MITCHEL COHEN: Better Active Today than Radioactive Tomorrow


More than half a century has now passed since Rachel Carson meticulously exposed some of the insidious consequences of what the quest for “Progress” and “The Good Life” meant in terms of the environment, government and corporate poisoning of the planet with synthetic pesticides and radiation from nuclear bomb tests. Serialized in the New Yorker in weekly install­ments, Silent Spring was read by thousands before it was officially published as a book. In the throes of the lingering and officially orchestrated anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s where women were pushed back into their role as housewives in the nuclear family, Silent Spring was read by many of these women in installments as they were published. Rachel Carson not only exposed the prevalence of chemical pesticides but also the fact that radio­active Strontium 90, a byproduct of the above-ground nuclear bomb tests, had tainted the nation’s milk supply. This was shocking information indeed, and it inspired an army of young women in particular, who anguished over the threats to the health of their children. Many men became alarmed and active as well, but as the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union heated dramatically, it was the mobilization of women, primarily, that challenged the government on the nuclear bomb tests and the possibil­ity of nuclear annihilation.

Their challenge extended beyond the issue of nuclear radiation, as hor­rific as that was. Women working in blue-collar jobs had participated by the tens of thousands in support of the anti-Nazi effort, and they brought their newly experienced independence into organizing the new mass movement, shaking up what we think of as the typical or traditional family structure—a structure that was never as typical or traditional as we’re led to believe.

Our protests today have forgotten the role these women played in the movement to ban the bomb. Carson, bravely unconventional, was part of a revolt in the 1950s and 1960s of scientists, mothers, and leftist thinkers alarmed not only by chemical pollution and pesticides but also equally by the above-ground nuclear bomb tests and the harmful effects of radiation. Rachel Carson inspired thousands to join an environmental movement that grew many tentacles; they did not separate their condemnation of chemical pesticides from support for banning the bomb. The issues were organically related and indivisible, and the joining of both efforts helped to spur an emerging ecological sensibility.

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Arsenic is both a naturally occurring rock as well as a synthetic poison. Lead and calcium arsenate were widely used as pesticides in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries on apples, cotton, and rice, and arsenic was used to treat lumber, such as telephone poles and wood flooring. In the 1944 film Arsenic and Old Lace, arsenic was made infamous as the murder agent of preference discovered by Cary Grant’s character. While the maxi­mum allowable arsenic in drinking water was set in the U.S. at 50 parts per billion in 1942, the United Nations and other bodies, concerned with arse­nic’s culpability in causing cancer of the skin, lungs, bladder, and prostate and its record as an endocrine disruptor, had long recommended that the levels around the world be lowered to 10 parts per billion.

President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore did nothing to address arsenic during their eight years in office. Environmentalists advocated that the maximum level of arsenic in drinking water be lowered not to 10 ppb, but to 3 parts per billion. It was not until three days before leaving office that Clinton finally adopted a tougher standard. On becoming president in 2001, George W. Bush was informed that much of the drinking water in the United States was contaminated with unexpectedly high levels of arsenic. Nevertheless, the Bush administration suspended Clinton’s newly lowered arsenic maximum, estimating that it would cost at least $200 million for local communities to enact the tougher standard. Bush also questioned the scientific basis behind the arsenic studies that had been cited to justify low­ering the amount of arsenic allowed in drinking water.

Much of the U.S. drink­ing water is contaminated with arsenic. A shocking study published in Toxi­cology Reports shows that the current regulatory assessments of the world’s most used herbicides are wrong, and that arsenic is being regularly found in Roundup and other glyphosate-based pesticides at toxic levels.

Could the decades of mass spraying of corn and soy fields with Mon­santo’s Roundup have poisoned the nation’s waters with arsenic, thereby contributing to the skyrocketing rates of many types of cancer across the United States? What did Monsanto’s corporate officers (and U.S. and Euro­pean government officials) know about these other components in Roundup, and when did they know it?

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