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An Advancing Society Built On Toxicities

Jada Robinson

Rachel Carson has been an inspiration to all environmentalists, and through her book, Silent Spring, she has made me an environmentalist as well. We typically do not think about the dangerous chemicals with which we daily come into contact because that would cause a worrisome lifestyle. As students we are so engrossed with our schoolwork and social lives that we sometimes find ourselves losing sight of what is going on in the environment around us. Most people do not make it their business to know because they figure that the government has their best interest in mind, but through her book, Carson exploits this misconception. Over the past few years, I have become more skeptical about how much the government is concerned with the health of its citizens, and this book only seems to have made the basis of my argument more concrete. When Carson wrote Silent Spring she was openly accusing the “chemical industry, the government, and agribusiness for indiscriminately using pesticides” (Lear, 27). This made her life more difficult as her book was scrutinized, but all her statements were valid and could not be disputed.

Up until this book was published, Carson recalls several instances where pesticides were spread without much regard to the consequences that ensued. Pesticides have been used for many purposes, such as getting rid of a certain type of bug or weed because they are considered “pests.” Humans have started to develop this God complex: if they do not like a certain plant or bug then they are free to eradicate it from existence using these chemicals. The problem is that when a species is removed the whole ecosystem suffers because it hangs in a delicate balance and destroying a species might take away one animal’s food source or upset a symbiotic relationship that is dependent on that species. As humans we are very selfish and approach life with this mentality that if something is an inconvenience, then we must address it despite the harm it may cause to others. Carson illustrates this point in her example about the use of endrin, a highly toxic chlorinated hydrocarbon, in a house in Venezuela to get rid of cockroaches. The house was sprayed with the compound, and the floors were washed with it; then, the family moved back in the house with their baby and dog. The dog, shortly after entering the house, began to vomit and convulse, and he died soon after the episode. The baby then experienced the same symptoms before losing consciousness. Even after months of treatment in a New York hospital, the baby never recovered. This depressing story makes one take into consideration how deadly these chemicals are and how the ignorant and reckless use of these substances can yield horrific results. If these chemicals affect humans in such an extreme manner, how will they affect the environment?

When Carson talks about these chemicals that are used on many crops to kill bugs it reminded me of my sister. My sister suffers from hyperthyroidism, which means that her thyroid is overactive in making thyroid hormone. She claims that as a child she would walk through the tobacco plants on our farm that were sprayed with pesticides and she thinks that this may have caused her to develop this condition. This is not out of the question since the utilization of pesticides has shown some correlation with developing thyroid problems especially in women (Goldner & et al). It is instances like these that make me wonder how knowledgeable are the farmers who are spraying their fields with these chemicals and their awareness of the effects that these toxins can have on themselves as well as others. However, I do recognize that organic farming is a much harder endeavor due to the use of natural pesticides that may not be as effective as the harsher chemicals. At my graduation I had a great speaker who quoted her friend that was an organic farmer who said, “If you want to make one million dollars in farming you better start with two million.” I’m a strong supporter of the organic movement that was brought on by Rachel Carson’s book because I believe you should be able to read a label and know exactly what is in your food and trust that it will not harm you. Some people I have talked to when trying to promote the use of organic food are not convinced, but maybe Carson could have a lasting impression.

Carson addresses the problem of cancer in the chapter, One in Every Four, and makes several valid points on why it is so prevalent. This disease is widespread and has affected everyone in some form or fashion whether it has manifested in a family member, a close friend, or perhaps even in our own lives. In this society, it is not uncommon to hear people ignorantly comment about how everything gives you cancer. While it may seem that way, one should not use this discredited talk as an excuse for engaging in cancerous habits like smoking cigarettes or going to the tanning bed. In high school, I accompanied my roommate and one of her friends to the tanning salon because they wanted to get a tan before prom. My reason for going was solely to hang out, but once we got to the salon, my roommate teased me for not getting a tan and asked why I refused to get into a tanning bed. I remember jokingly saying to my roommate, “It smells like cancer in here.” Only two years later, my roommate was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma and was fortunate enough to catch it in the early stages before it had metastasized and spread to the rest of her body. Instances like this are what make you wonder how much or, perhaps, how little exposure it really takes for cancer to develop. Carson mentions the Warburg theory, which “explains why repeated doses of a carcinogen are more dangerous under some circumstances than a single large dose” (232). Small doses allow some of your cells to survive even if they are damaged, and these cells can later become cancerous. Large doses simply kill your cells outright. Realizing that cancer is often the result of a bad habit ultimately leads to the question: what are some of my habits that I am unknowingly doing every day that could cause me to develop this disease?

Throughout her book, Carson offers many examples about how regulation of pesticides has been less than substantial, but more importantly, she makes you question what else has not been regulated. Her book has given me more insight about the pesticides that have been used in the past, and the evidence presented has led me to question how we should safely apply them in the future or whether we should discontinue their use. This book was eye opening during the time when it is published, but it still has considerable relevance today. Rachel Carson’s contributions can be seen all around Chapel Hill in regards to the organic movement she supported. Whole Foods and Weaver Street Market are clear examples of Carson’s accomplishments as they represent her idea of eating all natural foods, which do not contain carcinogens and have not been exposed to poisonous pesticides. If we could all revert back to natural lifestyles without pesticides, our health would be improved, and the effects of pesticides on the environment may begin to subside. Spending hours in Battle Park this semester gave me some peace in that there are some areas untouched by pesticides. I hope in the future that even as our society continues to advance there will still be old forests like Battle Park where we can breath clean air and rest underneath the limbs of the great oaks and perhaps come up with a solution to the problems we have created.


Class of 2014

Major: Biology

Hometown: Bunn, North Caroina

Works Cited

Carson, Rachel. Silent spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1990. Print.

Goldner WS, Sandler DP, Yu F, Hoppin JA, Kamel F, Levan TD. Pesticide use and thyroid disease among women in the Agricultural Health Study. Am J Epidemiol. 2010;171:455–464.

Lear, L. K. (1993) ‘Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring’, Environmental Historys Review,17: 23–48.