text from: "The Chemicals Around Us." [viewpoint] Chemical Week (July 14, 1962): 5.


The Chemicals Around Us

The agriculture chemicals industry cannot dismiss lightly as the work of a crank the three-part article on pesticides appearing in the June 16, 23 and 30 issues of the New Yorker. The author, Rachel Carson, is not only a writer ("The Sea Around Us," 1951) but also a biologist with a long and distinguished career in education and government.

Miss Carson's theme is not new: synthetic pesticides--"unnatural" chemicals with which the human organism can't cope--are being loosed upon hill and plain, livestock and crops, whence they find their way into our food and drinking water. They eventually wind up in our tissues and cells, where they may wreak such damage as cancer, disorders of the central nervous system, chronic invalidism, or even death.

Her technique in developing this theme is more reminiscent of a lawyer preparing a brief, however, than of a scientist conducting an investigation. For example, she cites the increased use of DDT together with the well-known fact that chlorinated hydrocarbons can damage the liver; then she points out the sharp rise in hepatitis starting during the '50s and says, "While it is admittedly difficult, in dealing with a human being, rather than a laboratory animal, to 'prove' that Cause A produces Effect B, plain common sense suggests that the relation between a soaring rate of liver disease and the prevalence of liver poisons in the environment is no coincidence." In her zeal to prove a point (although she tries to disarm us by saying she can't prove it), she overlooks the fact that hepatitis has been traced in many cases to infectious sources such as unsterilized hypodermic needles or sewage-polluted water.

In advocating "natural," or biological controls, she quotes Robert Metcalf, University of California entomologist, as saying, "The greatest single factor in preventing insects from overwhelming the rest of the world is the internecine warfare which they carry out among themselves." But the chapter on insect control in Metcalf's latest edition of "Destructive and Useful Insects," published last month by McGraw-Hill, gives four times as much space to chemical control as it does to all other methods.

We shall leave it to the scientists to prove or disprove Miss Carson's many allegations--and we suspect that unanimous opinion is far off.

In the meantime, industry will have to deal with an undercurrent of antipathy running throughout her work: "This . . . is an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make money, at whatever cost to others, is seldom challenged." . . . "Even (italics ours) the chemical industry recognizes the frequent misuse of insecticides . . ." . . . "The chemical industry is perhaps understandably loath to face up to the unpleasant fact of resistance [to insecticides]. . . . The most promising of insecticidal chemicals today may be a dismal failure tomorrow, and the very substantial financial investment entailed in backing and launching an insecticide may be swept away."

Evidently the industry is facing a hostile and to some extent uninformed prosecuting attorney. Her facts are correct, her conclusions less certain, and her innuendoes misleading. Industry must again take up the Sisyphean task of repeating--again and again--that its research is aimed at profit through knowledge--not the sale of more and more pesticides whether they kill us or not. Such a "public be damned" attitude was outmoded some years ago--and even if some venal industrialist were tempted, too many people are watching!