Silent Spring +50: What’s Really Changed?
By Richard Liroff, GreenBiz, published 9-4-12
“Silent Spring burst into American consciousness 50 years ago this month. Despite a massive pesticide industry campaign to discredit both the book and its author, it dramatically raised public awareness about the risks of 20th century chemistry and catalyzed contemporary environmentalism. If you’re moved by the sight of bald eagles, ospreys and brown pelicans – not to mention healthy humans – thank Rachel Carson.
Carson argued that heavy-handed pesticide use was endangering natural systems and humankind. She recognized the need for pest control but urged use of safer alternatives: ‘Methods [to control insects] must be such that they do not destroy us along with the insects.’ When she noted the average human ‘almost certainly starts life with the first deposit of a growing load of chemicals,’ she presciently identified the problem of prepolluted babies. Roughly 300 contaminants have now been found in babies’ umbilical cords.
If Carson were writing today, she might not limit herself to pesticides but might ask more broadly, can we construct healthier buidlings without using cancer-causing materials or toxic heavy metals, design fire-safe consumer products without using toxic flame retardants made from bromine or chlorine, or sell automobiles whose new car smell isn’t hazardous to our health?
Carson also might have opted to write a business book. While her intended audience in the 1960s was the general public and their political representatives, these days the center of gravity has shifted to companies and their suppliers, whose influence in many instances far outweighs the others.
So, how much progress has been made in the last 50 years to phase out the nastiest chemicals and bring safer alternatives to market? The bad news is the U.S. government has moved at a snail’s pace to address chemical hazards in everyday products. The good news is that over the last decade or so, private-sector companies have begun to take up some of the slack – increasingly demanding and securing safer chemicals for the products they sell – and this pace is accelerating.
The unwieldy U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act has gone unamended since its enactment in 1976. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency couldn’t even use it to remove asbestos from the marketplace. The chemical industry has stymied meaningful strengthening of the law, continuing its long tradition of pushing back against rising scientific and public concerns as chronicled in such histories as Doubt is Their Product, Deceit and Denial and Sophisticated Sabotage. In May 2012, a series of articles in the Chicago Tribune documented the brominated chemical industry’s ‘decades-long campaign of deception that has loaded the furniture and electronics in American homes with pounds of toxic chemical linked to cancer, neurological deficits, develomental problems and impaired fertility.’ The campaign included creating ‘a phony consumer watchdog group.’ This is not the business response Carson had in mind.
Evidence has continued to accumulate linking environmental contaminants with human health disorders such as cancers; infertility; asthma; neurodegnerative diseases such as Parkinson’s; neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism; and endocrine disorders such as diabetes. Noting that exposures to even the most miniscule levels of contmainants in the womb and early in childhood can predispose vulnterable individuals to diseases later in life, environmental health advocates have been urging a precautionary approach to chemical exposure -’prevention is the cure.’
Although chemical manufacturers have opposed meaningful reform of federal chemical policies, companies that use chemicals to make their products are a growing force pushing for safer chemicals. Chemical-using comapnies – especially consumer brands – find themselves facing a multitude of business risks. These include reputational risks, increased overhead costs to track and dispose of chemicals and to reduce exposures, litigation risks, loss of market share, and increased health care costs and reduced productivity associated with employees’ exposure to toxic chemicals at work and at home. The search for safer alternatives is also driven by the personal ethics of individual CEOs and family business owners.
Here are two prime examples of private sector drivers … to read the rest of this interesting article, GO HERE.