Column: Rachel Carson, ‘mass murderer’? A right-wing myth about ‘Silent Spring’ is poised for a revival


Rachel Carson has been both a hero to environmentalists and the bane of the chemical and pesticide industries — and their political mouthpieces — ever since the 1962 publication of her seminal book “Silent Spring.”

The book helped to launch the environmental movement, which scored arguably its most important success with the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 (under President Nixon). Carson’s heroism in defense of her argument that indiscriminate use of pesticides was harming people and damaging the environment is covered by a documentary about her that aired last month on PBS as part of its “American Experience” series, and it is still available online.

Over at the Lawyers, Guns & Money blog, Erik Loomis sounds the alarm that one of the favorite right-wing calumnies against Carson may be poised to make its reappearance on the national stage. This is the myth that Carson’s description of the dangers of the pesticide DDT, the central theme of her book, undermined programs against malaria-carrying mosquitos around the world and therefore condemned millions of people to death from the parasitical disease.


We have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm.

— — Rachel Carson, “Silent Spring”

Google’s celebration of Carson in 2014, upon the 50th anniversary of her death, prompted Breitbart News to label her “The 20th Century’s Greatest Female Mass Murderer” and ask, “Will Google be paying tribute to any of the other mass killers of the 20th century? Hitler? Stalin? Mao? Pol Pot? Probably not. But then, none of the others have had the benefit of having their images burnished by a thousand and one starry-eyed greenies.”

The executive chairman of Breitbart at the time was Steven K. Bannon, who is now a top advisor — some say the top advisor, to President Trump.

Loomis observes that the brief against Carson is easily debunked, as has been done repeatedly. As he states, Carson never called for a complete ban of DDT, no such ban was ever actually imposed, DDT already was declining in effectiveness against mosquitoes because of their rising resistance to the chemical, and that her point was not to condemn all pesticides but their indiscriminate deployment by untrained users.

He’s right, but the promotion of pesticides with little regard to their harmful effects is on the verge of seeing a revival. Consider the attempt by House Republicans last year to tie the fight against the Zika virus to a loosening of pesticide regulations. They did so by rechristening an old anti-regulation measure, the Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act, as the “Zika Vector Control Act.” The GOP majority was joined by 23 credulous Democrats, but the effort ultimately failed.

The fate of such an initiative today, when there may be no countervailing force in the White House against the demands of the chemical industry, could be much different. Just last week, the Republican House and Senate repealed an Obama administration rule limiting the dumping of coal mine waste into local streams. Among the rule’s most vociferous critics: the National Mining Assn.

What’s chilling is that the attack on Carson isn’t limited to the right wing. The most recent broadside about Carson’s role in malaria comes from Paul A. Offit, a respected pediatrics expert at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Offit’s attack is especially disconcerting, because he has been an indispensable leader of the defense of child vaccinations against a junk-science onslaught from anti-vaccination forces. Yet writing at the Daily Beast, Offit calls Carson’s campaign against DDT a “critical mistake … [that] cost millions of people their lives.”


The article appears to be an excerpt from, or at least related to, Offit’s forthcoming book “Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong.” He acknowledges that Carson deserves to be regarded as “an American hero,” in part for her crusade against DDT, but contends that by overstating the health dangers of the pesticide, she deserves blame for the resulting “total ban of the chemical.”

We think Offit has gone astray here by misreading the regulatory chronology that followed the publication of “Silent Spring.” He writes that the EPA, upon its founding in December 1970, “immediately banned DDT.”

That’s not so. As the EPA’s official history of its DDT regulatory actions states, the fledgling agency’s first action on DDT was to cancel federal registrations of products containing DDT. That was in January 1971 and occurred in response to a court order in a lawsuit from the Environmental Defense Fund. Two months later, the EPA issued cancellation notices for products related to DDT, but said there would be no suspension of the regulation of DDT. The history says that suspension was actually a more severe action than cancellation. Accordingly, manufacturers could continue marketing DDT.

The agency didn’t cancel all remaining crop uses of DDT until June 1972 — and still exempted “public health and quarantine uses, [and] exports of DDT,” the EPA history says. Most important, that action came only after extensive public hearings on DDT over a period of eight months, yielding 9,312 pages of transcripts from the testimony of “125 expert witnesses and over 300 documents.”

In other words, there was nothing “immediate” about the EPA’s action. Nor was it a “ban,” if one recognizes that manufacturing in the United States and marketing and sales overseas were wide open. If Offit is implying that the EPA banned DDT as some sort of knee-jerk reaction to public pressure, that’s not supported by the record.

It’s also important to recognize that regulatory actions aimed at DDT not only predated the EPA, but “Silent Spring.” In fact, according to the EPA history, they began in 1957, five years before the book’s publication. That year, the Forest Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture barred the spraying of DDT in “protective strips around aquatic areas on lands under its jurisdiction.” The following year, USDA began to phase out DDT, cutting its use from 4.9 million acres in 1957 to just over 100,000 acres in 1967 and discouraging the use of such persistent pesticides except when there were no better choices.

As for the health effects of DDT, the evidence is that they’re potentially severe, especially in children. A 2009 study reported “a growing body of evidence that exposure to DDT and its breakdown product DDE may be associated with adverse health outcomes such as breast cancer, diabetes, decreased semen quality, spontaneous abortion, and impaired neurodevelopment in children.”

As for the effect on third-world anti-malaria programs of the ostensible Carson-inspired “ban” on DDT, this has always been conjectural at best. Combating malaria requires programs to have persistent management and effort and lots and lots of money, none of which are very common in the African countries where the disease is endemic. Malaria-prone populations often are remote, hostile to government agents, and not attuned to consistent medical management.

Anyone who has lived in a malaria zone also knows that mosquitoes and malaria parasites are so good at developing resistance to pesticides and medicines that it doesn’t take long before one preferred remedy or another has to be discarded in favor of something new. They know that the best weapons are prevention of infection by the use of mosquito nets and prompt care after symptoms appear.

“DDT is not the magic bullet that will eradicate malaria,” a malaria expert in Uganda wrote in 2006. A full-scale spraying program would cost that financially strapped nation $80 million — just for one of several rounds. “We need to refocus resources and attention on something most Africans do not have: basic malaria education, and prevention with insecticide-treated bed nets,” added the expert, Jessie Stone.

Carson’s brief against DDT was far more nuanced than her critics say. “It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used,” she wrote in “Silent Spring.” “I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm.”

Her real concern was that we had entered “an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged.” When the public objects, she wrote, “it is fed little tranquilizing pills of half truth.” She was right then, and her words are a warning to us today.

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