Tuesday, March 1, 2005

Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" Led to the End of DDT... And Millions of Deaths

I was reading last week's Forbes (February 28, 2005) when I came across Steve Forbes's column for issue and read the first section called "Deadly Prejudice":

Nearly every month almost as many people die from malaria as were killed by the tsunami waves in the Indian Ocean. Most of malaria's victims, some 2 million a year, are children under the age of 5. More than 300 million annually suffer from this debilitating disease that drains survivors of their mental and physical energies. Incredibly, there's an easy, proven and cheap way to eradicate most of the globe's malaria--DDT. Yet in one of history's more murderously myopic ongoing actions, most advanced countries and international agencies discourage its use. Why? Blame Rachel Carson's seismically influential--and now largely discredited--book, Silent Spring, first published in 1962. In it she blames DDT for imperiling birds and people, portraying it as a blight of almost biblical proportions. It ain't so. As Dr. Elizabeth Whelan of the American Council on Science & Health once put it, there "has never been a documented case of human illness or death in the U.S. as a result of the standard and accepted use of pesticides." The British medical journal The Lancet similarly notes that after 40 years ofresearch no significant health threat from DDT has been found.

Indiscriminate use of DDT will indeed have a deleterious impact on certain birds. But we're not advocating that. The use of tiny amounts inside a house or hut is all that's needed. As Nicholas Kristof observed in one of his New York Times columns, "Four hundred fifty thousand people can be protected [from malaria] with the same amount [of DDT] that was applied in the 1960s to a single 1,000-acre American cotton farm.… Humans are far better offexposed to DDT than exposed to malaria."

Yet Carson's book has made DDT taboo--with ghastly results. Some 30 million to 60 million people have perished unnecessarily. In 1996, for example, South Africa stopped using DDT, and its malaria cases increased tenfold. Four years later South Africa reversed itself and employed DDT again. The result: The incidence of malaria promptly dropped almost 80%. Nevertheless, too many health officials cling to alternatives that are only fractionally as effective. That various agencies, governments, health officials and environmentalists have deliberately dissuaded the world from using DDT is one of the most immoral moves of modern times. (sign-in required)

When I first read this on the plane back to San Francisco last week, I was disturbed. How could this happen? Why has this myth and miserable lie continued? What motivated Rachel Carson to write and paint an extreme picture of DDT's effects when there was no strong evidence (yes, hindsight is wonderful and i haven't read the book)? Did she let her passion and zeal cloud the facts, and even close the door towards the possibility that DDT would not have such a horrific effect? Was she just misled by poor scientific studies or her own information gathering?

Ms. Carson passed away in 1964 but if she was still alive I assume she was a person of principle and not driven by her own success, so she would have stepped forward and admitted her costly mistake that has negatively impacted our globe and killed millions of people. Maybe she would have had to cocoon herself from the harsh reality to prevent a breakdown or insanity from flooding her mind. Whatever her response might have been, it is difficult for me to respect her work after reading this column.

More disturbing is that a Google-search revealed she was one of Time magazine's Time 100, which is a list of the most important people of the 20th century. I know this is only one voice against her, but if it stands to be true, which I can't see a bending of facts in this situation, then it is a sad testament to our society and the heroes we create. How easily are they created by words, books and media back then and even more so now. Time magazine should take her off the Time 100, or at least move her from the "Scientist & Thinkers" category they placed her in to the "Artists & Entertainers" category since she was a non-fiction writer first and now a recognized fiction writer.

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