Columbia Journalism Review
August 1, 2005

The Unbroken Chain

By Marla Cone

As a crop-duster swooped down over a row of vegetables in California's
Imperial Valley, I sat in a pickup truck, the windows rolled up. It
was the spring of 1997 and I was investigating a story about efforts
by Native American tribes to outlaw aerial spraying of pesticides. I
was also five months pregnant, and when I embarked on the trip I
rationalized that if I happened to be exposed to a single, minuscule
dose of a pesticide, it wasn't going to do any harm. But at that
moment, alone in the darkness, parked on a dirt road next to the
field, I was having second thoughts.

I knew that the fetus I was carrying was the most vulnerable life on
Earth when it came to the dangers of pesticides and other toxic
chemicals. Was this story worth the risk -- any risk, no matter how
small? As I watched the plane unleash a trail of diluted insecticide,
I noticed a fly inside the cab buzzing against the windshield. I
decided that if it suddenly fell silent, I would start the ignition
and take off. As absurd as it seems now, watching that fly manage to
survive calmed me. At the time I chalked it up to the irrational
obsession of a pregnant woman, but I now realize that the fly was my
totem, a symbol straight out of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.

Oddly enough, when I began covering environmental problems in the
mid-1980s, I thought that Silent Spring was an anachronism, important
only as a reminder of people's profound ignorance about the
environment during the post-World War II industrial age. I was
starting kindergarten in September of 1962 when Carson published her
epic warning about how man-made pesticides were poisoning the world.
Oblivious to what Carson called the "elixirs of death," I grew up on
the shoreline of Lake Michigan, in one of the nation's toxic hotspots,
Waukegan, Illinois, and during the time when the "Dirty Dozen" -- the
ubiquitous DDT and other toxic chlorinated chemicals -- were reaching
record levels in all our urban environments, particularly around the
Great Lakes. Yet by the time I was a teenager in the 1970s, the
world's worst environmental problems had supposedly been brought under
control. We had seen the Evil Empire and it was that of our fathers
and mothers. We were the offspring of the clueless World War II
generation that sprayed DDT and poisoned the Great Lakes and fouled
the air. We were finding the solution to pollution.

But I now realize that what Carson called the "chain of evil" -- the
buildup of chemicals in our environment -- continues unbroken to this
day. And even though the political firestorm Carson's book stirred up
forty-three years ago burns with just as much intensity today, most of
Carson's science remains sound and her warnings prescient. If we take
a mental snapshot of what we know now about the dangers of chemical
exposure, the questions still outnumber the answers. Yet one thing
remains as certain as it was in 1962: we are leaving a toxic trail
that will outlive us.

The first chapter of Silent Spring, "Fable for Tomorrow," is one of
the grimmest scenes in American literature, fact or fiction. "There
was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live
in harmony with its surroundings," Carson begins. It was a glorious
place. Birds chirped, fish jumped, foxes barked, trees and flowers
were ablaze with color. "Then a strange blight crept over the area and
everything began to change," she continues. Robins, jays, and scores
of other songbirds disappeared, livestock were sickened, trees and
flowers withered, streams were lifeless, children dropped dead
suddenly while playing. "No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced
the rebirth of new life in this stricken world," Carson explains. "The
people had done it themselves."

No such town actually existed. "But it might easily have a thousand
counterparts in America or elsewhere in the world," Carson writes.

A nature writer and aquatic biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service, Carson had already written two bestsellers before she spent
four years researching Silent Spring. She described in great
scientific detail the dangers of DDT and its sister chlorinated
chemicals, and her writings transformed how people felt about
pesticides. After World War II, synthetic compounds were being
invented on a daily basis, especially after the wonders of combining
carbon and chlorine molecules had been discovered. DDT was first
synthesized in the 1800s, and it was used in great volumes as an
insecticide beginning in the 1940s. Its power was thought to be
extraordinary because, although it killed bugs, it wasn't acutely
poisonous and seemed relatively benign to everything but bugs. Soon,
though, it became clear that DDT was dangerous in a slow, insidious
sort of way. In the 1950s and 1960s, it began spreading worldwide,
building up in oceans, waterways, and soil. It didn't easily break
down in the environment, remaining in the food chain for decades. It
collected in fat and tissues, passing from one animal to another --
from plankton to worm to fish to bird, from hay to cow to milk to
human child.

Silent Spring explained all that, and it became a phenomenal best
seller. No other environmental book has had such a far-reaching
impact. Carson was a scientist, a journalist, and a crusader, and her
book scared the hell out of people. She portrayed the science of the
day in such dense detail that much of the 368-page book is too
unwieldy, even today, for most readers to comprehend. Yet her gift as
a writer was her eloquent and shocking prose, in which she
philosophized about the ramifications of the science. Her words
hastened the dawn of the environmental movement in the late 1960s, and
by the early 1970s, the United States and most of the developed world
had banned DDT and many other chlorinated compounds.

Carson's fabled world of the future, of course, has not materialized.
But what's remarkable now when I reread Silent Spring is that the
reality Carson described remains our own. DDT, PCBs, and related
compounds remain in the tissues of virtually every living thing. They
continue to spread globally, from pole to pole, via the air and ocean
currents. Even eagles' eggs on Alaska's remote Aleutian Islands
contain high levels of DDT despite the fact that the pesticide has
never been sprayed there.

When the manuscript of Silent Spring was serialized in The New Yorker
in June 1962, Carson was demonized. Chemical companies, and even some
of her fellow scientists, attacked her data and interpretations,
lambasted her credentials, called her hysterical and one-sided, and
pressured her publisher, Houghton Mifflin, to withdraw Silent Spring.
Monsanto went so far as to publish a parody of Silent Spring, called
The Desolate Year, in which famine, disease, and insects take over the
world after pesticides have been banned.

Carson is still the target of countless critiques. "DDT killed bald
eagles because of its persistence in the environment. Silent Spring is
now killing African children because of its persistence in the public
mind," Tina Rosenberg wrote last year in a piece about malaria in The
New York Times Magazine called "What the World Needs Now Is DDT." It's
true that Silent Spring failed to describe the benefits of pesticides
in fighting malaria, which is spread by mosquitoes, and in protecting
food crops from destructive pests. Perhaps Carson believed that
everyone acknowledged the benefits while ignoring the risks. Her goal,
after all, was action, not contemplation.

Nevertheless, accusing Silent Spring of killing children in Africa is
disingenuous. Most malaria experts, including the Malaria Foundation
International, aren't rallying behind DDT. They support its limited
use only until cost-effective substitutes are in place, perhaps in a
few years. DDT remains one of the few cheap, effective tools used in
the war against malaria, which kills more than two million people a
year, mostly children in Africa. But unlike the 1950s and 1960s, when
up to 400,000 tons a year were sprayed from trucks and airplanes, the
current practice is to spray only the interior walls of houses at

When Carson was writing, it was considered cutting-edge science to
determine whether a chemical mutated cells or triggered tumors, which
explains why Silent Spring emphasizes the cancer risk of chemical
compounds, a claim that looks a bit outdated today. Carson also had a
personal reason for her warnings about carcinogens. She was diagnosed
with breast cancer while writing Silent Spring, and it killed her at
the age of fifty-six, less than two years after her book was
published. Today there is little evidence of a link between DDT in
women's bodies and the rate of breast cancer. Nevertheless, the cancer
link has not been dismissed. Scientists wonder if brief exposure to
DDT and other chemicals in the womb, rather than the amounts
accumulated over a lifetime, can trigger cancer later in life.

Unbenownst to Carson, chemicals at low doses have even more insidious
dangers, beyond cancer. Scientists now believe that many industrial
compounds and pesticides, including DDT, assault the innermost
workings of living things -- skewing brain development, sex hormones,
and immune cells.

Carson accused those who extolled the virtues of pesticides of
dispensing "little tranquilizing pills of half truth" and "sugar
coating" unpalatable facts. "The public must decide whether it wishes
to continue on the present road," she insisted, "and it can do so only
when in full possession of the facts."

As a journalist, I know that is where I come in. For Carson, suffering
from cancer, Silent Spring was her own personal heart of darkness, an
excruciating journey into her own mind and the "sinister" world of
chemicals. For me, writing about chemicals provokes its own inner
turmoil as I seek certainty in an age of ambiguity. How do we square
the risks of a chemical with its benefits? The precautionary
principle, codified by the European Union, prescribes preventive
measures when science is uncertain. The American philosophy prefers
after-the-fact fixes rather than precautionary steps that may be

I was once accused of writing with "too much of the gravity of Rachel
Carson." I wonder whether that's a weakness or a strength. After all,
newspapers today tend to simplify issues related to environmental
health and publish pieces that tell readers essentially nothing. We
shouldn't unjustifiably scare readers, but we shouldn't bore them
either. Most environmental journalists writing about toxic chemicals
do one or the other. Those who bore readers haven't done the homework
to understand the risks of certain chemicals and consequently are
incapable of explaining those risks in terms people can understand.
Those who scare readers don't put the risks in perspective or fail to
reveal which chemicals and which exposures matter the most. We don't
have to write with the grim foreboding of Silent Spring or the
intentional exaggeration of its Fable for Tomorrow, or ignore the
benefits of the chemicals we rely upon today. But we do need to master
Carson's skill for explaining what is at stake.

Carson's readers reacted with outrage, but many people today seem to
prefer to remain ignorant of the risks of the chemicals they are
routinely exposed to. "It is human nature to shrug off what may seem
to us a vague threat of future disaster," Carson asserted, and that,
in part, explains why the American mindset remains closer to "better
living through chemistry" than "better safe than sorry." I behave like
any American consumer. I have resorted to sprinkling diazinon on
anthills and passing over organic foods because they cost too much.
I'm aware that my new mattress contains flame retardants and my nail
polish has phthalates, but I bought them anyway. I haven't tossed out
my polycarbonate food containers, and recently when my dentist filled
a cavity, I chose an amalgam that contains a trace of mercury because
it is more durable than the mercury-free alternatives.

Still, after nineteen years on the beat, I certainly know that the fly
buzzing at the windshield was not a valid way to assess the dangers of
pesticide exposure. When it comes to low doses we encounter in our
daily lives, there are no dead bodies, no smoking guns. Many
scientists now say the effects on children's brains and reproductive
and immune systems are subtle, virtually impossible to pin down.
Sometimes I think back to family dinners at a popular fish restaurant
at Waukegan Harbor, which was later declared a Superfund site because
of tons of PCBs dumped there, and wonder, usually in the most abstract
and impersonal of ways, what effects the contaminants of that era had
on me and my generation. Use of chlorinated compounds like DDT and
PCBs peaked in the 1960s and tainted all our foods, even our mothers'
breast milk, and children whose mothers ate a lot of PCB-tainted fish
from Lake Michigan have lower IQs and worse memories, according to ten
years of research conducted in Michigan. I also wonder, as only a
mother could, whether my son suffered some slight neurological damage
from the pesticides and other chemicals I was exposed to. He's
healthy, he's smart. But could some neurotoxin explain why his
handwriting is so sloppy and he has trouble tying his shoes? Absurd,
you say? These worries, though, are the inevitable spinoff of this new
generation of environmental science. These private musings have driven
my desire to understand and explain to readers the risks of toxic
chemicals, particularly to pregnant women and their newborns.

Until a few years ago, I felt reassured that the worst was over, that
Silent Spring was so successful in its crusade against the most
pervasive and persistent compounds that the book was no longer
relevant. But I know now that other chemicals are simply taking their
place. Compounds still widely used in household products, farms, and
factories are building up in animal and human bodies at an
extraordinary pace, and some seem to have effects similar to the PCBs,
DDT, and others that were banned decades ago. We have simply exchanged
one risk for another.

The question we face about toxic pollutants is no longer "Do we want
to save the world?" but "How safe do we want to be?" In the twenty-
first century, our Fable for Tomorrow is not some disaster we are
trying to avert but a vague, incalculable, and potentially serious
threat to our children's health. We must remind readers that most
environmental health decisions aren't a question of good versus evil.
They amount to a judgment call, a trade-off. "We stand now where two
roads diverge," Carson wrote in the final chapter of Silent Spring.
"The choice, after all, is ours to make."

Marla Cone is an environmental reporter at the Los Angeles Times, a
Pew Fellow, and the author of Silent Snow: The Slow Poisoning of the
Arctic (Grove Press).

Copyright 2005 Columbia Journalism Review