July 24, 2013

What Would Rachel Carson Do?

Arunima Shukla

Arunima Shukla

Research Assistant

Center for a Livable Future

rachel-carson-houseA recent incident that occurred in the house I used to occupy would have Rachel Carson turning over in her grave.

When I moved to Baltimore last September, I was pleased with myself for finding a room in a house in lovely Oakenshawe, just a few blocks east of JHU’s Homewood Campus: tree-lined streets, well-tended yards, and a short walk to my classes. It was truly idyllic. I even lucked out with my terrific and brilliant roommates—a Chilean astrophysicist, an Indonesian biologist, an aspiring epidemiologist from Croatia, and a transplanted Minnesotan working at a neuroscience lab. How could my living situation get any better? I found out that Rachel Carson lived in the house when she was a grad student at Hopkins.

It turns out that Rachel Carson, who wrote the revolutionary Silent Spring, reserved a room in that house while she was pursuing a graduate degree in zoology.  As a public policy student interested in environmental and health policy, I was beyond thrilled to be living in a house once occupied by the founder of the modern environmental movement.  We often speculated on which room in the house she might have occupied (obviously it was mine!). If this all sounds too good to be true, the event that made me end my tenancy recently is truly unbelievable.

One evening I returned home and noticed a strange chemical smell in house. One of my roommates informed me that the landlord had fumigated one of the rooms without informing us, and he found several cans of an indoor fogger in the trashcan. Apparently several cans had been used, even though the instructions on the can clearly state “DO NOT USE MORE THAN ONE FOGGER PER ROOM.” What’s worse is that the room had not been ventilated.

The roommate who previously occupied that room moved out and a new person was due to move in. When that person came in to move some of his furniture, he entered the room, felt terribly sick, and promptly cancelled the lease.  When he opened the room, the concentrated fumes spread to the entire house, and forced the current occupants, myself included, to flee the house immediately due to troubling physical symptoms like dizziness and nausea.  The landlord was truly apologetic and tried to air out the house with several fans but for an entire week we could still smell the fumes, and could not live in the house (and this happened during finals week. You can imagine my stress levels).  I didn’t feel comfortable living in the house after this incident and moved out as soon as I could (as did all my roommates).

While it’s somewhat funny and ironic that the thoughtless use of pesticides compelled the residents of Rachel Carson’s old digs to vacate, this incident does highlight a dangerous tendency to ignore the dangerous public health implications of using pesticides and insecticides.  In many cases this comes down to a lack of knowledge and awareness about the risks of using these chemicals.  Although the household use of these substances can be often be problematic, the biggest problems arise from their large-scale use in agriculture.

The recent tragic deaths of several school children in India possibly due to food tainted by insecticides highlights how dangerous some of these substances can be.  While the U.S. is one of the better-regulated countries in terms of pesticide usage due to the work of people like Rachel Carson, there is a long way to go to mitigate public health risks from pesticide and insecticide usage.

A NPR blogpost highlights the occupational hazards faced by many farm workers due to inadequate labeling requirements for pesticides.  The most basic regulatory step that can be taken to moderate health risks from pesticides is to increase awareness by strengthening labeling requirements. Another essential regulatory step is the reporting of pesticide usage. The worst situations arise when people just don’t know what substances they are being exposed to on a regular basis. There is some good news on this front in Maryland, which has just established a Pesticide Information and Reporting Workgroup to work on recommendations for improving pesticide use and reporting requirements.

The use of pesticides and insecticides is not all bad. In fact their usage is critical for ensuring food security and disease prevention. We need make sure that we use these dangerous chemicals with due care and caution so we can maximize their benefits to society and mitigate the potential harms from their usage.

Photo: Arunima Shukla 2013.


  1. Posted by Hans

    Great blog. Very informative and eye opener. I have to add something. You know bald eagle population got nearly wiped out due to DDT . Please let me know when you are coming out with your next blog. Can’t wait

  2. Posted by Keisha Bates

    I, the “transplanted Minnesotan”, surely am glad I moved out when I did. Although the landlord’s reason for fumigating the room (to get rid of bed bugs, which, from experience, are an absolutely TERRIBLE thing to have to deal with) was under good intentions, what all of my remaining housemates had to deal with was absolutely unacceptable. I am now left wondering if I was subjected to any harmful pesticides after the same room was fumigated when I moved in last fall.

  3. Posted by Bill Clark

    Great article. Very ironic and very sad. A very solid piece of evidence for the unintended consequences naive or ignorant operators can cause when faced with problems to solve but untrained in the tools the choose to work with.

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