Silent Spring+50: What’s Really Changed?

Silent Spring burst into American consciousness 50 years ago this month. Despite a massive pesticide industry campaign to discredit both the book and its author, it dramatically raised public awareness about the risks of 20th century chemistry and catalyzed contemporary environmentalism. If you’re moved by the sight of bald eagles, ospreys and brown pelicans — not to mention healthy humans —thank Rachel Carson.

Carson argued that heavy-handed pesticide use was endangering natural systems and humankind. She recognized the need for pest control but urged use of safer alternatives: “Methods [to control insects] must be such that they do not destroy us along with the insects.” When she noted the average human “almost certainly starts life with the first deposit of [a] growing load of chemicals,” she presciently identified the problem of prepolluted babies. Roughly 300 contaminants have now been found in babies’ umbilical cords.

If Carson were writing today, she might not limit herself to pesticides but might ask more broadly, can we construct healthier buildings without using cancer-causing materials or toxic heavy metals, design fire-safe consumer products without using toxic flame retardants made from bromine or chlorine, or sell automobiles whose new car smell isn’t hazardous to our health?

Carson also might have opted to write a business book. While her intended audience in the 1960s was the general public and their political representatives, these days the center of gravity has shifted to companies and their suppliers, whose influence in many instances far outweighs the others.

So, how much progress has been made in the last 50 years to phase out the nastiest chemicals and bring safer alternatives to market? The bad news is the U.S. government has moved at a snail’s pace to address chemical hazards in everyday products. The good news is that over the last decade or so, private-sector companies have begun to take up some of the slack—increasingly demanding and securing safer chemicals for the products they sell—and this pace is accelerating.

Next page: Prevention is the cure