Silent Spring and DDT
During the time that Silent Spring was written and published DDT was one of the most widely used pesticides in the world. But the origins of DDT went back to the last quarter of the 19th century, when it was first synthesized by a German chemist in 1874. It wasn’t until just before the Second World War 65 years later that its true possible as an extremely effective pesticide was realized.
In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson cleverly writes about the almost casual way DDT was used as an insecticide. It was so without exception used during the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s that it had taken on the characteristic of the familiar. It was used in homes, gardens, farms and forests in important amounts. From 1950-1960 more than 40,000 tonnes of DDT was used yearly all over the world. At its peak, in 1963, more than more than 82,000 tonnes of DDT was produced. DDT was undoubtedly used indiscriminately and irresponsibly during this period at a important cost to the ecosystem.
But DDT was a non-selective insecticide. It killed all insect pests good or bad. As Rachel Carson put it in Silent Spring it had the strength to; ‘nevertheless the songs of birds and the leaping of fish in the flows, to coat the leaves with a deadly film and to linger on in soil – all this by the intended target of a few insect pests’.
Rachel Carson was one of the first writers to publicise the concept of bioaccumulation of toxic chemicals. She discusses bioaccumulation in reference to DDT in quite some detail, explaining how the smallest intakes of DDT are stored in fatty storage depots of animals where they build up every time they are ingested. This is then passed on from one animal to the next by the food chain, becoming more concentrated the further up the food chain you went.
Rachel Carson was also one of the first to highlight the capacity of chemical pollutants like DDT to move from mother to child. She discusses how meaningful levels of DDT residues have been measured in breast-milk and the possibility of chemical pollutants transversing the placental obstacle in the womb. She already goes on to discuss the increased sensitivity of infants to the effects of toxic chemical pollutants.
Silent Spring is a truly ground-breaking book. It was predictive in some of the predictions that it made of the possible effects of chemicals that were unknown at the time. It seemed as though she knew the possible effects of toxic chemicals like DDT. In some instances you felt as though she was writing about the endocrine-disrupting qualities of DDT itself! How could she have possibly known in 1962? Thirty or so years before the term was first used to describe the darker toxic effects of some chemicals?
How could Rachel Carson have known about the possible toxic effects of DDT and other widely used pesticides? Rachel Carson had gathered a lot of facts concerning pesticide use during the period so she had a lot of information to work with. And just as importantly she was extremely passionate about the subject matter.
Things have moved on since the 1960’s. DDT is nevertheless been manufactured but at a fraction of the rate it was produced at its peak in the mid 20th century. Unfortunately, its production is on the increase as large economic powerhouses like India and China continue to manufacture the pesticide for their own use and for export. The United States and most of Europe have banned the use of DDT.
The effectiveness and the impact of DDT cannot be denied. It was one of the chemicals that made America ‘the food basket of the world’. DDT has possibly saved tens of millions of lives. Killing pests that would have otherwise killed Man. In the third world DDT has saved the lives of millions of children killing pests like mosquito’s that are the main vectors of malarial disease. The usefulness and effectiveness of DDT is undeniable.
Rachel Carson did not seek a complete ban on all chemicals. What she wanted was better control and better regulation of its use. She was aware that we couldn’t provide to use pesticides such as DDT indiscriminately, there was only so much that the ecosystem could absorb. By using synthetic chemicals like DDT what we were doing was adding this chemical to the biosphere, integrating it into character and inadvertently incorporating it into our bodies. It was easy to fall prey to the short-term benefits of DDT. Its effectiveness was clear to see, however, its thorough possible to disrupt the proper internal workings of living systems could be more damaging than any benefits we could reap from its use.
Our current position is a dangerous one. We know that chemicals like DDT are toxic, but we’re hesitant to completely ban its use because it saves lives now, in the present. This short-term acceptance is a risky affair because chemicals like DDT are been absorbed by character. DDT is slowly building up within the fat deposits of complicate animals. The amounts are nevertheless very minute but these small amounts are accumulating. Already, we’re beginning to see the consequences of the build-up of chemicals in character but chemicals are such an integral part of modern day economies. It seems that we’re not going to act until something drastic occurs and by then it might be too late.