Sprengnether : Remembering Rachel Carson

Cambridge Chronicle
Michele Sprengnether, May 22, 2007

Cambridge - When I was a child in the late ’60s, we could play outside after dinner until dark. Summer had arrived when our evening was capped off by the “bug man.” He’d drive around in a pickup truck with a mister out the back, spraying a fog of pesticide. We would chase him and try to run inside the sweet-smelling cloud. Today it’s hard to imagine a pesticide mister driving down our street.

This week on May 27, we are celebrating the centennial of Rachel Carson’s birth. Her book, “Silent Spring,” published in 1962, raised public awareness of the risks of widespread pesticide spraying. Carson was a rare combination of an extraordinarily compelling writer who also had a passionate interest in biology and the natural world. Many attribute the publication of “Silent Spring” with the birth of the modern environmental movement.

Pesticide spraying expanded during World War II. Paul Müller won the Nobel Prize in 1948 for his success developing DDT as a pesticide. Following the war, DDT was used here in New England to spray for Dutch Elm disease, gypsy moths and mosquitoes. Carson’s book pointed out that DDT was a persistent pesticide that moved up the food chain and was deadly to fish, songbirds and raptors, not just insects.

DDT was banned in 1972 in the United States, and in 2001 the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants was adopted by 127 nations to eliminate production of POPs, including DDT. However, DDT is the cheapest method for killing mosquitoes carrying malaria, and an exemption was made for nations coping with 300 million people infected annually and 3 million resulting deaths, mostly of children. Entomologists caution that DDT-resistant strains of malaria-carrying mosquitoes have already evolved in Africa, so widespread spraying of DDT is not a panacea. Limited application of DDT must be part of a suite of preventive and treatment approaches.

Here in Cambridge, where children are safe from malaria (but not encephalitis), we can ask whether the applications of pesticide are appropriate given the impact that pests have to health and the environment. I had direct experience when my daughter had head lice this past summer. I ran into a CVS and asked the pharmacist for advice. I was handed a kit, and proceeded to wash my daughter’s head in pesticide.

Children’s health is at higher risk from pesticide exposure because they take in more per body weight and their organs are developing and have lower capacity to process toxins. The irony is that the shampoo did not kill the lice; they had evolved to be resistant to this common treatment. In response to head lice outbreaks in summer camps and public and private schools, parents can refer to www.headlice.org for good information on successfully combing out lice and nits. I think of all the time spent combing as a parent-child bonding experience. Nitwits, 617-816-9487, www.liceinfo.net, can help for a fee.

Home, lawn and garden care is another area where the treatment of pests with pesticides is likely disproportionate compared to their damage. The Environmental Protection Agency tracks pesticide use for homes and gardens, and American households spend about $2 billion for 80 million pounds of pesticide-active ingredient each year. The city of Cambridge is in the ongoing process of implementing an effective Integrated Pest Management Plan. This type of policy commits to making efforts to naturally deter pests, and use the least toxic effective pesticide for a given need only when absolutely necessary. Day cares and schools in Massachusetts are required to develop an Integrated Pest Management Policy. Many schools have theirs available at a central Web site: www.massnrc.org/ipm/index.html.

What would Rachel Carson be writing about today? Carson’s writings are often misunderstood or misremembered. She never called for a moratorium on synthetic pesticides, but rather for their judicious application only when all other approaches had failed. While we continue to learn about effective ways to organically tip the balance of nature to our advantage, we have also learned of additional impacts of modern civilization upon health and the environment.

Carbon dioxide will likely have the most significant impact upon our children’s lives. Invisible, odorless and essential to life, emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of forests are altering the earth’s climate and threaten the world’s water and food supplies. The average American produces 25 tons of CO2 each year, and the entire world produces about 25 billion tons total. We have been told by scientists that in order to stabilize the earth’s climate we must reduce CO2 emissions by 80 percent by the year 2050.

Carson died in 1964 of cancer, so she never saw the elimination of indiscriminate DDT spraying. It took nearly 40 years for an international agreement addressing persistent organic pollutants such as DDT. We do not have that much time to choose to act to reduce CO2 emissions. We face a much larger task in the coming decades than Carson could have imagined.

Michele Sprengnether is a Chilton Street resident and is a stay-at-home mom with a PH.d. in chemistry.