In this chapter, Carson examines the effects of modern life—which she shows now entails a slow, prolonged exposure to a constant drip of chemicals—on the state of human health. Frustratingly, from Carson’s perspective, these death-dealing materials of insecticides are marketed cheerfully to consumers, without traditional poison warnings.
The next few chapters will focus more on pesticides’ effects on humans themselves. Here, Carson’s frustration is linked to a sense that the public is being misled, and that substances that would in the past have been thought of unambiguously as poisons are now tools in man’s everyday war against nature.
The assortment of ‘helpful’ home products containing insecticide is vast, both for gardening and in the kitchen. It has become the norm to make use of such products, without a real awareness of their dangers. Fewer than fifteen people out of a hundred, according to a recent industrial film, read the warnings on their insecticide containers – which are often hidden in the fine print. This leads to the unwitting application of chemicals in the home that ought to be treated with much more caution. New attachments available for sale even allow you to spray chemicals straight from your garden hose, potentially contaminating water supplies.
The normalization of pesticide use – the sense that pesticides are just everyday simple tools that everyone uses – shows a lack of public education, but also a general acceptance of the idea that man can – and should – shape his environment according to what seems most convenient. This rush toward aggressive methods of control shows a lack of precautions that ought to take precedence when one is dealing with a set of serious poisons. Carson asks rhetorically: Is this the responsibility of the individual consumer, or those who produce and market these products?
Acceptable levels of pesticide residue on food are fiercely debated. While those who object to chemical residues are branded as fanatics, DDT has been found everywhere in produce and in cooked restaurant meals. Surely this is cause for alarm? The Eskimos on the far Arctic shores of Alaska are perhaps the only people free of pesticides – but even there, now, samples taken from Eskimos who had visited a hospital in Anchorage have revealed the contamination common to modern life.
It is truly a new era when no one living can be said to be born into a world without chemicals, since the present world of chemicals is entirely a product of man’s choice to change his environment – a choice whose consequences cannot be isolated and are not understood. We have acted rashly, implies Carson, but any hint of skepticism or caution is met with strong resistance by the mainstream promoters of pesticide use.
Misuse of pesticides by farmers is acknowledged even within the chemical industry, where publications warn against repeated spraying in short periods of time or careless overuse that seems to be widespread. The FDA, however, is severely limited in the field of consumer protection because it has jurisdiction only over foods shipped across state lines. As if that weren’t limiting enough, its small staff is only able to inspect less than 1% of crops sold in the United States.
This tendency toward misuse is another point in favor of stiffer regulations or bans, since individual farmers will always, according to their own sense of self-interest and in response to the all-too-effective marketing campaigns of pesticide producers, seek to maximize the productivity of their own farms in what is a precarious industry. Those tasked with enforcing regulations now are woefully underfunded.
The system as it stands is broken – our daily existence is like being a guest of the Borgias, that infamous family of Italian poisoners. Residues of different chemicals mix in our meals with unpredictable results and are cumulative, so the concept of a ‘safe level’ of tolerance for any individual chemical is useless and should be eliminated, as it only provides a false sense of security to the public. These rules should be enforced by a much more powerful FDA, and will require public education to become effective.
The public must understand the dangers that it faces – and by making use once more of a reference to the infamous Borgias, Carson further emphasizes that these ‘harmless’ products should be thought of as deadly poisons. The government’s current approach is underfunded and lulls citizens into a false sense of security that discourages action to ban pesticide residues outright.