Have we learned our lesson?Silent Spring by Rachel Carson was published. This book warned about the lethal and persistent effects of the pesticide DDT. This book, while in some ways outdated, remains a classic not only for its role in inspiring environmental stewardship, but also because although DDT has been banned in the United States, as a society we still enthusiastically embrace a whole suite of chemicals that end up in our air, water, and soil (and ultimately in animals and ourselves). And we still tend to trust that they are perfectly safe.
In fact, testing of pesticides and other chemicals is focused specifically on active ingredients used in certain amounts and circumstances. Many people use chemicals in ways not intended by the manufacturers, in amounts beyond recommended volumes, in combination with other chemicals, and when none are really needed in the first place. Aside from the risks of these types of applications, we further know very little about the components of this toxic soup interact with each other and the environment.
An excellent example is the American obsession with cosmetic lawn and garden chemicals. I don't want to get too soap-boxy here, but I can tell you two things. First, you can have a nice lawn (if you must) and garden without the use of any chemicals. I've done this my whole life. Second, one of the best things you can do for birds (your pets, the ecosystem, and yourself) in your area is to quit using all chemicals in your yard, because they do harm birds.
I see the effects of "safe" lawn chemicals every year on common birds. I have held emaciated robins in my hands as they had seizures and died, and looked up from their lifeless bodies to rest my gaze upon those little signs indicating an expanse of grass was sprayed with some concoction. Without direct toxicology tests, I can't honestly say lawn chemical exposure was the direct cause of these deaths. I do know that robins can't read to keep off the grass, that their symptoms are typical of exposure, and it is far too common an occurrence to not at least suspect that some combination of chemical exposure is to blame.
On this anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring, I encourage you to read or re-read this book and related material. We are in an age where enough data is available for us to be truly informed and where our actions can make a real difference. Unfortunately, we are also at a point where we are distrustful of science, and often bombarded with conflicting messages from special interest groups. I don't have a horse in this race, except my love for the natural world. Here are my recommendations:
An excellent overview of the context and impact of Silent Spring can be found at the Pop History Dig website: Power in the Pen: Silent Spring 1962. The New York Times Magazine also recently published How Silent Spring ignited the environmental movement.
The book itself, Silent Spring (Kindle edition here), as well as a new biography of Rachel Carson, On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson (Kindle here).
I also strongly recommend Our Stolen Future, which further explores synthetic chemicals in the environment.
There are many excellent sites on thee continued risk of chemicals many of us continue to use regularly. The non-profit Environmental and Human Health published a report very worth reading: Risks from Lawn Care Pesticides. The organization Beyond Pesticides has extensive information about pesticide issues, risks, and alternatives.