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The consequences of inaction

Rachel Carson had it right 50 years ago

Elayne Clift ( writes about women, politics, and social issues.

Saxtons River

When lawmakers failed to pass the far-reaching farm bill recently — a bill that already threatened cuts in food stamps by $2 billion a year — their inaction also put an end to proposed regulations requiring farmers and food companies to exercise greater caution to prevent food contamination.

These proposed rules would have ensured that food workers wash their hands, irrigation water be clean, and animals be kept out of fields, among other things.

Such regulations seem warranted in view of the latest contamination of salad greens. And in June a frozen berry mix caused a hepatitis A outbreak in eight western states.

Bacteria was the culprit when a food-borne illness sickened people at a food festival in New York, while E. coli made people ill at a Mexican burrito restaurant in Illinois. A Kansas beef processing plant was also found to have the bacteria. Let’s not even count the salmonella outbreaks.

Then there was the GMO wheat found on an Oregon farm, thanks to Monsanto’s testing of a genetically engineered wheat variety it had developed.

But food isn’t the only source of worry when it comes to what we consume, or subject our bodies to: Pesticides and chemicals pose other risks.

* * *

As the Toxic Action Center points out, “pesticides are the only toxic substances released intentionally into our environment to kill living things.” Among these substances are those that kill weeds, insects, fungus, rodents, and other pests.

“Pesticides are used in agricultural fields and in homes, parks, schools, public buildings, roads, and forests. They are found in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink,” the center points out.

Not a very comforting thought when you consider that Rachel Carson began warning about the harmful effects of pesticides in 1962 when her groundbreaking book Silent Spring appeared.

Since then, the use of pesticides has only increased, while evidence of their harm mounts.

One 2012 study, for example, conducted by Canadian and American scientists, found that exposure to pesticide residues on vegetables and fruits can double a child’s risk of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

Pesticides can cause health problems ranging from headaches and nausea to cancer and reproductive disorders, and sometimes these problems take years to surface.

Some of us are old enough to remember running after trucks spewing DDT in the summer when we were kids; many of those kids grew up to get breast cancer. In fact, children are particularly susceptible to the hazards of pesticide use.

The short version of all the evidence about pesticides’ harmful effects is this: Pesticides are toxic to living organisms.

* * *

So are many chemicals. More than 380 of them listed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as inert ingredients were once or are still registered as pesticide active ingredients.

That means we aren’t playing with a full deck when it comes to knowing the contents of pesticide products that might be hazardous. Yet we assume that chemicals in shampoos, detergents, and other everyday products have been proven safe, despite the fact that industrial chemicals are not required to be tested before hitting the market.

According to a recent article in The New York Times, in its entire history the Environmental Protection Agency has mandated safety testing for only a small percentage of 85,000 industrial chemicals in use.

Once these chemicals are being used, it’s extremely difficult for the agency to restrict a particular chemical because of stringent requirements needed for banning them.

After the 2010 BP oil spill, two million gallons of chemical dispersants were used to break up the slick, but federal officials could not say they were safe, because only minimal testing had been done. The composition of the chemicals is cloaked in secrecy because they are considered trade secrets.

* * *

Thankfully, the Safe Chemicals Act of 2013 has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and the late Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). It would require the chemical industry to prove that a chemical is safe before it is sold and puts limits on trade-secret practices.

It also would require the industry to reduce the use of chemicals designated by the EPA to be of “greatest concern” because of their toxicity.

It’s no surprise that the proposed legislation is already garnering strong opposition from the Republican side of the aisle.

* * *

Clearly, we need to make our food, air, water, and soil free from toxic pesticides and chemicals. To do so will require better testing, as well as reduced dependency on pesticides and chemicals. It will require legislation aimed at protecting land, waterways, buildings, cleaning and hygiene products, and foods.

Rachel Carson knew what it would take 50 years ago.

“If we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals, eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones — we had better know something about their nature and their power,” she wrote in Silent Spring. “The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #219 (Wednesday, September 4, 2013).

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