Rachel Carson | June 4, 2007 Issue - Vol. 85 Issue 23 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 85 Issue 23 | p. 5 | Editor's Page
Issue Date: June 4, 2007

Rachel Carson

Department: Editor's Page

  • Editor's Note: For an in-depth examination of the current use of DDT in battling malaria, see Naomi Lubick's article "DDT's Resurrection" in Environmental Science & Technology [2007, 41, 6323].
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ONE HUNDRED YEARS after her birth, and 43 years after her death, Rachel Carson remains a polarizing figure in American culture. She is both revered and reviled for her book "Silent Spring" and the role it played in the creation of the modern environmental movement.

May 27 marked the 100th anniversary of Carson's birth. In the run-up to the date, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) had planned to introduce a resolution celebrating Carson's legacy. However, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) announced that he would block the resolution by the use of a parliamentary device, because, according to a statement from his office, "Carson was the author of the now-debunked 'Silent Spring,' a book that was the catalyst in the deadly worldwide stigmatization against insecticides, especially DDT." As a result, Cardin delayed introducing the resolution.

According to Coburn and other conservatives, Carson should be remembered as one of history's worst mass murderers. Her indictment of DDT, they claim, has resulted in something like 90 million preventable deaths from malaria. Like Coburn, these detractors often refer to "Silent Spring" in disparaging terms like "now-debunked" or "junk science" without offering any evidence other than their claim that DDT is perfectly safe and should never have been banned.

I re-read "Silent Spring" for the first time in more than 30 years over the Memorial Day weekend. I remembered Carson's intense focus on chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides—especially DDT—and their effects on wildlife—especially birds. What I did not remember was her eloquence and grace as a writer and her insistence that humans are not above nature, but an integral part of it.

Carson was obviously obsessed with DDT. She returns to it again and again in "Silent Spring" and makes claims about the insecticide that, even at the time, seemed unlikely to turn out to be true. Consider, however, the state of scientific knowledge in 1962, the year "Silent Spring" was published. The same issue of C&EN that carried a highly critical review of "Silent Spring" (entitled, "Silence, Miss Carson") contained an article on biochemists' efforts to decipher the genetic code. The mechanisms of carcinogenicity, mutagenicity, and teratogenicity had barely begun to be understood. Consider also that resistance to DDT was already widespread among mosquitoes and other target insects and that antimalarial campaigns were being modified as a result of that resistance.

Over the two decades prior to the publication of "Silent Spring," the world witnessed an explosion of indiscriminate pesticide use. Hundreds of millions of pounds of insecticides and herbicides were spread over millions of acres of forests, prairies, and croplands to kill insects and clear brush and weeds.

At a time when humans largely believed themselves to be apart from nature and destined to control it, Carson argued passionately that nature is, in fact, a network of interconnections and interdependencies and that humans are a part of that network and threaten its cohesion at their own peril. "Man," she wrote, "however much he may like to pretend the contrary, is part of nature. Can he escape a pollution that is now so thoroughly distributed throughout our world?" What is mainstream today was heretical in 1962, and I think this part of Carson's argument is what earned her such enmity when "Silent Spring" was published.

A certain moral outrage suffuses the book: "Who has decided—who has the right to decide—for the countless legions of people who were not consulted that the supreme value is a world without insects, even though it be also a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight? The decision is that of the authoritarian temporarily entrusted with power; he has made it during a moment of inattention by millions to whom beauty and the ordered world of nature still have meaning that is deep and imperative."

Carson's prose gave voice to millions who yearned for a value system that effectively opposed the indiscriminate poisoning of their world in the name of economic efficiency. For that, Sen. Coburn and his ilk still cannot forgive her.

Thanks for reading.


Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


Editor's Note:

  • Editor's Note: For an in-depth examination of the current use of DDT in battling malaria, see Naomi Lubick's article "DDT's Resurrection" in Environmental Science & Technology [2007, 41, 6323].
  • HTML | PDF

Chemical & Engineering News
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Ed Darrell  (March 26, 2014 7:03 PM)
Now, years later, it's worthy of noting that Sen. Coburn let down his objections long enough to allow the Post Office in Carson's home town to be named for her.

But it's also worth reporting that Carson was right, and Coburn is wrong.

Scientific objections to Carson's book were legion, but not scientifically based, it turned out. President John Kennedy asked the President's Science Advisory Council (PSAC) to analyze Carson's book, to check it for accuracy, and make recommendations. PSAC assembled a panel of pesticide experts and biologists of the highest caliber. They issued their report on May 15, 1963: Carson was right on the science, but they thought her tone was too shrill. However, they said, DDT was more dangerous than Carson let on, and the government needed to move immediately to curtail use and find suitable substitutes.

The whole text of Use of Pesticides: The Report of the President's Science Advisory Committee can be found revived at this site: http://timpanogos.wordpress.com/2012/12/10/use-of-pesticides-report-of-the-presidents-science-advisory-committee-may-15-1963/

Carson was restricted to 1962 science, but she was extremely meticulous and careful about what she chose to cite. She did not claim, anywhere, that DDT is carcinogenic. Consequently, criticisms that DDT is not carcinogenic can be dismissed as showing mainly that the claimant did not read Carson closely enough. Nor was DDT banned for carcinogenicity, eight years after Carson's death. The jury was still deliberating then (DDT is a known mammal carcinogen, but fortunately appears to be not a strong human carcinogen), so EPA dismissed that as a concern. DDT was banned for known effects on non-target species and entire ecosystems, problems Carson had spotlighted a decade earlier.

It is important to note that, of the 53 pages of science citations Carson offered, not a single study has ever been contradicted by later research. Discover Magazine noted in 2007 that more than 1,000 peer reviewed studies had been published on the topics Carson cited , after she published. Not one contradicted anything Carson said. That's a remarkable record, to be fact-checked by Nobel winners and other top scientists, and by 1,000 other studies, and have one's findings remain intact.

In fact, Carson may have underestimated the impact of DDT on birds, says Michael Fry, an avian toxicologist and director of the American Bird Conservancy’s pesticides and birds program. She was not aware that DDT—or rather its metabolite, DDE—causes eggshell thinning because the data were not published until the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was eggshell thinning that devastated fish-eating birds and birds of prey, says Fry, and this effect is well documented in a report (pdf) on DDT published in 2002 by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). The report, which cites over 1,000 references, also describes how DDT and its breakdown products accumulate in the tissues of animals high up on terrestrial and aquatic food chains—a process that induced reproductive and neurological defects in birds and fish.

That quote notes an important point: Eggshell thinning, which is one of the principal ways DDT kills populations of birds, was unknown before Carson's death. Confirmation of thinning as a key problem didn't come until after the EPA's action to restrict DDT.

Third, EPA's restrictions on DDT applied chiefly to agricultural use, where about the only use remaining was spraying of cotton. Health use -- such as against malaria -- was allowed to continue. Claims that DDT use was restricted in the U.S. and caused malaria are completely false.

Fourth, EPA's restrictions applied ONLY to the U.S. EPA has no jurisdiction outside the U.S. EPA's order banned the use of DDT in the U.S., but not the manufacture. EPA thought U.S. manufacturers could continue making the stuff, and export all the product, thereby avoiding economic calamity to themselves. They did exactly that, which meant that DDT supplies for use in Africa and Asia were multiplied. Manufacturing of DDT continued until at least 1984; on the day the Superfund bill became effective, many of those companies declared bankruptcy rather than try to clean up their toxic facilities.

Fifth, to fight malaria, DDT is used in Indoor Residual Spraying, on the walls of homes, and not in outdoor use at all. Those uses were largely suspended in Africa in 1965, by the World Health Organization, when it was discovered that abuse of DDT in other applications had bread mosquitoes that were resistant and immune to DDT. That campaign was suspended on the ground in 1965, and officially closed down in 1969 -- before the U.S. acted against DDT. It's important to note WHO did not stop using DDT completely, just where it had stopped working; it's important to note that WHO had no authority to ban DDT in any nation, and never tried.

Was Rachel Carson a murderer? Let's "blame" Carson for every additional malaria death between the publication of her book until today, and add them up.

At peak DDT use, roughly 1958 through 1963, 4 million people a year died from malaria, which infected a half-billion people annually. Despite the end of the UN eradication campaign, malaria incidence declined steadily, and so did deaths. By 1972, deaths were down to 2 million a year. (Let's ignore the lives saved in that decade). In the mid-1990s, annual deaths dropped to about a million a year. Let's say 1995. 23 years bewteen 1972 and 1995, at 2 million FEWER malaria deaths per year, and we have 46 million lives saved. Though deaths continued to decline, let's keep the math simple; by 2005, annual deaths were down to ~700,000 per year. Ignoring the additional saved lives in that decade, we still have 20 million more lives saved, for a total of 66 million. Assuming 3.3 million more lives saved annually from 2005 to 2014, we get an additional 29.7 million lives -- round it off to 30 million.

The "additional" deaths to malaria after Rachel Carson's book total NEGATIVE 96 million.

Contrary to the wild, anti-environmentalist and anti-rational claims by Carson's critics, by their standards, Carson should be attributed with SAVING 96 million lives, counting solely the changes in malaria deaths.

Malaria infections have declined to less than 250 million annually, a cut of 50% over 1962. Malaria deaths are down more than 80% since malaria's heyday.

It's not Rachel Carson who needs Sen. Coburn's forgiveness, but quite the opposite. Coburn also owes an apology to millions who could have had a tougher anti-malaria program in their country, had not Coburn and similar malinformed people not demanded a "return to DDT" which would have done no good, instead of conceding that bednets and other programs would produce greater effect.
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