Silent Spring+50: What’s Really Changed?

The Right Chemistry

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.

The unwieldy U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act has gone unamended since its enactment in 1976. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency couldn’t even use it to remove asbestos from the marketplace. The chemical industry has stymied meaningful strengthening of the law, continuing its long tradition of pushing back against rising scientific and public concerns as chronicled in such histories as Doubt is Their Product, Deceit and Denial, and Sophisticated Sabotage. In May 2012, a series of articles in the Chicago Tribune documented the brominated chemical industry’s “decades-long campaign of deception that has loaded the furniture and electronics in American homes with pounds of toxic chemicals linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility.” The campaign included creating “a phony consumer watchdog group.” This is not the business response Carson had in mind.

Evidence has continued to accumulate linking environmental contaminants with human health disorders such as cancers; infertility; asthma; neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s; neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism; and endocrine disorders such as diabetes. Noting that exposures to even the most miniscule levels of contaminants in the womb and early in childhood can predispose vulnerable individuals to diseases later in life, environmental health advocates have been urging a precautionary approach to chemical exposure—“prevention is the cure.

Although chemical manufacturers have opposed meaningful reform of federal chemical policies, companies that use chemicals to make their products are a growing force pushing for safer chemicals. Chemical-using companies—especially consumer brands—find themselves facing a multitude of business risks. These include reputational risks, increased overhead costs to track and dispose of chemicals and to reduce exposures, litigation risks, loss of market share, and increased health care costs and reduced productivity associated with employees’ exposure to toxic chemicals at work and at home. The search for safer alternatives is also driven by the personal ethics of individual CEOs and family business owners.

Here are two prime examples of private sector drivers.

  • Hospitals and other health care providers have been strong advocates for safer alternatives, as chronicled here. They’ve begun by asking suppliers whether products contain cancer-causing chemicals or particular substances of concern such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and Bisphenol A (BPA). It’s axiomatic that companies whose job is health protection would take a precautionary approach—avoiding exposing their patients to unnecessary chemical risks. Health care providers’ tens of billions of dollars purchasing power send a strong “detoxify your products” message to manufacturers of medical supplies.
  • Companies are forming strategic partnerships with environmental health activists. They are joining hands across economic sectors to create shared strategies for reducing product toxicity and increasing disclosure of chemical hazards. For example, a core group of businesses and investors has endorsed the four Guiding Principles for Safer Chemicals of the Business-NGO Working Group for Safer Chemicals and Sustainable Materials. These include:
  1. know and disclose product chemistry;
  2. assess and avoid hazards;
  3. commit to continuous improvement; and
  4. support public policies and industry standards that advance the first three principles.

The private sector’s power to drive safer chemistry even when government regulation lags is apparent from a recent U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) action. In July 2012 FDA announced that the controversial chemical BPA can no longer be used in baby bottles and children’s drinking cups. The FDA was responding to a petition from the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the chemical industry’s main trade association. The petition was basically the equivalent of urging a farmer to close a barn door after the animals had escaped; retailers had halted sales of the products and manufacturers had stopped making them several years earlier in response to consumers’ precautionary concerns about risks to their infants and children. Since the chemical industry still argues that BPA is safe, the ACC’s petition seemed more a desire to address a festering public relations problem rather than an effort to protect public health.

The closing chapter of Silent Spring, alluding to Robert Frost’s famous poem, begins “We stand now where two roads diverge.” Carson wrote that the road emphasizing chemical control of pests “is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster.” In contrast, “The other … road, the one ‘less traveled by’—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth.” She continued that the choice “is ours to make”:

“If …we have at last asserted our ‘right to know’, and if, knowing, we have concluded that we are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us.”

The move towards safer chemistries has been painfully slow in the last 50 years. During this time, 20th century chemistry has produced many marvelous improvements in the quality of human lives. But it has left an ugly legacy of toxic waste sites and avoidable human health disorders.

Fisk Johnson, Chairman and CEO of S.C. Johnson & Son has said: “Green chemistry …is something that all of us absolutely have to do. We have to do it for the well-being of our children, and the well-being of our children’s children.” Roger McFadden, Senior Scientist and Vice-President at Staples, has suggested that chemicals of concern not only be viewed as pollutants or contaminants, but also as product defects. Sarah Severn, Nike’s Director of Stakeholder Mobilization: Sustainable Business and Innovation, has mused, “Imagine a world where we don't have to regulate toxic chemical usage and discharge because they just [don't] exist.”

Johnson, McFadden and Severn represent the growing cadre of corporate leaders—users of chemicals much more than manufacturers—calling for safer chemistries and acting upon their convictions. Avoiding a Silent Spring requires many more such champions from the corporate world, channeling and amplifying Rachel Carson.