Carson's 'Silent Spring' Still Making Noise

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Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring helped spark the modern environmental movement, would have been 100 years old Sunday. Her work continues to stir up controversy on Capitol Hill.


Today would have been the 100th of Rachel Carson, the scientist and writer whose book, "Silent Spring," helped spark the modern environmental movement.

After World War II, the U.S. government launched chemical spraying programs to wipe out insects and other pests by blanketing farms and even homes with pesticides. In "Silent Spring," which was published in 1962, Carson drew the connection between the pesticide use and the health of all living things including humans.

Ms. RACHEL CARSON (Scientist; Author, "Silent Spring"): We spray our elms and the following springs are silent of Robin's song, not because we sprayed the Robin's directly, but because the poison traveled step by step through the now familiar elm leaf-earthworm-Robin cycle. In river or lake or reservoir - or for that matter in the glass of water served at your dinner table - are mingled chemicals that no responsible chemist would think of combining in his laboratory.

ELLIOTT: Carson wasn't a biochemist; in fact, she had a masters in zoology from John's Hopkins and had worked as a marine biologist. But she was also a science writer. By the mid-1950s, Carson was the chief editor of publications for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the bestselling author whose book, "The Sea Around Us," had won the National Book Award.

For "Silent Spring," Carson conducted her own research, but also enlisted the help and expertise of numerous other scientists. The book ignited popular outrage. CBS newsman, Eric Sevareid, hosted the documentary about it shortly after the book came out.

(Soundbite of documentary)

Mr. ERIC SEVAREID (CBS News Correspondent): This is one of the nation's bestsellers. First printed on September 27, 2963. Up to now, 500 copies have been sold. And "Silent Spring" has been called the most controversial book of the year.

ELLIOTT: After reading "Silent Spring," both President Kennedy and Congress launched investigations into the safety of pesticides, leading to new laws restricting which chemicals could be used and how DDT was banned outright.

Carson and her work came under attack from the chemical and agricultural industries, which dismissed her as a, quote, "hysterical woman who is unqualified as a scientist." And 45 years later, Carson can still spark controversy.

Last week, Republican senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma announced he would block a proposed bill to honor Carson. He called "Silent Spring" junk science and blamed Carson's work for the deaths of millions of malaria victims worldwide.

Carson faced the same criticisms back in the '60s. Here's chemical industry spokesman Robert White-Stevens.

Mr. ROBERT WHITE-STEVENS (Spokesman, Chemical Industry): A suggestion that pesticides are in fact biocides - destroying all life - is obviously absurd. If men were to faithfully follow the teachings of Ms. Carson, we would return to the dark ages and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the Earth.

ELLIOTT: But Carson, who was described by friends and colleagues as mild mannered yet persistent, was undaunted.

Ms. CARSON: It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used. I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm. I contend furthermore, that we have allowed these chemicals to be used with little or no advanced investigation of their affect on soil, water, wildlife, and man himself.

ELLIOTT: Rachel Carson did not live to see the full impact of her work, which gave new momentum in public visibility to environmental issues, ultimately leading to the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. She died of breast cancer in 1964.

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