REMEMBERING RACHEL CARSON
Written by Deborah Ostrovsky (originally posted October 1 2011)
Breast Cancer Awareness month is finally here and this time of year always makes me think of Rachel Carson, the American author and scientist who has been hailed as the ‘fountainhead of the environmental movement.’
Carson succumbed to complications from breast cancer in 1964 at the age of 56, less than two years after publishing Silent Spring. She spent much of her time writing Silent Spring weak and exhausted from radiation therapy. Between typing up drafts, her personal secretary drove her to the hospital twice a week for treatments, and she suffered endless complications and pain. As her health continued to diminish, she desperately tried to hide her breast cancer from the public, fearing that critics would use her illness to destroy her credibility. How could she be objective, they would argue, in her accusations against industries that dispersed allegedly cancer-causing agents in the environment, when she had so much personally at stake?
Carson was silent about her breast cancer. But Silent Spring changed American life—and all our lives. Her book set in motion a very public debate about the indiscriminate use of noxious agents found in the insecticides doused on wildlife and agricultural crops. She made scientific knowledge accessible to the ordinary citizen, raising alarm bells about the carcinogens seeping their way into the fruits and vegetables we feed our children, the water we drink, and the ruinous effects of these chemicals once they make their way into our food chain.
This past summer, I met a women who, as a child in the early 1960s, used to chase after the crop dusters spraying DDT in California on her bike after school. I am lucky that, in just the course of a decade, Carson’s powerful book would ensure that my childhood would be free of DDT.
There is indeed a pre-Carson and post-Carson world, and I am lucky enough to live in the latter.
Soon after Silent Spring’s publication, Senator Abraham Ribicoff invited Carson to testify at Senate hearings on pesticide use. It’s worth repeating part of her powerful testimony here:
…I hope this committee will give serious consideration to a much neglected problem: that of the right of the citizen to be secure in his own home against the intrusions of poisons applied by other persons. I speak not as a lawyer, but as a biologist and as a human being. But I strongly feel that this is or should be one of the basic human rights.
As we embark on another Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we must take Carson’s example and frame our discussion about this disease in terms of basic human rights. Activists and the women’s health movement have revolutionized society’s attitudes toward breast cancer, removing the taboos from discussions about treatment and patient rights. Carson could have benefited from all this progress, as she suffered alone and in silence, typing up the book that would change our world.
But what about our right to know what chemicals in our current environment potentially contribute to the high rates of cancer? What about our right, as citizens to be fully aware of, and protected from, the intrusions of poisons applied by other persons in all the consumer goods that we use on our skin, in our homes, and for nourishment?
And what about those companies who use chemicals linked to cancer while simultaneously supporting breast cancer awareness initiatives? What about power being put back into the hands of the ordinary citizen to demand that this contradictory behaviour driven by de-regulated industry be stopped—in the name of basic human rights and to protect our bodies, and our environment, from harm?
We’ve come a long way. But Carson’s work is not yet complete. Her testimony is still relevant—perhaps even more urgent—today.
In the spirit of Rachel Carson, let’s not be silent this October.