Rachel Carson is the guiding light for all of us who care about the health of the planetand the people who live on it. With the pub-lication of
, Carson provided usfour decades ago with a comprehensiveexhaustively researched biological argumentin simple lyrical language that anyone withor without training in the sciences could readand understand. And everyone did read it. Iwas less than five years old when that book was published in 1962. My father whotaught high school used it as a textbook, andhis students all read it. But more than that, Iremember hearing the bus driver talk aboutthat book. It was a book that reached acrosssocio-economic lines and truly did changethe way people thought about their relation-ship to the natural world.The book takes a four-part argument.First, Carson says we are all being contami-nated without our consent to inherently toxicchemicals in the form of pesticides.Secondly, that the risks to our health and thehealth of other species are really needlessbecause there are many non-toxic alterna-tives, if we only looked about us and soughtthem out. And then third, these alternativesare more effective than toxic chemicalsbecause besides all of the unintended conse-quences of pesticides, the truth is that thesechemical poisons don’t really work verywell in controlling pests. And finally – andthis is the message I would like to elaboratebecause it is in the book and in her lastspeeches before Congress, but it is not thepart that people really remember – she saidwe have the right to know about the risksthat we are being compelled to endure, andonce knowing we have the obligation to act.Carson died eighteen months after
was published. Breast cancersilenced her voice. She was in her midfifties; she was the mother of a young sonand a writer with ideas for many morebooks. We had a few things in common.Both of us were formally trained as wildlifebiologists and went on to make our livingwriting about the environment. Both of usare mothers balancing motherhood withresearch and writing. And both of us hadcancer. The important difference is thatCarson had to live in fear that her cancerdiagnosis would be made public, and thather enemies in industry would use herenduring the disease of cancer to discredither scientific objectivity. I cannot imaginethe burden that that must have placed on her:having to swear the few friends she confid-ed in to utter secrecy; enduring the rigours of a book tour and addresses before Congresswearing her wig; trying to hide the effects of the mastectomy and the radiation treatments.Thirty years of feminist thinking span herlife and mine. At this point in history,women’s experiences and the way they livetheir lives are considered to be a valid wayof understanding the world. When I blendthe voice of a cancer survivor with theobjective dispassionate voice of a biologist,I have not had to be criticised that my sci-ence was ‘off’because of my experience of undergoing cancer treatment.
Bhopal disaster horrified worldand led to Right to Know Act inUnited States
At the mid point between Carson’s death in1964 and today, 3 December 2003, cameBhopal. It was a wretched enactment of Carson’s idea. The pesticide plant in Bhopalreleased the raw ingredient for a pesticide,methyl isocyanate, into the air. Eight thou-sand people immediately died. Anothertwelve thousand would die in the years tofollow. No one knew what had happened tothem, not even the doctors treating thepatients knew what had happened becausethere was no right to know. The chemistry of what that pesticide plant was using was atrade secret. And so people died withoutknowing what kind of poison gas hit them.Their doctors struggled to treat them notknowing what antidotes might be possible.That so horrified the world that two yearslater in 1986 the United States passed a com-prehensive Right to Know Act on the basisthat toxic chemicals used within factorywalls or released into the environment thatwe all share – either by a terrible accident orthrough routine emissions into air, food, soilor water – form a public gesture and the pub-lic therefore has the right to know aboutthem. That is now enshrined in the US legis-lation because anyone, including my stu-dents at University, has the ability to dial upa website, type in their zip code and withinthirty seconds have a read out of all the toxicreleases in their home community, fromwhat industry, in what amounts. You canclick on the names of those chemicals andfind out the health effects of being exposed.It is a very powerful tool for social activismand it was the dead of Bhopal who gave usthat.
Steingraber used new law tofind out what was in her ownback yard
In 1994 while at Harvard University I beganwork on the book
. Itried to do two things at once: summarise allthe evidence I understand as a biologist,focusing on environmental contaminants onthe one hand and risk of cancer on the other.Interwoven with the scientific analysis is thestory of my return to my hometown to inves-tigate my own cancer diagnosis as well asthe cancer cluster that was alleged to haveoccurred there. I made use of Right to Knowdata by investigating the toxic emissionsinto the river, into the ground water wells inwhich the drinking water is gathered. I wasable to find out what went on at the pesticidefactory right near my high school, and whatkind of toxic waste is imported to the haz-ardous waste land fill near the house where Igrew up. The knowledge that I gained indoing so and my ability to write about it inmy book
was only madepossible by the twenty thousand dead inBhopal. And my analysis and my languageand my words were made possible becauseRachel Carson wrote
before Idid. So I would like you to join me in amoment of silence for the death of RachelCarson, who lost surely about twenty yearsof her life to breast cancer, and the death of
Rachel Carson Memorial Lecture
Pesticides News 63
Contaminated without Consent:
Why our exposure to chemicals in air, food and water violates human rights
For its first Rachel Carson memorial lecture, Pesticide Action Network UK invited the renowned American campaigner
to talk about her experiences with pesticides and other toxic pollutants. This is an edited version of her speech in London.