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Sounding the Alarm
The seeds of the Service's Environmental Contaminants program were planted with "Silent Spring".

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Click on thumbnail image for original version of article in pdf format. View the entire Special Rachel Carson Centennial Edition of Fish and Wildlife News.

The spring of 1962 was anything but silent. In fact, the publication of sections of Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking study of the widespread effects of indiscriminate pesticide use in the June issue of The New Yorker sounded an alarm that was heard across the nation.

It can fairly be said that the seeds of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Environmental Contaminants Program were planted with the publication of Carson's Silent Spring, but it is also true that the book itself owed its existence to the years its author spent working for the agency and interacting with federal scientists studying the effects of pesticides on wildlife.

It was at the end of the Second World War, while still working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, that Rachel Carson first became concerned about the increased use of chemical pesticides. "The more I learned about the use of pesticides, the more appalled I became," she would later write. "What I discovered was that everything which meant most to me as a naturalist was being threatened, and that nothing I could do would be more important." She set herself to the task of accumulating information on the subject and, in 1957, began working on the project that would be published in 1962 as Silent Spring.

It was, without exaggeration, a literary bombshell. Carson was attacked by industry and some in government, and saw her science belittled and her politics questioned. She refused to be cowed, however, and testified before Congress in 1963, calling for new government initiatives to protect people and the environment from the hazards of environmental contaminants.

"The beauty of the living world I was trying to save," she wrote in a letter to a friend in 1962, "has always been uppermost in my mind—that, and anger at the senseless, brutish things that were being done. I have felt bound by a solemn obligation to do what I could—if I didn't at least try I could never be happy again in nature. But now I can believe that I have at least helped a little. It would be unrealistic to believe one book could bring a complete change."

Rachel Carson died of breast cancer in 1964 and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the U.S. government can award to a civilian. Her legacy lives on in the recovery of species such as the bald eagle and peregrine falcon, and in the ongoing work of Service Environmental Contaminants biologists. Today, more than four decades after Silent Spring sounded the alarm, these men and women are increasing our understanding of the long-term impacts of pesticides and other contaminants, and working to minimize the problems that we might, without such knowledge, inflict upon future generations.

In the post-Silent Spring era, our need to understand the impact of environmental contaminants on the natural world has not diminished. Biologists in the Environmental Contaminants Programspecialize in detecting toxic contaminants in fish, wildlife and environmental samples; understanding and countering the harmful effects associated with these contaminants; and recommending innovative solutions for the restoration of habitats damaged by contamination. They are experts on the effects of oil and chemical spills, pesticides, water quality impairment, hazardous materials disposal, and other aspects of contaminant biology. The challenges they face can perhaps best be summarized in Rachel Carson's own words, from a 1963 interview on CBS television:

"It is the public that is being asked to assume the risks….The public must decide whether it wishes to continue on the present road, and it can do so only when in full possession of the facts.

"We still talk in terms of conquest. We haven't become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a tiny part of a vast and incredible universe. Man's attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature.

"Now, I truly believe that we in this generation must come to terms with nature, and I think we're challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves."

Authors: Bruce Woods is a public affairs specialist in Anchorage, Alaska. Phillip Johnson is Environmental Contaminants Coordinator in Anchorage, Alaska. Valerie Fellows is a public affairs specialist in Washington, DC.

Article reprinted from Fish & Wildlife News. Special Rachel Carson Centennial Anniversary Issue, Spring 2007 (4 MB pdf)

Last updated: February 13, 2013