In 1954, a Japanese fishing vessel, the Lucky Dragon, started its trek in the Pacific in search of blue fin tuna. For many weeks, the Lucky Dragon's crew wasn't very lucky at all in terms of their catch, and had sailed well east of the Marshall Islands trying to change their fortunes. One night, deckhands saw a bright flash in the distance to their west (later to be confirmed as 187 miles west), and not long after that came huge waves in the sea, and shock waves in the air, nearly capsizing the vessel. Very soon thereafter, crew members lost their appetites, and their hair started falling out. The decision was made by the captain and crew to head back to Japan. The entire fishing vessel was covered in ash, and at least a few samples were taken.
Later, despite denials by the U.S. Government, it was confirmed that the Lucky Dragon was
too close (not its fault) to the Bikini Atoll (in the Marshall Islands), as a hydrogen bomb was tested. American scientists were expecting an explosion of the equivalent of 6 million tons of TNT, but due to the addition of lithium isotopes, the explosion reached 15 million tons of TNT, producing an explosion 2.5 times larger than expected. The crew of the Lucky Dragon were the first, and most immediate, victims of the test explosion. There would be more . . . many more as it turned out - the explosion sent radiation well above 17,000 feet in the air, which meant massive dispersal of radiation to far-distant locations. After a moratorium, the USSR resumed their atmospheric nuclear tests, and the U.S. followed suit, and more-and-more radiation was invisibly descending on world populations, especially in North America. By the early-1960s, it was confirmed that Strontium 90 had entered the U.S. food supply (with other less harmful but very real radiation), and the U.S. public was predictably upset, concerned, and afraid in terms of their health, and the health of future generations.
At the same time, the American public was learning that something else was poisoning the food supply, and actually or potentially harming millions of people: DDT. Used as an insect pesticide to help U.S. soldiers during World War II, the U.S. Government basically went "all-in", totally committing itself to its use after the war; more specifically, the Department of Agriculture fell in love with DDT after WW II. True, DDT was very effective in combating malaria by killing mosquitoes, as well as other insects that were a huge health hazard in other locations (e.g. the Gypsy Moth), but it was confirmed fairly early that insects developed resistance to DDT. For Americans directly involved with growing crops for the global market, DDT (and other related chemicals) simply meant more yield per acre, and more potential profit.
Rachel Carson argued, in Silent Spring, that the actual problem was the over-use of DDT. She didn't advocate a total ban of chemicals to combat the threat of insect infestations (for example, she did support an appropriate use of chemicals to combat malaria where needed); she argued that U.S. farmers and the U.S. Government were using far too much DDT in far too many locations, and it was contaminating the food supply. An experiment served as an example: DDT was sprayed on hay, and that hay was feed to cows, and then the cows were slaughtered, and the beef was cooked. That beef was then fed to pigs, and then the pigs were slaughtered . . . in the end, the bacon from those pigs had the exact same level of DDT as did the hay. Carson, very early in Silent Spring, connected radiation from atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, and the use of DDT, showing that by the early-1960s, virtually all Americans were at risk for consuming contaminated food (milk was especially at risk from both sources), which led to significant health problems (e.g. birth defects and certain types of cancer).
The battle lines were set: The Chemical Industry, Agriculture, and the U.S. Government versus a petite unmarried woman in her mid-50s who by then was experiencing severe health problems (most significantly, cancer). Unlike her previous best-sellers, the publication of Silent Spring caused an eruption of protest. President Kennedy even inquired if there was a way for the federal government to discredit her conclusions during the fall of 1962 (he soon had a rather unpleasant distraction with the Cuban Missile Crisis). Throughout the howls of protests from those parties with a vested interest in the continued use of DDT and other pesticides, tests and experiments involving DDT were conducted by a variety of scientists, both inside and outside the federal government, and their conclusions matched those of Rachel Carson, and those of the scientists from which she based her research. Eventually, as the social and political battles intensified during the 1960s, the use of DDT (and related pesticides) was drastically reduced in the United States.
When Rachel Carson argued, with scientific evidence in support, that radiation and pesticides were a clear threat to the health of virtually every American, the fledgling Environmental Movement was galvanized. In November of 1963, the same month in which JFK was assassinated, the Secretary of the Interior, Steward Udall, spearheaded the publication ofThe Quiet Crisis, which served as the U.S. Government's effort to warn the public about environmental pollution (President Kennedy wrote the introduction to the book). It is worth mentioning that for many years before she became a successful author, Rachel Carson worked in the Fish and Wildlife division of the Department of the Interior, writing informative educational brochures and advertisements; SecInterior Udall was an admirer and supporter of Carson. Shortly after the publication of Silent Spring, federal laws were enacted such as the Clean Air Act (1963), the Water Quality Act (1965), and the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act (1965). By 1970, the Environmental Movement had built enough momentum and political influence where the Environmental Protection Agency was created, and the first "Earth Day" was established on 22 April that year.
By 1962, Rachel Carson's health was declining rapidly - the main culprit was cancer, but she also experienced what was most probably rheumatoid arthritis. She died in her "Happy Place", her cottage on the coast of Maine, in April, 1964, never really able to fully appreciate the impact she made by researching and writing Silent Spring. As she was researching and writing the book, she was encouraged by her publisher to title it "Silent Spring", referring to the lack of birds singing (especially due to the death of robins) in the areas where there was heavy use of DDT. Rachel Carson's best friend, Dorothy, was at least somewhat comforted that Rachel was able to hear birds sing outside her window, as she was also able to see, hear, and smell her beloved ocean during the last days of her life.
Here is a New York Times book review of William Souder's On a Farther Shore