Living with the Poison: Doubt and Denial in the Public Health

Noisy Summer

Silent Spring, an environmental science book by Rachel Carson, published in September 1962, documented the adverse environmental effects by the indiscriminate pesticides use.

Months before the publication, the book caused an uproar in response to the pre-publication excerpts in The New Yorker in the summer of 1962. The chemical industry, agriculturists, biochemists were furious and reacted with counter statements, complaints, and even threats of legal action. Hundreds of articles were published in the month leading up to the book’s publication quoting experts critical as well as supportive of the upcoming book’s warnings.1

“The $300,000,000 pesticides industry has been highly irritated by a quiet woman author whose previous works on science have been praised for the beauty and precision of the writing.”

Excerpt from  New York Times article published 22 July 1962 titled, “Silent Spring’ is Now Noisy Summer”2

The book sold hundreds of thousands of copies and stayed on the best-seller list for thirty-one months. Silent Spring inspired conservationists, ecologists, social reformers, and organic farmers to join the environmental movement.  Life Sciences Panel of the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) was entrusted by President John F. Kennedy to investigate Carson’s claims. Senator Abraham Ribicoff announced hearings on pollution, including federal regulation of pesticides, in April 1963. 3

 The environmental campaign thereafter led to the formation of the Environmental Defense Fund, an environmental advocacy group which, in 1972 along with other activist groups, succeeded in securing a phase-out of DDT use in the United States. In 1970, The Nixon Administration established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set tolerances for chemical residues. In the following years, the EPA banned/restricted all six toxins mentioned in Silent Spring and further assumed responsibility for testing new chemicals.

The Corporates Fight Back

If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth”.

—Robert H. White-Stevens, biochemist and former assistant director of American Cyanamid, interview, CBS Reports, 3 April 1963.

When the chemical industry got word of the forthcoming publication of Silent Spring, they launched a counterattack on this threat to their commercial interests. Velsicol Corporation, a manufacturer of one of the chemicals mentioned in Silent Spring, sent a letter to the publisher threatening a libel. The National Agricultural Chemical Association (NACA) launched a PR campaign with $25,000, a substantial sum in 1962. Pesticide advocates claimed that agriculture would collapse. In October 1962, Monsanto published and distributed 5,000 copies of a brochure parodying Silent Spring entitled “The Desolate Year,” relating a starving world without chemical pest control.

 In 2012, during the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring, The Cato Institute published, Silent Spring at 50: The False Crises of Rachel Carson to undermine the claims of Silent Spring. Assertions abound on the Internet comparing Carson with Hitler, responsible for millions of lives lost due to malaria. Personal attacks on Carson accuse her of being radical, amateur, disloyal, unscientific, and hysterical, and communist sympathiser. 4

Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, in their book, “Deceit and Denial,” details the attempts by the chemical and lead industries to withhold information about the dangers that their toxic products present to workers, the public, and consumers and deceive the public by gentle reassurances of their products by controlling research and manipulating science. They mention that most scientific studies of the health effects of toxic substances have been done by researchers in industry or universities with financial ties to industry members. These research findings are suppressed if the results indicate a health issue with the investigated industrial product. They provide a historical analysis of corporate control over scientific research, undermining the correlation between toxic chemicals and disease. 

David Michaels, the author of the The Triumph of Doubt,” explains the emergence of product-defense companies who marry science with public relations to help clients avoid regulation. They realise that manufacturing doubt works, and if done well, you can stop government regulators or slow them down for years.

“We see this growing trend that disingenuously demands proof over precaution in the realm of public health. In field after field, year after year, conclusions that might support regulation are always disputed. Animal data are deemed not relevant, human data not representative, and exposure data not reliable. Whatever the story—global warming, sugar and obesity, secondhand smoke—scientists in what I call the “product defense industry” prepare for the release of unfavorable studies even before the studies are published. Public relations experts feed these for-hire scientists contrarian sound bites that play well with reporters, who are mired in the trap of believing there must be two sides to every story. Maybe there are two sides—and maybe one has been bought and paid for,”

David Michaels in “The Truimph of Doubt “

Describing this corporate strategy as  “manufacturing doubt” or “manufacturing uncertainty”, David informs that the product defense industry enrolls media savvy toxicologists, epidemiologists, biostatisticians, risk assessors, economists PR practitioners, and political lobbyists. Their work involves using bad science to produce whatever results their sponsors want and publish scientific reports in journals subverting the risks and amplifying the disastrous effects of regulations.  He equates it to an old joke: “Turn on the blue light; the man wants a blue suit!”

David Michaels points that product defense campaigns rarely hold up in the long run. However, they create confusion and buy a lot of time for the industry to make profits and maintain market share while developing the alternatives. In his memoir, Exposure,”  Robert Bilott, an American environmental attorney, cites his 20 years long personal and professional journey through the litigation surrounding C8, a “forever chemicals’, used in making Teflon. Exposure,” received the 2020 Green Prize for Sustainable Literature from the Santa Monica Public Library and also inspired the 2019 motion picture Dark Waters. 5

Eventually, as serious scientific studies get more substantial, the manufacturers acknowledge the harm done by their products. Then even pay penalties, but only after milking profits for years and ready with replacement products. It may take decades of observations to establish a relationship between chemical exposure and increased health risk.  Lead, asbestos, tobacco, C8, DDT, and radioactive materials were used indiscriminately because scientific studies could not prove with certainty that these substances were toxic. The current era of privatization, deregulation, and globalization compounds the threat from the unregulated industry. 6

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

-Upton Sinclair

Dirty Dozen and Emerging Chemicals

In 1995,  United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) called for action to be taken on POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants) or forever chemicals which are defined as “chemical substances that persist in the environment, bio-accumulate through the food web, and pose a risk of causing adverse effects to human health and the environment”. An assessment of the 12 worst offenders, known as the dirty dozen, was prepared, and the Intergovernmental negotiating committee (INC) over several meetings, adopted the Stockholm Convention on POPs in May 2001 in Stockholm Sweden. The Convention entered into force with ratification by an initial 128 parties and 151 signatories agreeing to outlaw nine of the dirty dozen chemicals and limit the use of DDT to malaria control. The first set of new chemicals were added to the Convention in 2009. As of September 2019, there are 184 parties to the Convention (183 states and the European Union). Notable exclusions are the United States, Israel, Malaysia, and Italy.7

In the past decade, many high-volume chemical compounds have been added to the list of the Stockholm Convention. However, production of the alternatives or replacements of these POPs, referred to as “Emerging Chemicals,” with potential toxicity is increasing rapidly. Large amounts of emerging chemicals have been found in surface and ground waters, drinking and wastewaters, sediments, and aquatic biota but are currently not included in routine monitoring programs. At present, very little conclusive information about their behaviour and toxicity is understood and known to the public or academia.8  

85,000:  No. of chemicals produced at more than 10 tons per year in the list maintained by The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Toxic Substances Control Act. This list does not include pesticides, cosmetics, and food additives that are covered by other legislation.

45%: Percent of high-volume chemicals available in the market with no basic toxicity information on either human health or environmental impact.

7%:  The percent of 2863 high-yield industrial chemicals (total production and import to over 1 million tons) whose data of comprehensive hazard assessment is available.

5%: Percent of high-volume chemicals with a complete set of basic toxicity information and pass through the assessment for impact on human health or the environment.

The main reason for this data gap in health-based risk assessment is the massive cost in the risk assessment of chemicals. 9

From Cradle to Grave

The concerns about chemicals in the air, water, and food have expanded beyond those used for agriculture. Synthetic chemicals have become an integral part of human life and our ecosystem. In the 1990s and 2000s, suspicion about BPAs (released by plastics and cans into food) and EDCs (endocrine-disrupting chemicals that mimic hormones) grew that they are responsible for genital deformities in increasing numbers of newborn boys, earlier puberty in girls, declining sperm count in adult males, rising rates of prostate and testicular cancer, and problems in sexual development, reproduction, abnormal brain development, obesity, and diabetes. Further, EDCs ( more than 200 identified) enter the environment and cause havoc in wildlife ( male fish, frog, turtles, birds with female sex characteristics, alligators, panthers, mink with smaller genitals, amphibians with extra legs).

The long-term effects of EDCs, individually and in combination, on human health and the ecosystems, all life depends on are unimaginable. The toxic chemicals are now found at low levels in countless applications, from personal and baby care products, clothing, children’s toys, food packaging to utensils, electronics, furniture, and building materials. Not only are many of these chemicals found in the bloodstream of every adult, but also they are present in amniotic fluid (the liquid in the womb that surrounds the developing fetus). All children born today are exposed, from conception onward to a complex mixture of chemicals.

In “Emerging Chemicals and Human Health” published by Springer, Yunhai Zhang lists the possible health and ecological effects of the most frequently exposed emerging chemicals in the following Table.

Most Vulnerable

Children are more vulnerable to toxic chemicals as their systems and organs are still developing. The critical exposure window of emerging chemicals includes periods of pregnancy, infancy, early childhood, and adolescence, as special protective barriers are still underdeveloped to resist even small doses of emerging chemicals and detoxify themselves. Zhang states that children breathe much quicker, eat and drink much more than adults, and thus they inhale and ingest more substances and residues per kilogram of bodyweight. Therefore, certain emerging chemicals considered ‘safe’ in adults can still be harmful to children. Babies’ skin is more permeable, and their development is primarily regulated through hormones that are especially vulnerable to EDCs. Exposure at this stage can lead to long-term, lifelong, adverse health effects. 10


The environment and public health take a backseat to economic growth and product sales in corporate boardrooms. Capitalism has led corporations to introduce toxic chemicals through baby formula, talcum powder to paints, and pesticides and defer the questions on safety. Even when faced with evidence, they respond with denial, litigation, and defenses by undermining evidence, shaping public opinion, and delaying protective regulation.

The authors mentioned above advocate the precautionary principle to establish a method for deciding how and when an industry should introduce new substances or products. It calls for understanding the dangers and establishing safety before suspected chemicals are to be introduced in the market.

“Unlike humans accused of crimes, chemicals should not be innocent until proven guilty.”

– David Michaels

David Michaels proclaims that significant changes in current practices are not expected on their own, and laws and regulations have to be more impactful to govern corporate behavior. He suggests the following measures: 11

  • Build the Evidence Base– producers should pay for toxicity studies and risk determinations through an independent evaluation, not by someone they oversee.
  • Have unconflicted Scientists decide what the evidence means.
  • Complete Disclosure of Funding and Control– Every scientific and medical journal requires disclosures of who paid for studies and whether the authors have financial conflicts of interest.
  • Protect the Public from Entire Classes of Chemicals, Not Just Individual Ones.
  • Recognize the Role of Litigation in Protecting Public Health.

On an individual front, Bruce Lourie and Rick Smith, authors of Toxin Toxout,” offer advice on getting harmful chemicals out of our bodies and world. They emphasise that managing what we absorb, breathe, eat and drink is the first line of defense against toxins and suggest 10 simple steps for a healthier life.

  • Use natural personal care products that don’t contain chemicals like phthalates or parabens.
  • Eat more organic food to avoid pesticides.
  • Drink the water from your tap.
  • Use natural fibers and green products like low-VOC paints in your home and avoid products that might emit gas.
  • Eat more vegetables and less meat to avoid toxin-grabbing animal fat.
  • Sweat more—toxic chemicals like BPA and phthalates leave your body through your sweat.
  • Exercise.
  • Avoid wacky quick-fix detoxes and optimize your body’s natural detox mechanisms by adopting a detox lifestyle.
  • Buy less, buy green.
  • Support politicians who believe in a greener economy and organizations that work for a cleaner environment.

Legacy of Silent Spring

Silent Spring called into question the authority of scientific experts. People believe in scientists’ integrity, that they are striving for the truth. Carson showed how experts submitted to private interests. It also launched the modern global environmental movement and boosted the organic food movement.

Nevertheless, the world has been awash in a deluge of chemicals in proportions many times since the book was released. Carson’s words are relevant more than ever, as she remarked in a CBS documentary shortly before her death from breast cancer in 1964,

“Man’s attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature. But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself? [We are] challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves.”


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