Barry Commoner is a biologist at Queens College, New York. He is most well known for his work in the 1950s forming the St. Louis Committee for Nuclear Information, which first publicized the negative effects of nuclear testing on humans. Commoner has spent his career studying man’s relationship with the environment, and has published several books, including The Closing Circle (1971) in which he connects the development of new technologies to problems in our environment.
He was interviewed by the Producers of Earth Days on July 16, 2007.
In certain ways, I’m not very different than I was when I was a teenager. In other words, I enjoy doing what I’m doing. And, the wonderful thing about being 90 is that, somehow, with a lot of luck I’ve managed to get myself into exactly the right position that I wanted to be in when I got older. Which was having a place to work, where I could continue to do the kinds of things I have done, for many years, and enjoyed enormously, have gotten a lot of good feelings out of it. To continue to do it, in the circumstance that I’m accustomed to. And, this isn’t easy. Particularly in academic life.
I sometimes tell an audience — when I’m talking about the relationship with the rest of nature I say, “well, you know, I was raised on organic food.” And people are very surprised because only recently can they buy organic food when they went to the supermarket. That’s where it is. “Well, yes,” I explain, “we didn’t have pesticides, and fertilizer. So crops were grown, in the way in which it is now specified organic foods should be grown. Without synthetic pesticides and fertilizer, and similar intrusions in what happens naturally.” In other words, we simply ate the food as it was naturally grown.
On man and agriculture
What happened during the course of the development of human culture, was that people realized that plants could be domesticated — grown deliberately. You knew that if you had a seed, you could get a plant. And the seed would be good to eat. And that immediately increased the ability of human society to grow and develop. And land was taken for that purpose, and then it immediately encroached on the use of land by other organisms. In that sense, there was an evolutionary development in human society, that triggered an interaction between our activity, and its effect on nature.
On the atomic bomb
The atomic bomb itself caused the reaction against the consequences of setting off explosions. And it occurred because the military decided that they would have to test the weapons they were developing in the United States. And this would be done in a relatively unpopulated area, disregarding that there are some people who are in that relatively unpopulated area. In Nevada, for example. And they also disregarded the fact that when radiation is disseminated by an explosion, that it will spread, and that it’s not difficult to detect. And all of this went on without any public knowledge… until the weather got involved. And at a particular time immediately after an explosion in Nevada, the weather system was such that a cloud went very high almost into the stratosphere, and was carried rapidly across the country eastward. [A] cloud of radioactivity. And it so happened that when it got over New York State there was a very severe rainstorm. And a very heavy rain carried radioactivity down to the area of Troy, New York, near Albany. There were a number of scientific institutions in that area, and people who had instruments that picked up radioactivity, and a number of physicists at one of the universities noticed that their radiation detection machines went off-scale. And by this time, the people knew that it had to be coming down from somewhere. And they went out and wiped the stuff that was on their cars, and tested that and sure enough it was radioactive. And by noticing what kinds of radioactivity were in it, it was clear that it came from an atomic bomb explosion. For example, strontium 90, which is a particular radioactive element. And immediately people knew that, the weather was distributing radioactivity all over the place. And people worried how it would affect us. Would it fall on us? Would we have to be bathing? What happens when it gets into food?
The scientist community publicized it. The people in the Troy area let it be known. And at that time physicists, particularly, scientists, were sensitive to this because a number of them were people who had worked on the atomic bomb program, and had recently gone back to their universities. And there was a whole group of physicists, who were very concerned about the consequences of what they had done.
On WWII and technology
World War II had a very important impact on the development of technology, as a whole. I mean think of it. Nuclear power, nuclear bombs, came out of World War II. Radar. And the knowledge of the ways in which different types of electronic devices can be used I think had a lot to do with the explosion of the whole computer world. Medicine changed. Most of the drugs that people took before World War II were herbal extracts. Aspirin was around, but it was really a derivative of extracts of bark from willow trees. After World War II, the petrochemical industry, was literally created in the United States by the fact that the United States took over the patents from the German government after the war. And literally, an entire industry was born of synthetic chemicals in World War II. These were immediately applied to agriculture. And the whole transition from farmer-based agriculture into tractor-based agriculture, machine-based agriculture, [was] done on a large scale, using the instruments to distribute fertilizer and pesticides to harvest the grain, changing the entire economic structure of agriculture. These are some of the big changes that occurred in our way of producing and using goods that we needed. And invented new ways of doing it. Most of this was done without any initial consideration of the consequences of this new activity on human health and the stability of the environment.
I think there was a whole period of total absorption, with the potential power that could be harnessed in new technology. And almost no thought about, for example, the dangers of radiation that are inseparable from the use of nuclear power or nuclear bombs. And certainly, this was true of the chemical industry. These new chemicals that were made, you know, [caused] changes [that] took place in the common objects of living. Soap, for example. Everybody used soap, knew what soap was… everybody knew it was made of fat, with a little bit of alkali mixed together and that was it, soap. Well, it’s been replaced by detergents. Synthetic cleansers that were capable of doing a good job cleaning things, but no one ever gave any thought to what would happen in the sewage treatment system when the detergents got through, and into the water, and caused huge foams that blocked up rivers. And contaminated whole areas. The simple thing that happened was that the automobile was transformed after World War II simply by increasing the power of the engine. The power was increased by increasing the pressure in the cylinders. Terrific invention. You got a lot more power out of a given pound of engine. But you also got smog. The reason being that at the high pressure, the engines ran hotter than the old Fords used to run. And nitrogen in the air reacted with oxygen, forming nitrogen oxides which came out the exhaust. Hit by sunlight, this triggered smog. A lot of toxic material, including ozone, produced. And the greenish, brownish pall that fell over Los Angeles began to spread over the entire country. This is a huge change, and simply by making a simple change in the engines of cars.
The chemical industry has a very elaborate system of taking note of the creation of new synthetic chemicals. It’s called the Chemical Abstract Service. And [when] a new chemical is noted, and gets a number. Well, how big is that number now? It’s hard to tell cause the last time I inquired, it was increasing at the rate of 4,000 new chemicals a day. Four thousand. And there are now upwards of 10 million. In fact, everyone agrees, chemists agree, that number is infinite. That is, we can make any kind of additional, diverse, synthetic, organic chemicals that we want. Now, how many different organic chemicals are known, that occur in living things? And there is a database on that too. It’s called The Dictionary of Living Products. And, the last time I looked — and they say, we’ve got most of them — it was 230,000. 230,000, as against 10 million, going up 4,000 a day. Now, that’s an enormously significant fact.
....You should care because, most of the chemicals that pollute the environment in the sense of causing biological damage to humans and to the rest of nature, most of them are these synthetic, man-made chemicals, not things that occur in living things.
DDT is an insecticide. It was actually synthesized by some chemist, in the late 1800s. They just happened to make something, they didn’t know anything about it, [and they] put it on the shelf. There was a time when it was a good idea to just learn how to make a new chemical. So there was a new chemical. During the war a different chemist during World War II took this thing off the shelf and discovered that it was a terrific mosquito killer. And it was immediately restricted to military use, and people began to use it everywhere to kill insects. It was smeared over some of the soldiers. On buildings. No tests whatsoever. I mean here’s something that — the remarkable thing about it is that a drop so small you needed a microscope to see it, would kill a mosquito on contact.
Later on I discovered that a friend of mine had been working on the biological effects of DDT on cells. And he’d realized that this stuff was very toxic to people. He was in the Army. There was no communication between the Army and the Navy on this. In other words, these things were learned in a wartime situation. And so, after the wartime, it took time to run across this again.
On Rachel Carson
Rachel Carson started with the business of birds dying because of DDT. That they, that was in the earthworms that they ate. And incidentally it turned out that she knew of the work in St. Louis, and realized before she wrote Silent Spring, that the importance of getting this kind of information to people. And one of her biographers surmised that she got that idea from the formation of the committee in St. Louis dealing with radiation. And in fact she was scheduled to come and speak in St. Louis, but never did because she became too sick at that time.
On the St. Louis Committee for Nuclear Information
People actually literally were worried, physically worried about fallout, about how their kids were gonna grow up, about the stupidity of shelters, and there was a sense that something had to be done about it. And so, being a built-in political activist by then, [I] decided the thing to do was to form a group in St. Louis, of scientists and leading citizens, who were concerned about this, to see how scientists could collect useful information about what was really going on and transmit it to ordinary people. And we formed the St. Louis Committee for Nuclear Information. Not to take stands on yes-no about bombs or fallout, but to get the information. And we started for example by calling on the government to release the studies they had done. And that lead to them — we really sort of shamed them, into releasing the first study, which showed that they knew there was radioactivity in milk. How did it get in the milk? Well, we started to look at that, and clearly it was falling on the grass, cows were eating it, and the Strontium 90 got into the milk because it moved along with calcium, which was in the grass, and ends up in the milk. And when the kids drank it, there was Strontium 90. Well, all parents in St. Louis [who] were raising kids, as my wife and I were raising kids, at that time worried about, “what are we gonna do about giving them milk?”
It struck me that — and we talked it over in our committee — that maybe we ought to start collecting baby teeth, at first just to have a record of how much radioactivity babies, kids, in St. Louis were exposed to. We had no way of knowing. Except by this time, there was reports about radioactivity in milk. And we knew that the milk in St. Louis had an appreciable level of radioactivity, but that’s all we knew. And, kids had to drink milk. And everybody was pretty desperate trying to think, “where are we gonna get milk that’s free of strontium 90?” Well what we thought of [was], “we need a record that it is getting into the body.”
Strontium 90 is like calcium in its chemistry, and it follows calcium into bones and also into the teeth that are shed. So we thought we would collect teeth of kids in St. Louis, and form a depository… a concrete record, of the radioactivity that they had gotten, by the milk they were drinking, during the fallout, from nuclear bomb tests. Well, [the] first thing we had to do was to find a way of analyzing it. But our immediate aim was just to collect it, and then later figure out how to analyze it. But we discovered that there was a way of doing it by grinding up the teeth and seeing how much strontium was in it. And this turned out to be a huge success. We got the schools organized, we sent leaflets throughout the school system. Kids brought in their teeth, [and] we gave them little buttons that said “I gave my teeth to science.” And we collected thousands of teeth, in fact. This got into the newspapers, and we began to get teeth in the mail, to the Committee for Nuclear Information. Sometimes letters would be addressed to the Tooth Fairy, St. Louis, Missouri, and it would get to the committee. And we got over a couple of hundred thousand teeth. Many of them from outside of St. Louis, which we were not particularly interested in because we wanted to relate it to the milk levels in St. Louis. But in any rate this was analyzed, and there were appreciable levels of strontium 90, in the teeth. And the result was a tremendous amount of publicity.
On a failure of the environmental movement
The real abhorrent consequence of the invention of atomic bombs is the fact that we still have them and they’re spreading. And it took a little while for people to realize that atomic bombs ought to be abolished if possible. And I think one of the terrible failures of the whole environmental movement is that we have failed to abolish atomic weapons. Failed. We have them, the Russians have them, other countries have them. And lord knows where they are in some cases.