Organized Session

Legacies of Silent Spring I: Ecology, Pollution, Industry, Environmental Activism

Organizer

Marsha L. Richmond

Wayne State University

Chair

Fritz Davis

Purdue University

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Session Abstract

By 1970, the US could no longer ignore problems caused by decades of industrial pollution that significantly reduced air and water quality, and which resulted in the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency. Heightened by Rachel Carson's SILENT SPRING (1962), public concern also focused on new environmental and health challenges, including the peacetime harnessing of the atom to produce nuclear energy, but not without significant risk; grandiose military-industrial projects, leading to research that indicated that altering the temporal environment was an additional area of concern for environmental health; and the discovery that not only DDT but also PCBs and other postwar industrial chemicals could cause developmental abnormalities in humans, wildlife, and fish. Yet the outlook was not altogether bleak; there were also hopeful signs, derived from Carson, that ecologists and industry might work together to address the potential impacts associated with manufacturing. This session explores multiple legacies of SILENT SPRING, examining critical intersections between biologists, ecologists, and biomedical scientists, government agencies and NGOs, industry, and community activists to tackle sensitive Cold War environmental issues.

Presenter 1

Ruth Patrick, DuPont, and the Biological Monitoring of Pollution in the US, 1950-1970

Ryan Hearty

Johns Hopkins University

Abstract

From 1949 until 2007, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia monitored the aquatic life in rivers under contract with DuPont. This unusual relationship between a major US chemical company and a museum of natural history was pioneered by curator Ruth Patrick, an ecologist specializing in diatom taxonomy. Patrick's 1948 study of pollution in the Conestoga Basin for Pennsylvania's Sanitary Water Board first attracted the attention of DuPont managers, who were building new industrial plants across the United States and Canada and looking to validate their waste treatment processes. Over the next three decades, Patrick managed hundreds of surveys for DuPont, creating opportunities for research of the effects of industrial pollution on aquatic organisms. This paper will examine the synergistic relationship between the Academy and DuPont during the 1950s and 1960s, the period when Patrick most directly influenced the relationship as chair of the Academy's Department of Limnology. Using the recently compiled Patrick Papers at the Academy, among other archival sources from DuPont and Patrick's colleagues, I will show that the relationship served three purposes: it brought much-needed funding to the struggling Academy, it created opportunities for Patrick to apply her expertise and establish a more secure base for her own research, and it supplied DuPont with a defense against increased regulation. This paper will contribute to the literature on mid-twentieth-century corporate-academic contracts and partnerships in the biological sciences by exploring the relative flexibility of the Academy, compared to universities, to receiving contracts from companies such as DuPont.

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Presenter 2

Chronobiology and Environmental Impact in Projects Sanguine and Seafarer

Jole Shackelford

University of Minnesota

Abstract

The nascent American environmental movement in the wake of Rachel Carson's SILENT SPRING led to passage of the Environmental Policy Act in 1969, which required federal agencies to file an environmental impact statement (EIS) for projects that might significantly affect human welfare and the natural environment. This impacted the Concept Formulation Phase of Project Sanguine (1967-72), a US Navy project to construct an extensive underground antenna network capable of communicating with submerged submarines around the world using extremely-low frequency (ELF) electromagnetic radiation. Field strengths produced by Sanguine were claimed to be harmless, on the order of what citizens were exposed to daily in the home and workplace. Any adverse biological effects would come from very weak ELF electromagnetic fields, about which there was scant published research.
The new EPA act required the Navy's Office of Naval Research (ONR) to seek expert scientific advice on the biological effects of ELF electromagnetic fields for a diversity of organisms. An "ELF committee" was appointed, chaired by University of Minnesota biophysicist Otto Herbert Schmitt, whose familiarity with biological rhythms meant that Sanguine's EIS research included a study of the effects of weak ELF fields on circadian disruption. After Sanguine was canceled and replaced by Project Seafarer, the IES research committee was chaired by another chronobiologist, Harvard's Woody Hastings. This paper explores the connection between chronobiology and ELF, resulting in large government expenditures on biological rhythms research in the 1970s, and the public distrust expressed by environmental activists.

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Presenter 3

Stressful Environments: Nuclear Power and the Politics of Public Health

David K. Hecht

Bowdoin College

Abstract

In January 1982, the US Circuit Court for the District of Columbia handed down an unusual decision. By a 2-1 vote, the judges sided with activists trying to stop a restart of TMI-1, the undamaged nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island. That the petitioners voiced environmental concerns was not unusual; this was a well-established tactic (as well as a sincere worry) among opponents of nuclear power. In this case, however, People Against Nuclear Energy (PANE) contended that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) had to consider psychological factors when preparing its impact statement under National Environmental Policy Act guidelines. Though its ruling was eventually overturned, the District Court had briefly made history, asserting that mental health was an environmental issue.
This paper explores the scientific and social scientific boundary work in the case, as activists, industry representatives, and experts sparred over how best to understand the categories of "public health" and "environment." It draws on the early negotiations between PANE and the NRC, the legal trail that emerged when those discussions failed, and the records of a post-trial workshop in which a group of experts tried to quantify the category of "stress" as it related to both health and to environmental risk. Furthermore, these efforts were not unique in the nuclear activism of the period. I argue that invocations of psychological impact provide a compelling window on the attempts of a variety of groups to define "the environment" for their own purposes in the latter stages of the Cold War.

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Presenter 4

Theo Colborn, the Great Lakes, and the Discovery of Endocrine Disruption

Marsha L. Richmond

Wayne State University

Abstract

By 1970, decades of poorly regulated industrial wastes discharged into the nation's water and air came to the public's attention. In the 1980s, new alarms sounded after the discovery that industrial chemicals, PCBs, were environmentally persistent and caused health problems in fish, wildlife, and humans. Seeking information about the impact of pollution on Great Lakes fauna, in 1988 Canadian biologists engaged Theo Colborn, scientific consultant for the Conservation Foundation of Washington, DC, to prepare a report on problems US scientists identified in the region. Analyzing 15 keystone species, Colborn made the surprising discovery that, rather than causing cancer as most expected, pollution appeared to trigger developmental abnormalities. Colborn presented her preliminary findings in a 1989 working paper and described them more fully in GREAT LAKES, GREAT LEGACY? (1990). Searching for causes, Colborn convened a meeting of biomedical researchers, leading to the Wingspread Consensus Statement (1992), which announced that environmental chemicals could cause "endocrine disruption." Influenced by Rachel Carson's SILENT SPRING, Colborn published OUR STOLEN FUTURE (1996) to warn the public about dangers posed by endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). This paper explores how worries about Great Lakes pollution among scientists, government bodies and NGOs, and environmental activists led to a new area of scientific research and public concern.

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