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Rachel Carson and DDT
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September 21, 2007

A Renewed Controversy

The centenary of Rachel Carson's birth has been the cause of much celebration (see our profile) and of some renewed criticism. Criticism aside, few can debate the impact that SILENT SPRING has had on our natural world, and in inspiring citizens around the globe to work to protect it. Many credit Carson with inspiring the creation of the EPA, as well as the passage of the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act, and laying the groundwork for the environmental movement. Before her landmark book, biologist E.O Wilson writes, "Ecology was near the bottom of scientific disciplines in prestige and support; few Americans even knew what the word meant."

Yet Carson's legacy will forever be intertwined with the chemical DDT and the malaria fight. "A lot of people have used Carson to push their own agendas," explains Roger Bate of the American Enterprise Institute. "We just have to be a little careful when you're talking about someone who died in 1964."

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) recently put a halt to a bill proposed by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) that would have honored Rachel Carson for her, "legacy of scientific rigor coupled with poetic sensibility," 100 years after her birth. According to his spokesman, Coburn "opposes these measures honoring Carson because one tragic aspect of Carson's legacy is that unscientific DDT policies have led to, and continue to lead to, millions of preventable deaths in malaria-stricken countries."

Senator Coburn is not alone in his recent criticism of Carson. On his Web site, he invites those interested in reading "more about why Rachel Carson's science was wrong.", a Web site hosted by the free-market think-tank, Conservative Enterprise Institute, concludes that, "millions of people around the world suffer the painful and often deadly effects of malaria because one person sounded a false alarm. That person is Rachel Carson." This fervor has been a common note in criticism since the book's release, even though Carson never called for a ban on pesticides — only for study and caution.

Even noted novelist Michael Crichton, in his latest book THE STATE OF FEAR, highlights how he believes alarmists in the environmental movement are doing more harm than good. In a speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco he explained, "The greatest challenge facing mankind is the challenge of distinguishing reality from fantasy, truth from propaganda...As an example of this challenge, I want to talk today about environmentalism."

What is DDT?

Nobel-Prize winning, Swiss scientist Paul Hermann Muller first discovered that the chemical DDT was highly lethal to insects in 1939. Allied soldiers stationed in the Pacific, who were falling ill to malaria and typhoid by the thousands, were dusted with DDT, with tremendous success. "It's hard to overestimate the impact that DDT's early success had on the world of public health," writes Malcolm Gladwell for THE NEW YORKER.

DDT even helped to deal malaria its "final blow" in the United States South, describes Kirsten Weir in an article for SALON, even though Jay Ellenberger of the EPA explains that the disease was "pretty well gone" in this country by the 1940's.

Fred Soper, dubbed by many a "Malaria Warrior," for his work helping to eradicate the disease in areas such as Brazil and Sardinia in the early 50's, launched the Global Malaria Eradication Program in 1955 with World Health Organization backing, and DDT as his insecticide of choice. "Between 1945 and 1965, DDT saved millions - even tens of millions- of lives around the world, perhaps more than any other man-made drug or chemical before or since," writes Gladwell.

Yet Soper's goal of complete eradication of malaria through DDT-spraying proved unattainable for a variety of reasons. Mosquitoes, especially in areas where spraying was the heaviest, began showing resistance to DDT. Furthermore, geographical factors particularly in African countries, made spraying extremely difficult:

"How could you effectively spray eighty percent of homes in the Amazonian jungle, where communities are spread over hundreds of thousands of highly treacherous acres?" asks Gladwell.

By the early 60's, global interest in malaria eradication through insecticide-spraying began to wane. Malcolm Gladwell notes that "in 1963, the money [to fund the WHO malaria project] from Congress ran out," and countries began to invest their limited resources in other health areas such as maternal and childcare. By 1969, the WHO completely abandoned the Global Malaria Eradication effort.


Rachel Carson's 1962 work was not the first time someone sounded the alarm about DDT and other pesticides. There were many lawsuits filed in the 1950's by ornithologists and beekeepers about the implications of DDT on wildlife. Still, Carson's work brought these concerns into the public arena as they had never been before.

Yet Carson does not call for the complete ban of DDT and other pesticides in SILENT SPRING. She writes, "It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used. I contend...that we have allowed these chemicals to be used with little or no advance investigation of their effect on soil, water, wildlife, and man himself."

In 1972, 10 years after SILENT SPRING was published and 8 years after Carson's death, The Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT in America, with exemptions for health emergencies and some agricultural uses. Many believe Carson and her reputation contributed to this decision, but, in defending its ruling, the EPA sites substantial scientific evidence of DDT's adverse effects on wildlife and increased insect resistance to the chemical.

Still, even Carson supporters agree that certain assertions she made regarding the dangerous effects of DDT, did not stand the test of time, particularly her assertion that the insecticide was a carcinogen. "Repeated studies have found no evidence that DDT exposure increases the risk of Cancer," writes Weir in SALON.

Carson's concerns with DDT stemmed from its overuse for agricultural purposes, yet Malcolm Gladwell explains that she did not "make it clear how judiciously the public health community was using the chemical [to fight malaria]...effectively lumping the malaria warriors with those who used DDT for economic gain." Most of the major U.S. environmental groups support the selective use of DDT for malaria-control, at least until other alternatives are found.

Published on September 21, 2007

References and Reading:

"Bill to Honor Rachel Carson on Hold"
By David A. Fahrenthold, THE WASHINGTON POST, May 23, 2007
"Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn has effectively blocked a resolution to honor environmental author Rachel Carson on the 100th anniversary of her birth, saying that her warnings about environmental damage have put a stigma on potentially lifesaving pesticides, congressional staffers said yesterday."

"The Mosquito Killer"
By Malcolm Gladwell, THE NEW YORKER, July 2, 2001
Gladwell profiles malaria warrior, Fred Soper, who used DDT to enormous success in the 50's and 60's, yet was unable to realize his dream for complete eradication of the disease.

"Rachel Carson's birthday bashing"
By Kirsten Weir, SALON, June 29, 2007
Environmental reporter Kirsten Weir lays out the modern-day attacks on Rachel Carson's legacy and assesses their veracity by interviewing a wide array of scientists, historians and malaria-researchers. Weir focuses particularly on the allegation that Carson's warnings about DDT are directly responsible for the upsurge in malaria worldwide.

"Remembering Rachel Carson"
Editorial, BOSTON GLOBE, May 27, 2007
"The centennial of Carson's birth is being commemorated with observances around the country today...But revisionists are busy besmirching Carson's legacy."

Rachel Carson: Pen Against Poison
"In the 100th anniversary year of Carson's birth, this publication examines how occasionally in history a book with a powerful idea can bring about peaceful but dramatic change in a democratic society."

Rachel Carson's Deadly Legacy
Op-Ed by Angela Logomasini, THE WASHINGTON TIMES, May 31, 2007
Director of Risk and Environmental Policy at think-tank the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Logomasini lays out the Institute's argument why Carson's SILENT SPRING led to the deaths of millions in Africa and elsewhere.

The TIME 100: People of the Century
Noted naturalist and writer Peter Matthiessen on one of the TIME 100: "Even if she had not inspired a generation of activists, Carson would prevail as one of the greatest nature writers in American letters."

Read Carson's Obituary in THE NEW YORK TIMES, April 15, 1964

"Bedlam in the Blood, Malaria"
An overview from NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC of the current state of malaria incidence and treatment around the world.

"A Chilling Tale: Michael Crichton's State of Fear."
By Ronald Bailey, WALL STREET JOURNAL, December 10, 2004

"Downstream From 'Silent Spring'"
By Robert L. Wolke, THE WASHINGTON POST, June 6, 2007

"Fateful Voice of a Generation Still Drowns Out Real Science"
By John Tierney, THE NEW YORK TIMES, June 5, 2007

"Silent Spring at 40"
By Ronald Bailey, REASON, June 12, 2002

"Sounding the Alarm"
By Bruce Watson, SMITHSONIAN, September 2002

"What the World Needs Now Is DDT"
By Tina Rosenberg, THE NEW YORK TIMES, April 11, 2004

Also This Week:

BILL MOYERS JOURNAL looks at the life and legacy of Rachel Carson and her book SILENT SPRING, which launched the modern environmental movement.

Critics allege that Carson's case against the insecticide DDT put a halt to the chemical's use to fight malaria around the world. But what is the truth? Find out more.

>For Educators: Rachel Carson Lesson Plan

More on writer/performer Kaiulani Lee and her 15 year journey to spread Rachel Carson's ecological message to the world.

Photographic Artist Chris Jordan turns the statistics of consumerism into palpable images in his new photo series.

>Jordan discusses his photo series on Hurricane Katrina
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