Fifty years ago, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring—a book that opened people’s eyes to the connection between chemicals and their unintended effects on the environment and human health. It was the birth of an environmental perspective grounded in science that captured the public’s interest, challenged the old scientific and industrial guard, and over time, inspired significant changes in our perception and care for the environment.
“Silent Spring seeded important new ideas in the public mind: That spraying chemicals to control insect populations can also kill birds that feed on dead or dying insects. That chemicals travel not only through the environment, but through food chains. That chemicals that don’t outright kill can accumulate in fat tissues causing medical problems later on, and that chemicals can be transferred generationally from mothers to their young.” (American Chemical Society National Historic Chemical Landmarks. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Accessed November 6, 2012).
Much has been said about the importance of Rachel Carson’s message, but, as Dr. Nancy Jackson, Immediate Past President of the ACS recently pointed out, “What is seldom discussed is how her work has influenced chemists and the chemical industry.”
Dr. Jackson continues, “Today, Carson's systemic, ecological approach provides the backbone for green chemistry, which has become a major force worldwide. Now, chemists choose processes that create less waste, use less water and resources, solve problems without being more powerful than necessary and develop products that degrade and metabolize in concert with nature.”
The adoption of green chemistry is a perfect example of how the chemical industry is changing in response to ecological awareness. It also serves as a reminder of how much more work has to be done, since green chemistry represents only a fraction of the total global chemical industry. Certainly, there is nearly unending opportunity and also great need for chemists to continue to make an impact in this area.
To recognize the importance of Carson's work, the American Chemical Society officially designated the legacy of Silent Spring as a National Historic Chemical Landmark in a ceremony at Chatham University (home of the Rachel Carson Institute) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on October 26th 2012. As part of the event, a tour of a local company was organized—Thar Industries, Inc., which applies green chemistry principles to develop supercritical fluid technologies. An official commemorative booklet is available to download or read online.
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