Silent Spring | Study Guide

Rachel Carson

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Silent Spring | Chapter 14 : One in Every Four | Summary



Cancer-causing elements have been present in nature even before life existed. However, Carson argues "they are few in number and they belong to that ancient array of forces to which life has been accustomed from the beginning." She contrasts this with the introduction of synthetic carcinogens. The rapid emergence of these chemicals has not allowed the human body to adapt quickly enough to ward off the harmful effects or for society to react to the danger.

Carson explains how the pervasive use of chemicals means humans are exposed to chemicals beginning in utero and continuing across the life span. Exposure at younger ages results in more damaging effects. This chapter contains information illustrating large increases in cancer rates in recent decades. Carson explains many of the pesticides on the market are known carcinogens. Meanwhile, levels of exposure currently accepted as "safe" may be found to be harmful in the future. Furthermore, many effects of exposure emerge years after exposure.

Carson offers two theories about the origin of cancer. According to the Warburg Theory, radiation or chemical carcinogens interfere with the energy production of cells, and cells compensate by producing energy through fermentation. In effect, cancer cells are created. The theory explains why multiple small exposures are harmful. A second theory is cancer occurs as a result of chromosome mutation, allowing cells to divide without the normal restraints.

Carson explains how disease has been controlled by attention to prevention as well as to cure. She argues the same approach should be taken to addressing cancer, with serious efforts devoted to prevention.


Carson has alluded to the link between chemicals and cancer. In this chapter she makes the link explicit. She begins with a historical look; she argues carcinogens have always been a part of nature. However, Carson sees the slow pace at which nature evolves as a means of protection against the danger. Carson builds on her previous claim humankind is to blame. Our focus on self and insatiable appetites prompted the rapid introduction of synthetic chemicals which did not give nature time to adapt.

Carson argues exposure to chemicals is not a matter of choice, as when someone chooses an occupation with such hazards. Rather, she argues chemicals pervade our society affecting the unborn, the born, and those yet to be born.

Carson turns to the device of storytelling once again to make her point the most damaging effects of chemicals may not be seen for years to come. She tells how pesticides used against mites and ticks show what is considered safe today may not turn out to be such in the future. Carson explains the slow nature of the development of cancer as further evidence the full effects of chemical use may not be seen immediately and the development of cancer may be the result of indirect rather than direct exposure.

Carson, suffering from cancer at the time of the writing of the book, argues the "common sense approach" to cancer control is two-pronged. Just as with disease control, cancer can be fought via prevention and cure. She argues prevention is not an unreasonable goal.

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