Sharing the work and the activism of the amazing Rachel Carson (1907-1964) on Rachel Carson Day 27 May 2016
The Power of Words: Why a book from 1962 inspires our work today. By Diana Ward
Man has put the vast majority of carcinogens into the environment and he can, if he wishes, eliminate many if them. The most determined effort should be made to eliminate those carcinogens that now contaminate our food, our water supplies, and our atmosphere, because these provide the most dangerous types of contact – minute exposure repeated over and over throughout the years.
Silent Spring 1962
RACHEL CARSON marine biologist, writer and conservationist
May 27 1907- April 4 1964
In the year 1962, Rachel Carson was not only another breast cancer statistic, but the woman whose writing skills and scientific acumen shocked the world upon publication of ‘Silent Spring’ in which her research findings of irreversible reproductive and genetic damage to aquatic-life forms resulting from the use of pesticides were presented in her signature narrative style. It is due to her ground-breaking contribution to our understanding of the ways in which manufactured chemicals including those chemicals which can affect our hormones, endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), can affect and alter the state of the environment and the life forms it sustains that we continue to honour Rachel Carson as the outstanding ‘citizen- scientist’ of the 20th century.
By 1962 Carson already had a well established reputation as the leading naturalist writer in America; firstly as a winner of a National Book Award for her earlier book ‘The Sea Around Us’ and secondly as an informative writer on a multiplicity of environmentally related topics in regularly produced articles that had wide public appeal.
However, being quite unlike anything she had written before then, ‘Silent Spring’ raised controversy in many quarters. While it gained immediate and ongoing support from her wide readership and graduated rapidly to the best seller listing, the book was met by a rising tide of condemnation and demonising criticism from her colleagues in the world of science. But the most strident reactions to both author and content came from the media and the pesticides industries.
In setting up a massive campaign aimed at discrediting both the book itself and her personal and professional integrity, the latter industry chose to overlook the fact that Carson was not calling for the outright banning of pesticides.
Having already acknowledged the need for pesticides, Carson was calling for research into the safer use of pesticides and for alternatives to the most dangerous forms then in use such as DDT. Despite a relentless barrage of oppositional forces, her cautionary message was heeded by the government of the day. In mid 1963 Carson was called by a Senate committee to provide evidence towards eventual legislation regulating the manufacture and use of pesticides with the aim of reducing levels of air and water pollution.
It was as an aquatic biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service during the 1940s and 50s that she began following, recording and assessing significant changes in the normal reproductive, developmental and behavioural patterns of shoreline dwelling creatures. Her attention to smaller aquatic life forms at the bottom of the food chain revealed the multiplier effect for life forms at higher levels, with major predictable effects for we humans in our position at the top of the chain. The changes being observed and recorded by Carson were an early warning of the future scenario for all life forms. As such they still stand as the first scientifically-based predictions of both real and potential harm to life from manmade chemicals.
Fifty years on and the shocking differences between then and now are
1. that there are many thousands more manmade chemicals being produced and released into the environment than the number developed by the smaller scale post-war chemicals industry of Carson’s time. Every day of our lives, from pre-birth to death, we eat, drink, breathe and handle countless numbers of synthetic chemicals. We wear them, we rub them onto our skin and hair, we wash ourselves, our children, our pets, our cars and clothes in them. We sit, sleep, drive, walk and run both in and on them, We spray them on our gardens, our worktops, and into the air in our living and work spaces. We clean our cars, houses, teeth and tools with them. We decorate ourselves and our homes with them. We write, paint and play with them.
They are found in a myriad formulations and measurable quantities in the seas, waterways, air, soil and bodies of every life form inhabiting our planet. The variable amounts found in the blood, fat cells and faeces of every living creature on the planet, from periwinkle to president, leave no uncontaminated population group available to science for comparative studies. While we can reduce our exposures to some introduced chemical compounds by the way we choose to live and consumer choices we make, their all pervasive presence in the very fabric of our lives and environments guarantees unavoidable lifelong exposure for all of us.
And 2 – whereas Carson’s powerful words stirred her government into regulatory action, the standard response to equally powerful words in our time (with very few exceptions), is one of entrenched indifference from key decision and policy makers in positions of authority and social responsibility. Government and industry leaders in modern world societies choose instead to remain deaf and blind; deaf to powerful words and blind to the powerfully visible, scientifically recorded and documented evidence available for all to see. All in all, an ugly display of self-serving attitudes and mindsets that, in this decade, appear slightly altered by the advent of climate change which has industry and government leaders moving slowly and hesitantly towards agreements that could deliver some measures of pollution reduction.
Before the second world war, harm from chemical exposures was linked to their use in warfare and to specific industries such as print, dye and leather. Rapid and uncontrolled post-war expansion in the use of manmade chemicals brought with it an exponential growth in risks to life, health and the environment. The three sectors of the massive modern-day chemicals industry – agricultural, pharmaceutical, industrial – which dominate the corporate world, are, between them, responsible for the development, manufacture and marketing of the tens of thousands of chemicals and chemical compounds in use today.
Chemicals have undeniable value and use in modern life. We need them, for instance, to sterilize medical equipment, to control invasive insect species and the formation of rust and mould, to remove grease and oil spills, to preserve food and to destroy harmful bacteria. What we don’t need are the vast numbers of chemicals in production that replicate those required for essential uses. Nor do we need the uncontrolled, non-stop development by the chemicals industry of non-essential synthetic chemical compounds such as plastics, food dyes, colourings and flavourings, synthetic perfumes, chemicals that extend shelf life, enhance appearance, texture and smell in products, that end up in landfills to contaminate soil and water. Above all, what we least need are chemicals that are hazardous to life, health and environment.
The chemicalised content, materials and processes used in the production, preservation, packaging and transport of every manufactured item, from television sets to toothpaste, provides clear affirmation of the grim and globally affecting outlook predicted by Carson. In the absence of regulations to enforce safety testing, the vast majority of chemicals in use today remain untested for their toxic effects on life forms and on the environment. Evidence of harm, showing active carcinogenic, mutagenic, teratogenic, reprotoxic, endocrine-disrupting, bio-accumulative and bio-magnifying properties in those that have been tested, are an ongoing cause of grave concern with regard to the unknown but potentially toxic properties in thousands of untested chemicals.
Disheartening and despairing though this unresolved situation is, we can take heart from Carson’s maxim reminding us that what has been done can be undone. In alerting us to the very real possibility of various forms of disease, malformation and malfunction afflicting every species exposed to manmade chemicals in the environment, Carson was gifting us the knowledge to restore a chemically polluted environment to one, that, with the application of such knowledge, could sustain the natural life cycles of all life forms in perpetuity. As the receivers of such a gift of knowledge from a book that is still in publication today, why is it that we are confronted by problems arising from environmental pollutants on an even vaster scale than those revealed by Carson more than 50 years ago? Have Carson’s words lost their power today?
There has been no shortage of equally powerful words of warning – both written and spoken – in the period of time since the shock effect of ‘Silent Spring’. The global environment movement that can claim to have been spawned by Carson’s words, has carried her work forward into the new century. The words and actions of well known organisations such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth as well as those of reputed scientists, ecologists and activists such as Sir David Attenborough, David Suzuki, Al Gore, Theo Colborn and Sandra Steingraber repeatedly and justifiably echo those of Carson by drawing attention to a world increasingly assailed and overcome by the uncontrolled chemical pollution and degradation of every environment on earth.
In the prevailing state of social and economic governance in which ethical concepts such as ‘the common good’ have been displaced by politically coopted market forces, we cannot afford to give up on the power of words. The choice is ours. While continuing to promote Carson’s plea for the valuing, care and protection of all life forms in our shared environment, we can use our own powerful words to expose the shocking and intolerable abdication of responsibility by governments and chemical industries alike, for our universally contaminated world and its inhabitants.
It is precisely this kind of action that is the focus of the ‘From Pink to Prevention’ campaign, with specific regard to breast cancer. It starts with a basic question asked of all those individuals, organisations and institutions with the power to make or to influence decisions affecting public and occupational health in general, and breast cancer incidence in particular – government, the chemicals industry, public health agencies, cancer charities, the cancer establishment, cancer and science research bodies, the breast cancer industry, big pharma, trade unions, and the entire corporate pink-driven industry – to explain to all the women who have had, who now have and who will have breast cancer:
WHY they persist in refusing to acknowledge the role of environmental and occupational toxicants and other factors of influence (FOIs) , e.g. shift work, in breast cancer and WHY they persist in ignoring decades of evidence up to the present day – from organisations such as World Health Organisation and the EU and other respected scientific bodies – on which the link between our lifelong (womb to grave) exposures to toxic chemicals and substances and the escalating incidence of breast cancer, among many other diseases, is based.
From Pink to Prevention shares the evidence linking environmental and occupational links to breast cancer as widely as it can, including with the major UK breast cancer charities. One of its priority areas of work is to understand and reveal the hidden agendas of the numerous vested interests that actively engage in creating barriers – barriers to the advancement of scientifically based, non-medical, non profit measures for the primary prevention of breast cancer. Why else would decades of evidence be ignored? These barriers are formed by one constant and unchanging message that has been reiterated by vested interests associated with the cancer and breast cancer industries over the past two decades. As though sung from one hymn sheet, this mantra-cum- message, persists in proclaiming lifestyle factors as the major mutable risk factor for breast cancer along with the outright denial, dismissal or denigration of any or all scientific evidence linking environmental chemical toxicants to the disease.
From Pink to Prevention exists to counter this narrowly focused, often misleading and out-dated message with a direct question asking those who perpetuate this partial understanding to explain why they persist in this practice. Carson would surely approve of such a campaign if for no other reason than the relevance for breast cancer today of her 1950s hypothesis that:
‘pesticides may indirectly aid reproductive cancers by damaging the liver. The liver is a key organ in maintaining hormone levels by breaking down oestrogens and other hormones to aid their excretion. At that time she speculated that if impaired liver function slowed this breakdown process, it could lead to abnormally high oestrogen levels. Medical science now acknowledges that Carson was correct.’ Breast Cancer: an environmental disease. The case for Primary Prevention UK Working Group on Breast Cancer 2005 p 31 (lead author Diana Ward).
This finding can be viewed as just another scientifically tested and proven fact among the many that remain unacknowledged by those vested interests who show no real interest in primary prevention (stopping the disease before it starts) and whose reach and influence also extend into some areas of medical science. It can also be viewed as a significant contribution to prevention-related knowledge. As long as both proven and strongly suspected environmental and occupational risk factors for breast cancer remain unacknowledged and unpublicised by those vested interests entrusted as advocates and providers in the treatment, care and management of this disease, women will continue to suffer and die from breast cancer in ever greater numbers.
There is only one way to view and define this long established practice among particular vested interests. It is nothing short of a wilful and collective act of failure on the part of government, industry, cancer charities and the media, to disclose crucial information that could otherwise benefit women the world over. It is a failure to act to protect life which has gone unchecked for decades and which, if allowed to go unchallenged for decades more, will only result in even greater catastrophic consequences for the health of women worldwide.
If we are to break down this and the many other barriers standing in the way of our securing the uncontaminated world that Carson sought through her work, the one recourse we still have is the power of words. It’s up to us to use them.
If you are concerned or want to take action on this issue, please sign our petition at