President John F. Kennedy’s Science Advisory Council (PSAC) studied Rachel Carson’s best-selling book, Silent Spring, checking it for scientific accuracy. Kennedy read the book himself, but sought expert advice before doing anything. Meanwhile, DDT manufacturers bankrolled an extensive public relations campaign claiming DDT was safe, and suggesting Carson was less than a careful writer and scientist.
On May 15, 1963, PSAC reported: Carson was right. Pesticides were being misused, even abused, and some pesticides like DDT presented significant threats to the environment. “The Use of Pesticides” recommended increased government scrutiny of the safety and efficacy of pesticides, and vindicated Carson’s reporting of science findings.
Library of Congress described the event and its import in America’s Library, “Meet Amazing Americans”:
The Consequences of Silent Spring
Reading Carson’s book changed many people’s ideas about the environment and inspired some to take action. People wrote to their representatives in congress and asked them to do something about the misuse of pesticides. When several senators created a committee to research environmental dangers, they asked Carson to speak to them about pesticides. Carson recommended that the government regulate and reduce pesticide use, and that it ban the most toxic pesticides. She said that a citizen of the United States had the right “to be secure in his own home against the intrusion of poisons applied by other persons.”
President Kennedy understood the importance of Carson’s book. He asked his Science Advisory Committee to research Carson’s claims in Silent Spring. In 1963 the Committee released a report called “The Uses of Pesticides.” It supported Silent Spring. Environmental activists continued to push the government to regulate pesticides. Changes in federal law in 1964 required companies to prove that something did not cause harm before they could sell it. In 1972, activists pushed for and won a ban on DDT, the pesticide that started Carson’s research for Silent Spring. And in 1970 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created “in response to the growing public demand for cleaner water, air and land.” Who knows what the world would be like today if Rachel Carson had not written Silent Spring?
Some radicals argue that Rachel Carson’s legacy is tarnished, that she was in error about DDT, and somehow that translates into many deaths as a result of malaria, as if DDT worked against malaria parasites themselves. With such a strong propaganda campaign of disinformation plaguing us today, we do well to pause and remember that Carson’s work was subjected to intense, careful scrutiny by scientists from the start. Carson’s reporting was accurate, and her legacy of environmental protection and saving lives should be celebrated.
Teaching Resource: Role play simulation, “Advisory Committee on Pesticides 1963,” (see especially the list of historic and scientific resources available for study and for the simulation, from Douglas Allchin).
Updates, January 2013:
More, from 2013:
- New Rachel Carson Biography (Book Acquired, 11.13.2012) (biblioklept.org)
- Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring at 50: Catalog of tributes (timpanogos.wordpress.com)
- Rachel Carson biography, On a Farther Shore, one of best books of 2012 (timpanogos.wordpress.com)
- Margaret Atwood: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, 50 years on (guardian.co.uk)
- Scientists hate the GOP for a reason (salon.com)
- Still no ban on DDT: Treaty monitors allow DDT use to continue (timpanogos.wordpress.com)