When Time magazine put Barry Commoner on its cover in 1970, the accompanying article lauded the environmental scientist as “the Paul Revere of Ecology.” In truth, that was a title better deserved by Rachel Carson, whose 1962 best seller Silent Spring first alerted Americans to the damage that pesticides were wreaking on what used to be called the “balance of nature.” Commoner was really environmentalism’s Patrick Henry — a strident, oft-confrontational firebrand who exhorted his countrymen and women to act decisively to protect the planet.
Like Henry, Commoner, who died on Sept. 30 in New York City at age 95, wasn’t always easy to take. Journalist Philip Shabecoff described him as “a biologist with a sharp and eloquent tongue and a fierce sense of political engagement.” Some thought he went too far, such as when he ran a quixotic third-party campaign for president in 1980, in which he linked environmental problems to racism, sexism and economic injustice. Nevertheless, Commoner, whose political views were grounded in scientific data, had a real impact.
Here are five environmental threats that Commoner helped sound the alarm against.
- Nuclear fallout. Commoner first gained notoriety in the late 1950s by warning of the health dangers of radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons tests. By documenting concentrations of strontium 90 in children’s baby teeth, he helped further the passage of the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
- Chemical fertilizers. In the late 1960s, Commoner alerted the public that baby food was being contaminated by excess nitrogen from chemical fertilizers.
- Mercury. In a 1970 speech, Commoner warned that mercury pollution from sources such as power plants and trash incinerators was a major health risk for Americans, and called for testing Americans’ food for mercury levels.
- Plastics. In 1990, Commoner released a study knocking supposedly environmentally friendly biodegradable plastics, which are designed to disintegrate when exposed to sunlight. He found that the plastic waste broke up into smaller pieces but didn’t actually break down into water, carbon dioxide and other naturally occurring substances. “It’s simply a way to play on the idea that people want ecologically sound plastic,” he said. “Well, there’s no such thing.” In this 2009 article, Ramani Narayan, a professor of chemical and biochemical engineering at Michigan State University, essentially backs up Commoner’s findings.
- Dioxins. In a 1986 interview, Commoner argued against trash incinerators in Detroit, warning that burning trash produced carcinogenic compounds known as dioxins. At the time, he didn’t win the argument. But in 2009, Detroit finally at least began to try recycling — the alternative proposed by Commoner — with a pilot curbside program for 10 percent of the city’s households.
Here’s a video clip of Commoner giving a speech on the potential dangers of synthetic chemicals, from a 1979 documentary.