IOP Panel Discusses Toxins

In honor of environmentalist Rachel Carson’s landmark novel “Silent Spring,” which turns fifty this month, the Harvard Institute of Politics is refocusing energy this week on the persistent danger of chemical exposure that Americans face every day.

In a talk entitled “The Science and Policy of Environmental Toxics and Breast Cancer” hosted at the John F. Kennedy Forum on Thursday night, leading scholars and environmentalists highlighted Carson’s pioneering fight to ban pesticide use—an effort that eventually resulted in a nationwide ban of insecticide DDT in 1972—in order to set the stage for discussion about chemicals that still escape regulation.

“Fifty years ago, Rachel Carson published the book ‘Silent Spring,’” said  C. M. Trey Grayson ‘94, the Director of the Institute of Politics in his opening remarks.  “If you look at the most important books in the 20th century, this is always at the top of the list and has had an incredible impact.”

The panel of speakers, who focused conversation on chemicals linked to the development of breast cancer, unanimously advocated for action and change to the current legislation and public disposition toward environmental policy.

“We have a sixty year time exposure of these ubiquitous chemical that we need to worry about,” said Julia G. Brody, the executive director of the Silent Spring Institute—a partnership of scientists and researchers concerned about environmental links to breast cancer.

Members of the panel shared personal experiences to convey their investment in the cause. Florence Williams, author of “Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History,” recalled testing her breast milk after hearing of the current environmental risks.

“My breast milk came back with high levels of brominated flame retardants,” said Williams.  “It turns out that American women have levels [of these chemicals] ten to one hundred times higher than women anywhere else in the world”.

The speakers subsequently shifted the discussion to the possibility of increased government regulation of these hazardous chemicals, especially emphasizing the potential of voters to mobilize environmental action.

“What we need is a reenergizing of the public to create a new environment,” said panel speaker Sheila Jasanoff, the Pforzheimer Professor of Science & Technology Studies at Harvard Kennedy School.

The evening’s talk concluded with the announcement of the Rachel Carson Advocacy Award recipient. This year’s honoree, noted philanthropist and businesswoman Teresa Heinz, graciously accepted and related her story of becoming an environmentalist.  “

I became an environmentalist simply because that’s what it takes,” she said. “ I made the correlation between what to do, what to eat, and what to expose ourselves to because if you don’t you die. Simple.”

—Staff writer Fatima N. Mirza can be reached at