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The Relevance of Sarah Carson's Silent Spring Nowadays

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In the middle of the twentieth century, as the world shifted focus from war to a race into the future, advances in chemical engineering and other technologies allowed mankind to confront many perceived obstacles on a scale unprecedented in the history of mankind. With manufacturing capabilities in the United States at full bore after World War II, manufacturers dispensed chemicals designed for all manner of purposes – from protecting shoes and fabrics from stains to eliminating insects feeding on crops – at breakneck pace into the public sphere. However, time would prove that initial estimates of safety for these chemicals were not accurate, that vast swaths of land were exposed to DDT or similar chemicals in attempt to control the population of a single insect, and that cheap attempts were made to dispose of chemical waste and byproducts. All these actions combined would have a vast and negative impact on our soil, water, air and the things that live within them for generations to come.

Silent Spring explores the realm of synthetic pesticides created in the 1930s and 40s as a way to control insect populations across the globe. This allowed humankind the capability to attempt control of nature itself. While the book does not wholly discount discrete and measured use of pesticides, it does outline the catastrophic dangers that the unrestrained use of these chemicals could have on nature. However, during the same period, manufacturers developed other chemicals containing a broad array of applications within the home, work, transportation, and entertainment. With so many applications, people across the world were soon surrounded by chemicals. Had the environmental impact of these chemicals been known at the time of the DDT crisis, Sarah Carson may have written of them, as well.

In Silent Spring, Carson details how manufacturers created several carbon-based chemicals for the purpose of pest control. Chemicals such as DDT, chlordane, dieldrin, aldrin and endrin replaced inorganic pesticides like arsenic, and were marketed as a safer, more effective way of controlling and exterminating pests. At this time, another carbon-based chain of chemicals was also engineered – polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances, collectively known as PFAS. PFAS were so versatile that their uses could be counted in the thousands, from providing the nonstick element in cookware, to acting as a fire retardant, to preventing fabrics from being stained. Armed with this dizzying array of applications, corporations began extolling the virtues of these modern chemicals and marketing a seemingly never-ending collection of products.

As Carson outlined her concerns for nature and for humanity in Silent Spring, she cited many cases that reinforced the gravity of the issue. In 1961, one such case took place in the Colorado River, just south of Austin, Texas. It was there in the early morning hours of January 15 that dead fish began to appear in the water of Town Lake and in the river for about five miles south. Within two weeks, dead fish were found as far as two hundred miles south of the city. Before the end of the month, the government closed the intracoastal waterway locks in an effort to prevent toxic waters into Matagorda Bay. After investigators followed the trail, they discovered the source was a chemical plant that produced several pesticides, including DDT and chlordane. When a spillage occurred at the plant, operators washed these chemicals into the storm sewer that fed into the Colorado River to save money, rather than disposing of them properly. After the city flushed the clogged storm drains, approximately ten years of chemical debris flooded into the river and resulted in a fatal effect on the ecosystem. This story is eerily similar to one involving the PFAS family that continues to impact the world today.

In 1958, the former Wolverine Shoe & Tanning Company, now known as Wolverine World Wide, introduced its Hush Puppies shoe brand – a suede leather shoe made resistant to water by the product Scotchgard, produced by 3M. One of the main ingredients in Scotchgard is a member of the PFAS family called perfluorooctanesulfonamide. This chemical breaks down into perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), which is linked to certain types of cancer, among other health issues. For many years after that, Wolverine dumped liquid waste from its Rockford, Michigan tannery into gravel pits and other dump sites in Kent County townships and cities. Despite internal studies commissioned by 3M in 1978 revealing that PFAS compounds were toxic to lab animals, they continued production and Wolverine continued to use it on their shoes. For the next 30 years, in addition to dumping this chemical waste, Wolverine also stored Scotchgard outdoors. While these methods had cost savings for the company, the effect on the immediate surroundings were dramatic. In the 1980s, when the DNR began testing local groundwater around the tannery and dump sites, they found massive levels of PFAS. Despite this discovery, Wolverine did little to change their practices and 3M would continue to use the same PFAS compound the DNR found to be so problematic. It was only twenty years later, after considerable pressure from the EPA, that 3M finally changed the Scotchgard formula to replace the PFAS compounds that had a long half-life to ones that would break down more easily. However, as recently as 2019, high levels of toxic PFAS have still been found in local groundwater, rivers, and the fish swimming in them. Local government still instruct nearby residents to avoid tap water due to high levels of contamination. Wolverine continues to face multiple lawsuits due to environmental damage and, in 2018, took legal action against 3M, its long-time chemical supplier.

Governments and manufacturers continue to move the goalpost of acceptable levels of chemical exposure. In the 1950s, after widespread use of DDT despite its known limited efficacy, the Canadian Government continued attempts to control the budworm population in the forests of New Brunswick and Quebec with it. However, they reduced the standard concentration from ½ pound an acre to ¼ pound an acre to mitigate collateral damage. During that same time, the United States still thought it was safe to use one pound per acre. Despite ongoing insistence by these chemical manufacturers and several government agencies that these compounds could be safe if kept in the range of the acceptable tolerance, environmental evidence has proven otherwise. Even today, PFAS found in Teflon and food packaging have a recommended but unenforceable acceptable tolerance range. As new research comes in, the accepted levels could change. As fat-soluble carbon-based compounds, the pesticides chronicled in Silent Spring, like DDT, were shown to accumulate in the fatty tissues of humans and animals. This is also true of the carbon-based compounds that make up PFAS. No matter what we are told are tolerable levels, the amount that is in our bodies may continue to grow even after we halt their manufacture.

With hindsight in our favor, we continue to see the impact from the publication of Silent Spring. Though most of the book’s data was available before its publication, its cumulative effect in the form of a narrative gave focus to it. After its release, the public changed their perception of chemical use and their own role in protecting the environment. With the ban of DDT, the seeds of environmental advocacy groups took root. Though the dangers of PFAS are still present, some changes have been made, like 3M modifying their formula to include more biodegradable compounds. We have a long way to go, though. PFAS are not just present in the waters of one small part of Michigan. They have already found their way into our water systems through a variety of other channels. Many of these chemicals enrich our lives and even save some. The world would inevitably be different without them. As Silent Spring made us ask about DDT and other pesticides, we too must ask of PFAS if its benefits are worth its risks. 

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