AUGUSTA – Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” published 50 years ago in 1962, was the spark that ignited America’s environmental movement.
Carson had spent the previous two decades on Southport Island in Maine, researching and writing along the rugged shores she loved.
Her resounding message in “Silent Spring” was that the land, water and all living creatures were in danger from the widespread application of toxic pesticides.
Ten years later, in 1972, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of the pesticide DDT, which Carson had shown was accumulating in the environment and decimating populations of eagles and ospreys and threatening the health of other creatures in the food chain, including humans.
Five years later, in 1977, the federal Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) became law. But since then, TSCA has been effective in banning or controlling the use of only five chemicals, despite the tens of thousands of chemicals in commerce today.
I think Rachel Carson would be very discouraged to know that TSCA has not been updated since its passage and that Americans still lack basic protections against known toxic chemicals.
We are still being exposed to dangerous chemicals in many everyday products, such as food, furniture, electronics, and toys.
Chemicals such as brominated flame retardants and phthalates put people at risk for cancer, neurological and reproductive disorders and more. They threaten our wildlife, too.
Carson cautioned us to stand up to “senseless and frightening risks” and to people who tell us “we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals.” Today we face unacceptable and often invisible risks from toxic chemicals in all kinds of products.
The outdated Toxic Substan-ces Control Act stacks the deck against people and the environment by hamstringing the federal government’s ability to get information about chemical safety and to protect us from the most harmful chemicals.
Maine has been a leader in passing laws to get toxic chemicals out of products in our state.
In 2008, an overwhelming and bipartisan majority of Maine legislators passed the Kid-safe Products Act, which set up a process to phaseout the most dangerous chemicals from products we use every day.
But we still need federal chemicals policy reform to really make substantial progress, and such a bill has been introduced in Congress: the Safe Chemicals Act. Now we need lawmakers who will work together to protect people and the environment, and who will not cater to the influence of powerful chemical companies.
The Safe Chemicals Act will improve the safety of chemicals used in consumer products, increase information available about chemical safety, protect our most vulnerable populations, ensure the best available science is being used to determine chemical safety, and support innovation in the marketplace and the development of safer chemical alternatives.
Each of Maine’s elected senators has voiced support for improving the Toxic Substances Control Act.
After meeting with two dozen concerned moms from Maine in May, Sen. Olympia Snowe said that she is “ready to join in finally modernizing TSCA.”
Sen. Susan Collins has said that “Americans have the right to know that the products they use and purchase are safe and free of hazardous toxins,” and that TSCA is “too outdated.”
Newly-elected Sen. Angus King said, “It is critical to begin the conversation about how to update the TSCA, and the Safe Chemicals Act is a great starting point.” Now it’s time for our senators to move beyond verbal support; we need action
Fifty years after “Silent Spring” shook America, we need to shake things up again. Maine still inspires the kind of environmental leadership and inspiration that Rachel Carson felt when she walked our shores.
The most obvious leaders who can help us take this major step forward in chemical policy reform are Maine’s senators.
We look to Sens. Snowe and Collins and Sen.-elect King to co-sponsor the Safe Chemicals Act and help us all achieve a safer, healthier environment for our families and communities.
Lisa Pohlmann is executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.