Silent Spring

Linking Up: Making Every Day Earth Day

By Tom Burke, Ph.D.

Today marks my first Earth Day as the Deputy Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development. This is the one day of the year when people around the world unite to celebrate our planet, and I’m thrilled to be at a place where strengthening the links between a healthy environment and healthy communities are at the forefront of everything we do.

Eagle parents tend to their eaglets.

Eagle parents tend to their eaglets.

I began my day today checking in on the month-old eaglets up near Codorus State Park in Pennsylvania. The chicks are flourishing and provide a wonderful metaphor for the remarkable progress that has been made since the first Earth Day 45 years ago. What started as a collective unease about the state of local waterways, polluted lands, and haze-obscured views across urban neighborhoods was soon amplified in screaming national headlines about rivers on fire, and Rachel Carson’s best-selling book Silent Spring outlining the dangers of the indiscriminant use of the chemical pesticide DDT.

Such events helped spark the realization that when it comes to our environment, we are all in this together. And it was science—much of it led or conducted by EPA researchers—that taught us how to turn environmental concerns into action.

By understanding how particulate matter and other pollutants in the air relate to asthma rates and longevity, between lead exposure and childhood development, and between disease and contaminated water, local public health officials know what steps they can take to better protect people.

That track record for responsive science is why EPA labs are always among the first called when environmental emergencies strike, such as the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or when harmful algal blooms threatened Toledo’s drinking water supply. EPA expertise is counted on to help local officials identify hazards, know what tests to conduct, and when to issue or lift health advisories.

And what’s more, that same expertise is also driving innovative research that is not only helping communities become more resilient today, but developing the tools, models, and solutions to lower risks and advance sustainability for the future. Just a small sampling of examples include:

  • Our researchers have teamed up with colleagues at NASA, NOAA, and the U.S. Geological Survey to develop ways to tap satellite data to monitor water quality and better predict harmful algal blooms.
  • Empowering scientists and communities alike to tap a new generation of small, inexpensive, and portable air sensors to track air quality through The Village Green Project and others.
  • Our Healthy Heart campaign helps cardiac healthcare professionals use existing and emerging research to educate their patients about the link between air quality and their health—and to take action to avoid exposures during “ozone alert” days.
  • Advancing sophisticated computational toxicology methods and technologies through partnerships such as Tox21 to usher in a new paradigm of faster and far less expensive chemical screening techniques.
  • Providing data and mapping tools such as EPA’s EnviroAtlas that help community planners and other citizens identify, quantify, and sustain the many benefits they get from the natural ecosystems that surround them.

I started my own career conducting environmental investigations and epidemiological studies, and working closely with county and city health officials. These officials are on the front lines of environmental health and our communities depend upon them. Providing support by linking them to the data, tools, and innovative solutions mentioned above is one of my top priorities as EPA’s Deputy Assistant Administrator for our Office of Research and Development.

That will take a continued commitment to communications and translation of our science to action, all part of keeping the critical link between a healthy environment and healthy people at the forefront of our thinking. Sharing our work with public health professionals is one way we can work together to make every day Earth Day. And that’s something we can all celebrate.

EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator Tom Burke

EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator Tom Burke


About the Author: Thomas Burke, Ph.D. is the Deputy Assistant Administrator of the Office of Research and Development as well as EPA’s Science Advisor. Prior to coming to EPA, he served as the Jacob I. and Irene B. Fabrikant Professor and Chair in Health, Risk and Society and the Associate Dean for Public Health Practice and Training at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.


Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Celebrating Women who make Environmental Protection Possible

In publishing her game-changing book in 1962, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson turned prose into a powerful tool for good. She transformed our perspective on the natural world around us, informing us of the dangers of rampant application of DDT, a powerful pesticide that poisoned birds. Her book raised awareness about the dangers of pesticide overuse and launched the environmental movement.

Carson, a marine biologist, worked for many years in public service as an editor at the Fish and Wildlife Service (learn more from an audio clip I shared with the White House). She, and many like her, blazed a trail for countless women over the years—scientists, researchers, activists, organizers—who overcame the odds to tell truths that needed to be told.

March is Women’s History Month, a time to celebrate the courageous women who helped build and advance modern environmental progress.

Over the last 45 years of EPA leadership, we’ve made tremendous progress—dramatically cutting air pollution, cleaning up our water and land, and protecting vulnerable communities from harm. This month, we honor the leaders who’ve paved the way for women to follow in their footsteps—from the four women who’ve previously served as this agency’s Administrators, to the countless others who overcame prejudice to transform society.

Here are just a few of those women leaders, who shaped and advanced the environmental movement as we know it:

  • Rosalie Edge was one of the first women to found and lead an environmental advocacy organization in 1928, and was an ardent suffragist. An amateur birdwatcher, she founded Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, the first preserve in the world for birds of prey.
  • Polly Dyer helped protect Washington State’s pristine coastline. She organized and advocated for the protection of the Olympic National Forest, and was a leader in the multi-year efforts to pass the 1964 Wilderness Act.
  • Peggy Shepard founded WE ACT for Environmental Justice in 1988, and has been a longtime leader there. WE ACT was the first organization in New York that focused specifically on cleaning up the environment to protect the health and improve the lives of people of color.
  • Sylvia Earle, an accomplished oceanographer, has led more than 50 underwater research expeditions. In the early 1990s, she became the first female chief scientist of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Time Magazine acknowledged her as its first Hero for the Planet in 1998.
  • Vivian Malone Jones fought all her life for civil rights. In 1963, she was among the first African Americans to enroll at the University of Alabama when it was integrated. As an extension of her fight for civil rights, she’d later take on a career at EPA, where she spent years as a foremost champion for environmental justice.

Back in the ‘60s, thanks in part to Carson’s foresight, President Kennedy took action that ultimately led to a ban on DDT. If she could see us now, Carson would not only be proud of our march toward a cleaner environment, but also of our march toward a more equitable society. Today, almost 40% of EPA scientists and engineers are women. But we know that there’s a lot more to do on both fronts.

I hope you’ll join me this month, and every month, in celebrating these incredible women—and that you’ll share the stories of the game-changing women who inspire you, too.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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You Might Know the Next Rachel Carson

flaagRachel Carson wrote a famous book called Silent Spring, which led our country to ban DDT, a harmful pesticide, and rethink the relationship between our environment and our health. Before that, she served as a scientist and editor at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, eventually becoming Editor-in-Chief of all of the agency’s publications. In those days, it was rare for a woman to serve as a scientist, and even more rare to rise to a position of leadership.

Our country has made a lot of progress since then. In 1970, only 11% of women between the ages of 25 and 64 had a college degree. By 2012, that number had climbed to 38%. And since the late 1990s, women have been awarded about half of all bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering. But in spite of all these gains, only about one in four environmental scientists or geoscientists across the country are women – so we still have a long way to go.

EPA has been lucky to have many extraordinary women launch and grow their careers here. We make up a little more than half of EPA’s workforce, and about 44% of our supervisors and managers. Women do just about every job you can imagine — from running major research efforts to analyzing data to steering our work to protect clean air and water.

That includes environmental experts like Jane Nishida, Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator in our Office of International and Tribal Affairs, and Janet McCabe, Acting Assistant Administrator for our Office of Air and Radiation, who worked to launch our international air quality monitoring effort that is helping us lead the way as we act on climate. It includes lawyers like Lorie Schmidt, who played a key role in last year’s Supreme Court win affirming our authority to regulate greenhouse gases, and who is heavily involved in finalizing our Clean Power Plan. It also includes innovative leaders like Cynthia Giles, our Assistant Administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, who developed our Next-Generation Compliance program that leverages new technologies for monitoring, reporting, permitting and transparency, making it easier for companies and organizations to follow the law.

Five of our 13 Administrators since the agency was established have been women, including our current leader, Gina McCarthy. Five of our current Associate and Assistant Administrators are women, too. Three of our 10 Regional Administrators and seven of our 10 Deputy Regional Administrators are women who guide our work in different parts of the country. The women leaders here are too many to list, and for every one woman who has been in the public eye, there are dozens more driving our work forward throughout the organization.

Odds are good that you know a young woman who will soon be thinking about what she wants to study in school, and what path she wants her life to take. Encourage her to seek out a career where she can help protect the environment. That young woman you know could be the next Rachel Carson or Gina McCarthy, and she might step into a decades-long career in public service and environmental protection that changes the face of the world.

All throughout March, we’ll be highlighting women here at the EPA and at some of our sister agencies who are moving our work forward. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to join the conversation, and check out the slideshow below to meet a few of the women who work here at the EPA.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Celebrating Rachel Carson’s Life and Legacy


By Kathy Sykes 

“…spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song.”

—Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Rachel Carson. Image courtesy of the Rachel Carson Council.

Rachel Carson. Image courtesy of the Rachel Carson Council.

Flapping wings of osprey and eagles wish Rachel Carson a happy 106th birthday. They have much to celebrate this May 27th.  Just 50 years ago, the bald eagle seemed headed for extinction. DDT, an organochlorine insecticide, broke the hearts of mother ospreys who unintentionally crushed the thinned eggshells of their unhatched chicks.  Eagles were also disappearing. “By 1963, only 417 pairs were still raising young in the lower 48 states.” [i]

Fortunately, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was released and described how DDT was poisoning birds and wildlife and endangering human health. Silent Spring planted the seeds of the environmental movement and captured the attention of President John F. Kennedy.

A decade later, two seminal events changed the course of history, saving birds and other wildlife from the brink of extinction. First, EPA banned DDT. Next, the Endangered Species Act was passed.  By 2006, the nation was home to nearly 10,000 successful breeding pairs of bald eagles. [ii]

Ospreys, a “close cousin” of eagles and other birds of prey, live close to waterways such as estuaries, reservoirs, rivers, salt marshes and ponds because their diet consists primarily of fish. A pair, Steve and Rachel, is nesting on Hog Island in Maine. You can become an indoor birder and watch for the chicks to hatch on a live web cam.

Appropriately named after Rachel Carson, Rachel will sit on three healthy eggs incubating them until they hatch.  I have become addicted and peek in daily. So far, I have seen brown-and-white-speckled eggs and both parents-in-waiting. I can see the wind fluff Rachel’s feathers and feel her comfort on rainy days as raindrops are repelled, sliding off or balling up on her back of oily feathers. Longing to hear her call, I found recordings on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology web site. (I love the internet!)

Mother osprey and chick. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service image

Mother osprey and chick. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service image

The National Audubon Society’s 10 tips show what we can all do to help the billions of birds migrating north. I plan to join the Hummingbirds at Home project and become a citizen scientist, pledge to curb my cats, drink coffee made from shade-grown beans, and forgo pesticides.

If Emily Dickinson were alive today, she surely would be a citizen scientist. I’d like to think she would have entered a poem and picture of feathers into the 7th Annual Rachel Carson contest.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.  —Emily Dickinson

Your intergenerational team has until June 10, 2013 to jointly submit an original song, poem, essay, photo, or dance. Happy bird-day, Rachel. We thank you for your dedicated work, your creativity, and leaving with us a “sense of wonder.”

About the Author: Kathy Sykes has been working for the EPA since 1998 where she focuses on older adults and the built environment and healthy communities.  In 2012, she joined the Office of Research and Development and serves as Senior Advisor for Aging and Sustainability.


[i] Science 22 June 2007: Vol. 316 no. 5832 pp. 1689-1690 DOI: 10.1126/science.316.5832.1689 Can the Bald Eagle Still Soar After It Is Delisted? Erik Stokstad

[ii]  Retrieved on May 20, 2013

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Never Too Old to Play

By Kathy Sykes

The older I get, the more I like to play. Did you know that May is Older Americans Month and that this year’s theme is “Never Too Old to Play.” The theme encourages Older Americans to stay engaged, active and involved in their communities.

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of a book, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, that changed the lives for many people who love nature and the out-of-doors.

I hadn’t read Silent Spring until I was an adult. As a child, I remember running down nearby railroad tracks where trains passed by daily around noon transporting large logs heading to the paper mills and lumber yards. My little sister and I used to pick bouquets of flowers that bloomed in abundance near the tracks, white and purple violets, daisies, lilies- of- the-valley for my mother to place on the dining room table.

But those tracks were also sprayed with DDT. We were just kids and had no idea how dangerous it was as we ran down the tracks through the cloud of chemicals. We assumed if the cloud of chemicals was bad for mosquitoes it must be good for us. But I have learned now that the metabolites of DDT are one of those persistent toxicants that are forever a part of me.

Fifty years later we are still thinking about Rachel Carson’s message about the dangers of chemicals and pesticides in our world. The train tracks have been converted into a bike path and trails that weave through the back yards of my childhood neighborhood. DDT is no longer sprayed and the wild flowers are still there. My mom has been active in caring for community gardens and volunteering at the local botanical gardens. She has encouraged all my nieces and nephews to garden and appreciate the out of doors. Mother’s day is around the corner and I am planning to play in a garden and maybe submit an entry with my mom for the Rachel Carson contest.

About the author: Kathy Sykes is a Senior Advisor for Aging and Sustainability in the Office or Research and Development at the U.S. EPA.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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