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The silent spring that never was: What half a century has wrought

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A half-century post-publication, Rachel Carson’s book, "Silent Spring," remains controversial, condemned by many reputable scientists as “junk science” that, broadly applied, would have returned us to the Dark Ages, while others laud it as the spark for a worldwide movement that has slowed or reversed the trend of environmental degradation.

Consider some numbers: U.S. automobile deaths in 2011 — 32,310, yet millions of us get behind the wheel every day; deaths from preventable medical mistakes and hospital infections, 200,000 annually, but people still go to doctors and hospitals; 400 deaths annually from penicillin, still one of the most useful antimicrobial drugs in the medical arsenal; 5,000 deaths annually from food poisoning, but no one stops eating.

Contrast these to: Number of deaths from DDT since it was first widely used by the U.S. military in World War II for prevention of malaria and other insect-borne diseases to present day — exactly zero.

The most vilified pesticide on the planet, long banned in the U.S., yet one of the most effective against malaria, including the eradication of the disease in this country and Europe, not one single case of human death due to DDT has been documented over almost a 70-year period. (There is the oft-cited study where human volunteers ingested up to 35 milligrams of DDT daily for nearly two years with no adverse effects.) In 1948, Swiss chemist Paul Müller was awarded the Nobel Prize for its discovery and its “enormous value in combating malaria and typhus.”

It was, however, the impetus 50 years ago this September for Rachel Carson’s book, “Silent Spring,” which charged that DDT was responsible for declining populations of avian species, and suggested a scenario of a town where the people had been poisoned and the spring silenced of birdsong because of pesticides.

“Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of birds,” she wrote, “and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song.”

Published in September 1962, the book, was a runaway best seller, spurring millions of people in the U.S. and worldwide to become activists in the nascent environmental protection movement, and leading to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency which, under intense pressure, conducted seven months of investigative hearings on DDT.

This on the heels of a National Academy of Sciences report that concluded, “To only a few chemicals does man owe as great a debt as to DDT. It has contributed to the great increase in agricultural productivity, while sparing countless humanity from a host of diseases … In little more than two decades, DDT has prevented 500 million deaths due to malaria…”

The administrative judge for the EPA hearings found DDT not to be a hazard and ruled that it remain available for use, but EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus overruled the decision and banned DDT in the U.S., except for medical emergencies. Pressure from environmental groups and the U.S. government, — which told Third World countries that if they wanted foreign aid money they needed to stop using DDT — led to further bans globally, including many tropical areas where malaria was endemic.

It was the first step in an ever-increasing regulatory authority for the federal agency, which by 2011 had grown to more than 7,000 employees with a budget of nearly $8.7 billion, imposing ever-more onerous regulations on agriculture and the pesticide industry.

Paralleling the almost exponential growth of the EPA was the rise of hundreds of environment-oriented organizations, which became adept at media campaigns and lobbying to influence public opinion — and bringing billions of dollars into their coffers.

However ham-handed and dictatorial the EPA, or the needless scares (and even terrorist actions) of the more strident environmental groups, there has been good from the environmental movement that “Silent Spring” launched: no more chemical-befouled rivers bursting into flame because of indiscriminate dumping; air that’s cleaner and less polluted by industrial plants and ever-increasing vehicle numbers; lakes, rivers and streams more fishable and swimmable — accomplishments that might not have come about, or would have come far more slowly had the regulatory pressures not been there.

But improvements in science have resulted in debunking of Carson’s more sensational claims. U.S. government studies concluded “DDT is not a carcinogenic hazard to man,” and studies of Audubon Society data showed that, rather than large-scale declines, bird populations actually increased nearly four-fold during the period cited and the population of robins, which she cited as “a tragic symbol of the fate of birds,” increased twelve-fold.

Numerous scientific studies concluded that DDT, used in proper dosage, had no harmful effect to humans or the environment.

A half-century post-publication, Carson’s book remains controversial, condemned by many reputable scientists as “junk science” that, broadly applied, would have returned us to the Dark Ages, while others laud it as the spark for a worldwide movement that has slowed or reversed the trend of environmental degradation.

Ironically, in that 50-year span, several million more people have died of malaria (the World Health Organization estimated 216 million cases of malaria worldwide in 2010, resulting in an estimated 655,000 deaths) — while still not a single death has ever been attributed to DDT.

 

Discuss this Blog Entry 4

Dan (not verified)
on Oct 21, 2012

Thanks for the thoughtful article. We share many concerns about unnecessary government intrusions and regulations. But there is no one calling for unregulated reintroduction of DDT. A little homework and thinking will give someone an idea of why the shrunken production and use of DDT worldwide is where it is today. I would suggest a quick look at Wikipedia articles under "DDT" and "Stockholm Convention". And it didn't get this way simply because a bunch of misled readers of Rachel Carson and listeners of Joni Mitchell ("Paved Paradise") became so adamant that it was easier to give up DDT than listen to all the complaints.
As a farmer, I understand that the pesticides that I apply have a designed instability in the environment. I don't want this year's herbicides around for my next crop in the rotation. This is also part of my responsibility to other people downstream of my operation.
DDT is incredibly persistent in the environment...and collects in animal body fats. Compare its structure with the TCDD in Agent Orange and PCB's that were used for high-temperature oil in transformers. None of these chlorinated benzenes were originally produced in nature, but, of course, neither was concrete. But one seems to persist about as long as the others in the environment.
And, also, do a search for "Re-Booting DDT" by Henry I. Miller, a proponent of using DDT intelligently in small amounts in instances where it would do the most good.
I am a retired manufacturer of organophosphorus pesticides, which were also covered in "Silent Spring". These chemicals are still in use and are gradually being replaced by more effective pesticides of other chemistries.
In spite of the inconveniences, thank you, Ms Carson, for your small contribution.

Tim Gieseke (not verified)
on Oct 22, 2012

As 21st century issues present great challenges, I have become aware that most people cannot think in "systems".
Rachel Carson understood the many inter-relationships that allows a landscape to function as a system. If you think her book was about DDT, then you think managing ecosystems is about "spotted owls". You have the capacity to think linearly and probably grumble every time grain prices go down, because you can't see the system driving it.
The debate is worthless when a linear thinker and a systems thinker argue. It is like saying the word "baseball". The linear person thinks of a round object and the systems person thinks of the game.

Tom A. Royer (not verified)
on Oct 22, 2012

Mr. Brandon: An interesting perspective. I expected that on the 50th anniversary of Carson's book, I would see articles giving Ms. Carson undeserved praise, as well as articles that demagogue her. While her book contained many observations that were not backed by scientific evidence (that science was not even possible at the time), she pointed out abuses of pesticide use that, whether you wish to acknowledge them or not, helped change how we use pesticides, i.e. more responsibly than when this book was published.

The issues presented in Carson's book were fought tooth and nail by many entomologists at the time, but thankfully, we became more enlightened as a science and now give her due credit for her role in stimulating the development of Integrated Pest Management and the research areas of environmental toxicology and resistance management, which came about as a response to the overuse and over-reliance of insecticides for pest control.

There is scientific evidence that DDT and its other chlorinated hydrocarbon relatives did cause problems to predator birds such as the osprey and the bald eagle due to egg shell thinning. Some other things to consider:

1: We never did determine what a "proper dosage" was for DDT when it was used. Certainly the "proper dosage" was not being used back in the 60's and 70's when Carson's book came out. While it is relatively non-toxic to mammals, it is highly toxic to aquatic organisms.

2: While DDT was the poster child for this issue, there were many other problem-child chlorinated hydrocarbons that contributed to the problem, including, aldrin, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, mirex, chlordane, toxaphene and others that were used in cotton and corn. You can't state truthfully that there has not been a single human death associated with the misuse of chlorinated hydrocarbon insecticides.

3: There are many insects that became resistant to DDT because it was NOT used in the "proper dosage" including Anopheles gambiae and other Anopheles mosquitos; the major carriers of malaria....In fact, several more recent studies have shown that insects that are resistant to DDT actually have a biological advantage over their non-resistant counterparts.

4: You pointed out that "several million more people have died of malaria" yet you can't conclude that all (or even a few) deaths would have been prevented if DDT was still being used. There is no doubt that areawide use of DDT was an effective strategy for reducing malaria in India, Bangladesh and other areas in the 1960's, but malaria was not eradicated, and there were other factors, including improvements in sanitation etc that helped reduce malaria. More importantly, today, if DDT were still registered for use, we would likely be battling predominatly DDT-resistant mosquito populations that would effectively leave DDT as an ineffective tool.

My suggestion; instead of trying to stir emotions by being overly critical of this woman, who was exercising her first amendment right to free speech, take a critical (critical the sense of analyzing and evaluating by applying a rigorous standard of thinking) look at the good and the bad that resulted from her work, and don't gloss over her positive contributions to our agriculture.

I believe U.S. agriculture produces a superior AND safer product today than it did back in 1962. We have moved forward, through research, and I think that Ms. Carson deserves at least, an objective review of her contributions to that improvement.

Johnny Saichuk (not verified)
on Oct 22, 2012

Mr. Brandon,
I have met and worked with Forrest Laws, Elton Robinson, and David Bennet, but not you. I have, however read your articles for years and truly enjoy them for the insight, common sense and truth. Your article about Silent Spring brought back a comment I made to a group from the EPA several years ago. I said, "Rachel Carson didn't know ____ about insects." I'll admit the persistence of the chlorinated hydrocarbons was and is a concern, but the benefits are well documented. I think your article presented both sides well.
Johnny Saichuk

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