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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Maltese Falcon Replaced by Peregrine Falcon in Sinister, Film Noir Genocide Plot

It’s now 10 days since I started writing my “next” blog post.  And this one ain’t that one.  Ten days after starting to write about stormwater best management practices (BMPs) and EPA’s Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (abbreviated as MS4) requirements and not getting very far on it, I realized I picked too complex of a topic to write about in a blog post intended to be 1,000 words or less.  Fortunately, this month is the 50th publication anniversary of Rachel Carson’s environmental classic, Silent Spring.  Thus, no BMPs or MS4s this time.

Even though Silent Spring is one of those handful of books that I think should be read by everyone who cares about preserving our environment for future generations of all species of creatures, I did not have its publication anniversary stored in my internal clock, waiting to notify me in a nightmarish dream about a world with no birds.  I simply saw a recent on-line article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/opinion/perspectives/rachel-carson-killer-of-africans-652507/) with a catchy headline about Rachel Carson killing Africans.  Sounds like international intrigue worthy of a cheesy, film noir black & white movie.  More on what that headline is about in a minute.

The biography section of this post
Rachel Carson (photo from Lear/Carson
Archive, posted on PADEP website)
If you aren’t familiar with Carson or her 1962 environmental best-seller, Carson was born outside of Pittsburgh in 1907 (thus Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s interest in her in the 21st century).  She completed her Master of Science degree in zoology at Johns Hopkins University in 1932.  After doing some work toward a PhD, she eventually began working at a temporary position in 1935 for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, which later became the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  In 1936, she was hired full time as only the second female field biologist for the Bureau of Fisheries.  While writing technical reports for the Bureau of Fisheries, Carson also became a published writer with frequent contributions to Atlantic Monthly, Sun magazine, Nature, and Collier’s magazine. By the time Carson had become chief editor of publications for the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1949, she had already decided to leave the FWS to focus full time on her writing career.

Her first book, Under the Sea Wind (1941) was well reviewed but commercially unsuccessful.  In 1952, however, she was finally able to leave the FWS with the publication of the best-selling The Sea Around Us.  A third book, The Edge of the Sea, followed in 1955.  But it would be her final book, released in September 1962, that would be credited with starting the environmental movement in the United States.  Although Silent Spring was an eye-opening call to action for many, not everyone was inspired by its message.  Silent Spring was a pretty scathing indictment of society’s inclination from the mid-1940s until it was banned in 1972, to try to solve all insect-related problems using the pesticide dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane.  You’ve probably heard this chemical compound called by its initials, DDT.  With one of their most popular chemical products being knocked off of its pedestal by the case Carson made against it in Silent Spring, and fearing the potential loss of its U.S. DDT market, you can imagine that DDT manufacturers were pretty pissed off at Miss Carson.

In 1963, President Kennedy ordered a review of DDT and pesticide use in the U.S., and Carson and other scientists were asked to testify before a Congressional committee.  Although Rachel Carson died from breast cancer in 1964, the momentum initiated by Silent Spring to protect the environment from the harmful effects of DDT culminated with the newly formed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banning use of DDT in 1972.
Rachel Carson (photo from Lear/Carson
Archive, posted on PADEP website)
Silent Spring rained down a firestorm of criticism and attacks on Carson’s professional integrity.  Not surprisingly, the pesticide industry launched a significant campaign to discredit Carson and her popular book.  Ironically, however, not in Silent Spring nor in any public interviews, statements, or testimonies had Carson ever recommended completely banning pesticides.  Rather, she urged that appropriate research be conducted to ensure pesticides were being used safely and to develop alternative products that would be safer to the non-target organisms than DDT.

So where does the alleged genocide scandal come into play?
Chemical industry spin doctors, though, would never let the truth get in the way of a good conspiracy theory.  Some critics back in the day suggested that Carson was trying to intentionally undermine American agriculture in order to give the Soviet Union an advantage over the U.S. – a pretty venomous accusation during the Cold War.  Some anti-environmental folks have continued to suggest even into the 21st century that Silent Spring, because the book's cautions about indiscriminately using DDT lead to a sharp drop in its use world-side, has killed more people than Hitler.  Those individuals, who likely are global warming doubters, are referring to the estimated millions of Africans who have died from mosquito-borne diseases after spraying of DDT was curtailed in Africa over toxicity concerns.  There is a major difference, however, in banning DDT in a developed country over concerns about unwanted environmental side-effects and restricting its use for control of disease vectors in developing countries (which Carson never intended).  It is estimated that 90 percent of the world's malaria victims live in Africa, and most are children and pregnant women.  DDT is starting to make a comeback in some African countries, however, as their governments seek to gain control of their malaria crisis by eliminating the mosquitos that carry the disease.

What’s the harm in just a little bit of DDT?
If you already know about bioaccumulation, you can skip to the next paragraph.  One of the unintended effects of the insecticide DDT was its adverse effect on birds of prey.  From the advent of heavy DDT use in the mid-1940s through the 1960s, populations of eagles, ospreys, falcons, and other birds of prey had crashed.  Many of these birds were on the verge of being eliminated from their natural habitats throughout the U.S.  Research discovered that residual concentrations of DDT resulting from broad applications such as crop-dusting the chemical on agricultural fields were running off the land and into surface water.  Fish in the lakes and rivers were absorbing the excess DDT, which then was stored in their fat cells and not metabolized and eliminated from their bodies.  As birds of prey ate more and more fish or other prey that ate fish, the DDT then accumulated in the birds’ own fat cells.  After successive generations of birds had come and gone, the latter generations of birds had significant concentrations of DDT accumulated in their body fat and organs.  DDT was found to affect the birds’ ability to manufacture eggshells that are strong enough to withstand the weight of the female birds as they sit on the eggs to incubate them.  The result was that fewer and fewer birds were successfully hatched because their well-intentioned mothers were crushing so many of their siblings’ eggs.

It’s still there
Despite the 1972 ban on DDT in the U.S., it’s still out there.  It has a half-life of approximately 15 years, so at the high concentrations at which it used to be indiscriminately applied (think crop dusting) it could take anywhere from decades to centuries to break down to non-detectable concentrations.  In some of my previous work investigating former industrial properties, I've seen DDT reported in soil samples below its cleanup standard, but I don't think I ever saw it reported above its cleanup standard at any of the numerous sites where I've done characterization work.  However, I have seen DDT's breakdown products, DDD and DDE, show up in soil analytical results from time to time, sometimes over their regulatory cleanup standards.  In my mind, the detections of these toxins that are below cleanup standards are just as worrisome as the exceedances of cleanup standards.  I'll explain.

Presumably, the soils in which DDT or its daughter products was detected above cleanup standards will be dug up at some point and properly disposed.  But there is no driver compelling a property owner to clean up contaminants that are detected at concentrations below cleanup standards.  So those relatively low concentrations will remain in soil or sediment where they can enter the food chain and begin to bioaccumulate.  Bioaccumulation is not typically factored into the risk equation when regulators develop cleanup standards for environmental contaminants.  Standards are developed based acute exposure concentrations or chronic exposure concentrations over an organism's lifetime, but the variable toxin concentrations inherent with the bioaccumulation process do not fit in the standard risk assessment models that calculate safe cleanup standards for environmental contaminants.

Fast-forward …
Rachel Carson was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980 by President Carter.  In a clever play on words that acknowledges her final book and its impact, the following paragraph accompanied her posthumous Medal of Freedom:
“Never silent herself in the face of destructive trends, Rachel Carson fed a spring of awareness across America and beyond. A biologist with a gentle, clear voice, she welcomed her audiences to her love of the sea, while with an equally clear voice she warned Americans of the dangers human beings themselves pose for their own environment. Always concerned, always eloquent, she created a tide of environmental consciousness that has not ebbed.”

Here is the fun part of this post
The state office building that houses both the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources was named in honor of Rachel Carson.  Therefore, it seems fitting that a nesting pair of peregrine falcons decided to make their nest on a ledge on the 15th floor of the building (see inset on photo below).  The DEP maintains a Falcon Cam so that visitors to their website can keep tabs on activity in the nest (http://www.dep.state.pa.us/dep/falcon/).  The female laid four eggs in March of this year, and in April two of the eggs successfully hatched.  Both hatchlings have since “left the nest.”
The Rachel Carson State Office Building in Harrisburg, completed in 1992, was retrofitted with energy conservation measures in 2005 to achieve the Energy Star Labeled Building designation (PADEP photo).

Still photo from PADEP's Falcon Cam on the Rachel
Carson State Office Building in Harrisburg, PA
Regardless of scandals, real or imagined, surrounding the 1972 DDT ban in the U.S., here in Pennsylvania, Rachel Carson is still celebrated as a native daughter turned accomplished biologist and world-changing environmental writer.  And on those special occasions when I’ve been fortunate enough to glimpse a majestic bald eagle soaring in the wild, I’m pretty grateful that the quiet girl from western PA sounded the alarm so loudly, yet eloquently, about the cumulative effects of synthetic chemicals in our environment.

So, there you have it.  A bit long winded (just over 1,600 words), though probably not as long as my scuttled stormwater post would have been.  But hopefully more entertaining than talking about storm drains (how cool is the Falcon Cam?).

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