Slice of History:Taking On DDT/Aug. 29, 1962
In response to a question from a reporter, President John F. Kennedy acknowledges that the federal government has begun investigating the pesticide DDT. A few days later a Science Advisory Committee is created to see if government agencies were doing all they could to reduce the potential dangers to humans and wildlife from widespread pesticide programs.
The impetus for the investigation was a three-part series that had appeared in the_New Yorker _magazine earlier that summer. Raising serious questions about the risks of synthetic pesticides and their impact of the environment, the articles were excerpted from the soon-to-be published book _Silent Spring, _written byRachel Carson, a biologist and award-winning author of books about sea life and coastal environments.
In her book Carson did not, as is often thought, call for an outright ban of DDT, the pesticide that was widely used around the world to kill disease-carrying mosquitoes and other pests. But she did warn “that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm.”
Carson described in detail how DDT entered the food chain and accumulated in the fatty tissues of animals, including human beings, and had the potential to cause cancer and genetic damage. A single application, she wrote, not only killed insects for weeks and months, but also affected other animals and could remain toxic in the environment even after it was diluted by rainwater. She concluded that DDT and other pesticides had irrevocably harmed birds and animals and had contaminated the world’s food supply.
On a broader level, Carson suggested that technology and other aspects of human progress could have harmful effects on the natural world and needed to be regulated—which is why her book is often credited with launching the environmental movement in the U.S.
Even before _Silent Spring _was published, both Carson and her publisher, Houghton Mifflin, were threatened with a libel suit by Velsicol Chemical, which suggested that “sinister forces” must be behind the book and implied that Carson was doing the bidding of the Communist leaders in the Soviet Union by trying to weaken agricultural production in the West. Others dismissed her as an old woman who liked to collect cats.
But Carson dispelled notions that she was an aging loon or zealot during an appearance the following spring on “CBS Reports.” (Three sponsors yanked their ads before the show aired.) In an interview with Eric Severeid, she presented a reasoned and science-based case for her position, and a month later the expert panel appointed by President Kennedy agreed with all of her main points.
What viewers of the program didn’t know was that Carson was very ill with breast cancer. She had kept her condition a secret because she didn’t want her contention that chemicals could cause cancer to be seen as a personal vendetta. She died in April, 1964. Eight years later, DDT use was banned in the United States.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter awarded Carson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States.
More Slices of History