveled great distances to see this scientific wonder. At the time, there was very little understanding of the effects of the radioactivity caused by the blasts or by the so-called “fallout,” as the radioactive elements, often Iodine-131, soared into the atmosphere. They could be carried by high-altitude winds all the way across the United States and beyond.

In 1953 a nuclear bomb was exploded at the Nevada Test Site. In St. George, Utah, 135 miles away, cancer rates soared almost as high as the mushroom cloud.

A huge problem, as Rachel Carson saw it, was that little, if any, of these effects had been studied by the government before conducting the nuclear tests. When she saw Dorothy that summer in her cottage at Southport, Rachel sat at her dining table and watched through the window as Roger played in the front yard.

“It’s very similar to the situation with pesticides,” Rachel said, frustration evident in her voice. “The government is so eager to develop these dreadful bombs that they don’t take the time to understand the dangers.”

“I suppose they’ll say it’s a matter of self-defense,” Dorothy replied. “I mean, the Soviet Union has an atomic bomb now, too.”

“I know, and there’s nothing wrong with national defense, just like there’s nothing wrong with the farmers wanting to protect their crops. All I’m saying is that they should do it safely.”

“I certainly agree with that.”

“These bombs are so ridiculously powerful, it’s hard to imagine. They blow their radioactivity way up into the atmosphere and have no idea where it goes. I mean, they have some idea because the people living in St. George are apparently getting cancer because of it.”

“That’s horrible,” Dorothy said, with an aggrieved expression. “Do they really believe people in Utah can get cancer from a test in Nevada?”

“I think it’s possible people in Iowa, New York and North Carolina can get cancer from these tests because that mushroom cloud goes so high that the radioactive particles get caught in the upper-atmosphere winds and blow across the country. When those particles land, people breathe them in, and its well-known that radioactive particles can cause cancer.”

Rachel shook her head.

“These particles land on the grasslands where cows graze, and as a result, they’ve found radioactivity in cow’s milk. The particles also land on farmland and do not come off easily, so that people ingest them when they eat anything else that grows on a vine or in a tree.”

“Is that true?”

“Many scientists believe it’s true, and they have evidence, but again, just like the pesticide use, the government doesn’t want to hear it. They explain it away in all sorts of ways, but until real tests are done – I mean, statistically significant tests by real scientists – we won’t know and don’t know.”

Dorothy looked at Rachel in amazement. She picked up an apple that was lying in a bowl on the table where they sat.

“You mean, this apple . . .”

“Could be contaminated, yes.”

Dorothy frowned at the apple, as if she might never eat another one.

With these thoughts in her mind, Dorothy seemed extremely concerned when both Rachel and Roger became ill later in the summer of 1959, but there were more mundane explanations. Roger had a cold, and Rachel had an ulcer.

“No wonder,” Dorothy said, as she spent many hours tending to her neighbors, bringing them food and tending to their needs. “With all that concern about radioactivity and pesticides poisoning everything we breathe and drink and eat.”

Back on topic, Rachel pressed on and continued to gather information regarding the effects of pesticide use. She was now communicating with some of the leading researchers in the nation, many of whom had done valuable and telling research that the government not only had not done, but seemed to be ignoring as pesticide use continued to grow in the United States. Most of this research was not even being published in scientific journals, much less in periodicals read by the average person on the street.

It was becoming more difficult to organize all this material into a coherent presentation of the dangers of pesticides, which Rachel realized was the central theme of her work. Dorothy and Stan tried to help while Rachel was in Southport, but there was little they could do. Nor could Marie or Paul offer much more than general suggestions.

Rachel returned to Silver Spring in the autumn and continued to put the pieces together. Part of her challenge in organizing the material was that she wanted the presentation to be balanced, to be fair to the pesticide companies and, especially, the farmers who were literally responsible for putting food on Americans’ table. But she realized that the benefits of pesticides had been so heralded by its benefactors that only a loud voice on the other side could possibly be heard.

Rachel Carson, the scientist, had to go where the data led. And more and more, with all the evidence she had collected – by traveling to east coast sites of pesticide contamination when possible, or by communicating with scientists who had studied these sites – she found herself heralding a strong cautionary note about the use of these powerful chemicals to eradicate pests.

She would absolutely, positively not write that all pesticides should be banned. She did not believe that. But she did believe that they had to be used in moderation with full understanding of the side effects. She was also convinced that mitigation efforts needed to be put in place to eliminate, or at least reduce, any negative effects on the environment.

So, Rachel continued to slog through the material, day after day, week after week, month after month. Her active mind jumped from one case to the other, depending on a news story that she had heard or the information that she had received. And she tried to tell a story, a coherent story that would be fair and reasonable, but would also be a loud and clear call to action for effective management of chemical pesticides.

After her introductory fable in the first chapter of the book, Rachel Carson considered how best to make the case that the unregulated use of chemical pesticides was doing irreparable harm to America. Without realizing it, humans were changing the balance of nature in a dangerous way, and this self-poisoning mirrored the damage being done through the testing of nuclear weapons.

She explained that the chemical pesticides being used across the nation to rid croplands, forests and gardens of insects and weeds was contaminating that very land we were trying to protect. Then these toxic substances seeped through the soil and entered underground streams. They poisoned all types of vegetation in the process and ultimately contaminated the drinking water of both domesticated and wild animals, as well as the drinking water of humans.

In other words, these toxic substances got into the earth’s bloodline, then they got into ours.

As a biologist, Carson had always been amazed at the ability of nature to accommodate change and achieve a balance. She wondered, however, if that was a thing of the past. Hundreds of these powerful and toxic “synthetic creations” were produced each year and distributed across the country without any monitoring of why or how they were being used.

How could anyone expect Nature to adjust to that kind of chemical killing spree? They were so deadly to the biosphere that she suggested they be called “biocides” instead of “insecticides” or “pesticides”. And the reality was that the intended targets of these chemicals were often able to adapt, over time, to the toxic substance. The experience with DDT had demonstrated this fact. Thus, it was necessary to find ever more powerful and toxic substances to control the pests.

Carson would point out that there were often natural alternatives to this chemical “barrage”. Depending on the nature of the infestation or aggressive plant invasion, measures such as crop rotation or variation in the type of tree planted, or other natural measures, could be just as effective as synthetic ones. Maybe even more effective because the insects might never come in the first place if these natural measures were taken up front, not after the fact.

The trend, however, was away from such natural remedies. Chemical pesticides were being detected not only where they’d been sprayed, but in secondary locations like the bodies of fish, birds, reptiles, and domesticated, as well as undomesticated, animals.

This was a very disturbing development. Chemical pesticides had not been around that long. They originated in the chemical weapons produced in World War II, protecting the soldiers against harmful insects. Arsenic was a basic ingredient in many weed and insect killers. The products made from these potent substances became much more powerful by 1962, not only killing insects, but being spread through the environment and into living creatures, destroying the enzymes that protect the body of animals, including humans, and blocking the oxidation process. They could prevent the normal functioning of organs and, apparently, cause cell mutation.

In other words, cancer.

There were two major groups of chemicals used for weed and pest control: the chlorinated hydrocarbons, which included the well-known DDT, and the organic phosphates, which included malathion and parathion. All of them had carbon as a basic element, and there was wide disagreement – in other words, ignorance – of how much exposure to these substances was “safe”.

However, the potential for damage when used indiscriminately in nature had been proven over and over again. Scientists knew that DDT was passed on through links in the food chain and that heptachlor could be breathed in or enter through the skin of some mammals.

A pesticide called endrin was especially dangerous when it was sprayed into orchards or farms. It killed fish, poisoned wells and got into the groundwater.

It was estimated that enough parathion had been used on American fields to kill five to ten times the world’s population, so it was fortunate that it decomposed rapidly, which of course did not help those applying this chemical to the fields.

Products containing malathion were commonly used in American gardens and households to combat mosquitoes and fruit flies.

It was not understood what effect mixing these chemicals might have on the environment or the people applying them, nor did anyone know how these chemicals might interact with the drugs people were taking if they happened to ingest microscopic quantities of the chemicals.

All in all, the preponderance of chemical pesticides and insecticides, or biocides, presented a formidable challenge to the environment and everyone and everything in it, not just the unwanted plants or insects being targeted. With the unregulated use of these compounds, humans were contaminating the land and water that sustained life and, by extension, themselves.

In order to make the connection between chemical pesticides and insecticides and harm to the environment, especially animals, Rachel decided she needed to explain how cells worked and how toxic chemicals affect them. She did her best not to make it too complicated, but she had the ability to describe complicated processes in an accessible and easily understood manner. Still, it was a challenge to liven up this section.

Then she had to take the next step and do her best to describe how cancer worked and how it might be the logical consequence of using these chemicals. She called cancer’s distortion of the natural cell division process “alien and destructive”. After reading many different reports from experts in the field, she wrote the following: “In terms of evidence gained from animal experiments we shall see that five or possibly six of the pesticides must definitely be rated as carcinogens.”

It was a strong statement that she backed up with references to the research material she had amassed. She used arsenic, a common ingredient in pesticides and well-known as a carcinogen, as an example. She also provided anecdotal evidence of cancer in humans from long-term or intense exposure to pesticides, though she was frustrated in not being able to show conclusive evidence that DDT caused cancer in humans.

All she could do was write up the evidence she had as comprehensibly and accessibly as possible and hope that intelligent readers would draw their own conclusions. As for her personal opinion, there could be no doubt about the connection between cancer and the chemicals used as pesticides and insecticides. The relevant questions, in her mind, revolved around how much exposure was too much. No one knew, and she expressed the opinion that it was irresponsible to proceed until we did.

After the cancer sections, Rachel addressed the threat to nature. She was back in her element as she described her view of how nature worked, the interconnectedness of the various parts and the symbiotic relationship among all living things. An assault on any of these parts threatened the integrity of the system, and both nuclear weapons testing and the widespread use of chemicals on the earth were just that kind of assault.

She went on to tout the effectiveness of what she called “biological” solutions for insect or unwanted plant invasions. Among many examples, she cited the successful eradication of screw-worms in Florida through the release of sterilized screw-worms from an Agriculture Department lab. She also wrote about other successful natural methods, including the use of sound waves, bacterial insecticides, importing of natural enemies, and many other natural techniques.

Rachel stated that humans had a tendency in the mid-twentieth century to try to control nature, but wrote that “. . . the ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance.” The passion for chemical poisons does not show respect for nature’s life forces and the way these chemicals were being used did not attempt “. . . to achieve a reasonable accommodation between the insect hordes and ourselves.”

The chemicals were just so easy.


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