Just a little over 52 years ago, best-selling author and ecologist Rachel Carson was famously called to testify before Congress. A year had barely passed following the publication of her groundbreaking book "Silent Spring" documenting the dangers posed by rampant and indiscriminate use of pesticides and herbicides. The result of four years of painstaking research, much of the data and case studies that Carson drew from were hardly new. But it would take Carson to compile the data and her powerful and elegant prose to bring these disturbing facts to the general public, making them inescapable for policymakers.
"Every once in a while in the history of mankind, a book has appeared which has substantially altered the course of history," noted Senator Ernest Gruening at the time.
What has been lost in most accounts of this moment is the extent of this woman's courage as she made her way to take a seat at a long wooden table to address a Senate subcommittee on pesticide use. She was in advanced stages of breast cancer, having already survived a radical mastectomy. Her pelvis was so riddled with fractures that it was nearly impossible for her to walk. To hide her baldness, she wore a dark brown wig.
Yet her testimony was powerful as she presented a view of nature compromised by synthetic pesticides; the main culprit at that time — DDT. By the 1960s, U.S. companies were manufacturing nearly 90,000 tons of DDT a year. Once DDT and other pesticides entered the biosphere, she argued, they not only kill insects but they also make their way up the food chain to threaten bird and fish populations. They could eventually sicken children, our most vulnerable population, she stressed. "If we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones," she argues in her book. "[Then] we had better know something about their nature and their power."
Carson didn't call for a ban on pesticides. "I think chemicals do have a place," she testified. A main point of her argument was against aerial spraying, which allowed the government to deposit pesticides on people's property without their permission. It wasn't until 1972, eight years after Carson's death, that the United States banned the domestic sale of DDT.
In 1962, the chemical companies were hardly standing on the sideline during these developments. They were circling the wagons and on the counter attack. It is an effort that continues to this day. More than 50 years later, no one single book or spokesperson has come close to generating a unifying call for action regarding public health concerns of synthetic pesticide use or generated the results achieved by Carson. To date, her call for stewardship of the environment as a unifying issue for humankind remains largely unrealized. DDT is gone, but other toxins have taken its place.
"If Rachel had lived, we might have actually found out about endocrine disruption two generations ago," environmental health analyst Dr. Theo Colborn prophetically told the New York Times on the 50th anniversary of the book's publication back in 2012.
Endocrine (or hormone) disruption is a term that is working its way into the news. The term is now being applied to any of a number of compounds in current use that can interfere with the body's hormone system — from heavy metals, toxic solvents, fire retardant chemicals, PCBs, and, you guessed it, pesticides. Such chemical pollutants are pervasive in our environment. Growing scientific evidence shows that humans exhibit adverse health consequences from exposure to environmental chemicals that interact with the endocrine system. One survey of California children has shown that those tested exceeded cancer benchmark levels for as many as four endocrine disrupting pollutants.
The World Health Organization officially defines an endocrine disruptor as a substance or mixture that alters function(s) of the endocrine system and consequently causes adverse health effects in an intact organism, its progeny, or (sub) populations. It's important to point out that, though this definition was established in 2002, few countries have adopted legally-binding scientific criteria to determine what an endocrine disruptor is.
The concept represents a relatively new approach for science in looking at the toxicity of chemicals. The usual approach to defining the toxicity of chemical substances is to look at "end points;" whether there is a projected adverse effect at the end of a lifetime of exposure. We see this in current policy which only measures what are called "acceptable daily intake" or ADI levels of a specific unwanted substance in food or drinking water. The concept of endocrine disruption looks at "mode of action," the way in which a chemical substance has an impact. It is an approach that the petro-chemical companies are none too happy about.
"The chemical industry has fought long and hard, often employing questionable methods, to hide the truth about many of these harmful chemicals, putting profit ahead of safety," says Dr. Joseph Mercola, an alternative medicine proponent and osteopathic physician in a post on his popular alternative medicine website, Mercola.com.
As an example, Dr. Mercola points to the chemical atrazine, the second most commonly used herbicide in the U.S. It's widely used to combat weeds on golf courses and residential lawns. It's also used on half of all corn grown in this country. Atrazine, which has been in use in this country since 1958, was banned in Europe in 2005 due to suspected health concerns and environmental damage.
Despite these known risks, atrazine use in this country continues unabated, in large part due to powerful lobbying efforts says Dr. Mercola. This may soon change. On June of this year, the EPA released a new more critical risk assessment for atrazine. It is expected to be finalized sometime next year.
In the meantime, eating organic, especially watermelon, tomatoes and red bell peppers, as well as carbon filtering your tap water represent the best ways to lower your overall pesticide burden and protect yourself against some of atrazine's toxic effects, says the doctor.
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.