Silent Spring | Study Guide

Rachel Carson

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Silent Spring | Chapter 3 : Elixirs of Death | Summary

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Summary

In Chapter 3 Carson argues every person is subjected to "elixirs of death," i.e., harmful chemicals, across the life span. She claims the effects of 20 years of synthetic pesticides cannot be avoided. First, she provides evidence for this claim: pesticide residue has been detected in water, soil, and all types of living creatures, including humans. Next, she explains how this has occurred. The development of chemicals for war resulted in the finding insects can be destroyed with such synthesized chemicals. Carson argues as the chemicals enter living things, they cause changes that are harmful, as well as irreversible. Carson argues because we are all affected by pesticide use, we all have a right to know how we are being affected.

Carson describes the historical use of arsenic as a pesticide. As dangerous as arsenic is, "modern insecticides are still more deadly," she writes. She explains two groups of harmful synthetic pesticides: chlorinated hydrocarbons, including DDT, and organic phosphorus insecticides. She explains the properties of these chemicals and describes how the whole food chain is affected by the application of the chemicals. Carson argues as DDT moves up the food chain, the concentration becomes heavier than the initial application. The full effects of this process are not known. Carson argues the gaps in our knowledge need to be filled before more harm is done. Carson goes on to argue herbicides pose similar dangers. She closes with the question, "how, then, can we be indifferent?"

Analysis

This chapter title, "Elixirs of Death," is a play on words. Elixir is defined as "a cure-all," a medium for medicine, the purpose of which is to prolong life. But the "elixir" of this chapter brings about a premature end to life. Carson argues we are surrounded by "elixirs of death" throughout our lives and cannot avoid exposure; therefore, we should understand them. But we don't. Nor do the people who should know, the ones making the decisions about their use. Modern industry is able to make the chemicals faster than it can understand their effects. Based on what is known, we should not be moving ahead so indiscriminately. First of all, war was the real beginning of synthetic pesticides, and war is about destruction. Second, modern insecticides are more deadly than those previously used. Carson moves from the familiar to the unfamiliar by beginning with arsenic, a known killer readers would be familiar with. Yet DDT has far more potential for destruction.

Carson builds her credibility as a scientist by explaining complex ideas in ways that are understandable to lay readers. She tells how DDT invades the human body and stays there. She cites experts and research findings that support her claim of DDT's toxicity. The word poison is increasingly substituted for chemicals or pesticide throughout the chapter. Although a reader may not be alarmed by the thought of exposure to a "pesticide," exposure to a "poison" suggests danger. Carson directly confronts and discredits the notion chemicals harm only their intended target. The anecdote about the death of a farmer's wife gives the reader cause for concern about his/her own safety. Carson assures readers they are right to be concerned as they learn the potential effects. She asks the reader, "How then, can we be indifferent?"

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