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derrick z. jackson

50 years later, chemical barrage goes on

If Rachel Carson were alive to mark the 50th anniversary of her book “Silent Spring,” her head would spin in both wonder and anger. The evidence of her influence literally flies all around us today, because Carson documented how pesticides were polluting the environment and harming birds and other animals. She warned that a “chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life.”

Rachel Carson is seen at Woods Hole, Maine, in 1951, 11 years before she published "Silent Spring."

Her reporting led to the eventual ban in the United States of DDT and other compounds that were originally hailed as miracle weapons against disease-bearing or crop-eating insects. That gave us back the bald eagle and the perigrine falcon and returned vibrant aquatic life to ponds and waterways.

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But we never came close to stopping the chemical barrage. The evidence is abundantly clear that even as eagles soar above, Americans are poisoning themselves in unprecedented ways, with the net result being that my child’s generation may have a life expectancy less than mine. Every week seems to bring new information on how the chemicals we use for our own convenience are affecting our environment and our health — perhaps more profoundly than when Carson wrote in the early 1960s.

Just last month, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that high levels of the chemical BPA, which is used to strengthen plastic bottles and prevent corrosion in food cans, are associated with obesity. “Clearly bad diet and lack of exercise are the leading contributors to childhood obesity, but this study suggests a significant role for environmental, particularly chemical factors in that epidemic,” lead author Leonardo Trasande of New York University’s medical school told ABC News.

Meanwhile, a highly controversial new French and Italian study found more cancer in lab rats that ate corn genetically modified to resist the weed killer Roundup than in control rats. Critics say the sample size of the rats was too small, and that the type of rat used in the study develops tumors anyway. But regardless of the wisdom of genetic modification, the use of herbicides in the production of crops for humans and livestock remains worrisome at best.

Carson tried to warn us that the attempt by humans to control nature was an arrogant impulse that assumes “nature exists for the convenience of man.’’ That convenience has had devastating consequences. Our agricultural use of antibiotics on farm animals has become so universal that earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration established a new rule requiring farmers and ranchers to get prescriptions only for truly sick animals. Overuse of antibiotics can lead to the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria. Yet, at present, these drugs are widely used on livestock; as The New York Times has reported, livestock receive 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the United States.

Fifty years after “Silent Spring,” chemicals are so pervasive in our environment that researchers have found antidepressants in fish downstream from sewage treatment facilities. In its studies, the Biodiversity Research Institute in Maine continues to find extensive chemical contamination in the eggs of birds. Disturbing levels of mercury, from emissions from power plants that are blown all around the world, are still being found in canned tuna.

Carson told us that “Man is part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.’’ And that war is raging. Indeed, a proliferation of chemicals may help explain why, last month, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago announced that over the last two decades, the life expectancy for white women and white men without a high school diploma has dropped by five and three years, respectively.

If Carson were alive, she might point out that the convenience of our chemical world has actually gone from killing birds to killing ourselves.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.
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