Monday, May 21, 2007

Rachel Carson's birthday and the effects of the DDT ban

Rachel Carson, who wrote Silent Spring (1962) and prompted the eventual U.S. ban of pesticide DDT in 1972, would have turned 100 years old on May 27. That anniversary has prompted recent news coverage.

For instance, The Washington Post published a May 18 article about her, which prompted a response that day by columnist Rich Karlgaard. He wrote:

Buried in paragraph 27, and paraphrasing the Congressman, The Washington Post concedes that "numerous" deaths might have been prevented by DDT.

Let's stop here. Any curious reader would ask, Just how "numerous" is numerous? Wouldn't you ask that question? The Post never asks that question. Why?

Because the answer devastates Rachel Carson and her followers. According to these CDC figures, malaria kills more than 800,000 children under age five every year.
Today, the Competitive Enterprise Institute -- which describes itself as "a non-profit, non-partisan public policy group dedicated to the principles of free enterprise and limited government" and occasionally sends press releases on environmental topics -- sent a release about a new website: Rachel Was Wrong. It focuses on the number of malaria deaths. The homepage says:

In fact, today 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, author of the 1962 best selling book Silent Spring. Many have praised Carson for raising concerns—some legitimate—about problems associated with the overuse of chemicals. Yet her extreme rhetoric generated a culture of fear, resulting in policies have deprived many people access to life-saving chemicals. In particular, many nations curbed the use of the pesticide DDT for malaria control because Carson created unfounded fears about the chemical. As the world commemorates the 100th birthday (May 27, 2007) of the late Rachel Carson, it is time to acknowledge the unintended, adverse effects of Carson’s legacy and find ways to correct them.
It seems to be an informational site only. I didn't see a call to action.

Do birders and environmentalists "acknowledge the unintended, adverse effects of Carson’s legacy"? Is that a topic that this community discusses?



Blogger Lynne said...

I don't know about the birding community, but my daughter gave a report on malaria today in school quoting the same statistics (800,000 deaths of children under 5). I am saddened that this culture of fear allows us to tolerate the preventable deaths of these children and the suffering of the millions of people who conract malaria and live. Prudent, controlled, intelligent use of chemicals improve lives- save lives, every day.

May 21, 2007 7:59 PM  
Blogger Susan Gets Native said...

I don't want to be the you-know-what in the punch bowl. But I am torn about this question.
The idea of 800,000 dead children makes me sick. But is DDT the answer? No.
There has to be something else to protect children and everyone else from malaria.
DDT=no bald eagles, no peregrines....
I am off to read this new website.

May 21, 2007 8:34 PM  
Blogger shawnkielty said...

Poisoning the environment that we live in with severely destructive chemicals that kill animals and interfere with normal natural processes like egg laying and child rearing, isn't a very good way to behave, regardless of the alledged benefit.

As birders, we clearly have seen the damage to certain bird populations as a result of pesticide use. These indicators of our misguided behavior, should be heeded.

As inteligent humans, we know that it will be harmful to us in the long run, to poison our environment.

Irradicating the vector of malaria (a mosquito), would certainly seem attractive, but the inevitable outcome of choosing to poison our environment in this way, will be our own untimely death, when we, too become just another indicator species, with birth defects and possibly deaths.

The culture of fear is the one that says that some people may die, because we haven't poisoned our environment enough to save them. The culture of fear says if we want to prevent this we need to find good arguments to continue to destroy our environment.

So let's go ahead and poison it -- at the expense of the eagle and peregrine falcon populations, and the salmon ... and a variety of other indicator species, in places like the Columbia River Gorge, which frankly, has quite a few human inhabitants. We do this at our own peril.

I am with Susan here and Rachel Carson. DDT is an extremely bad answer. There is another way ... there must be. In the 20th century we leearned how to destroy ourselves and the planet; In this century, we need to learn how to take care of it.

May 22, 2007 12:40 AM  
Blogger Amy said...

"Prudent, controlled, intelligent use of chemicals improve lives- save lives, every day."

Lynne, I think that you hit the nail on the head and that a culture of fear -- fear of all chemicals -- began in the 1970s.

May 22, 2007 9:25 AM  
Blogger tai haku said...

1manusWell the arguments would have lots of value if they had any factual basis at all. The reality is DDT's efficiency against malarial-vector mosquitos was on the wane almost immediately after its release and so were it still in use it would probably have minimal effect today. Not only that but carson never campaigned against anti malarial use of ddt but instead against agricultural use so basically is argument relies on a campaign carson never ran and a stat that doesn't take into account the realities of entomology. In short its crap.

more here:

I heartily recommend the book Mosquito: The Story of Man's Deadliest Foe by Andrew Spielman Sc.D. and Michael D'Antonio to anyone with an interest in nature, malaria and evolution

May 22, 2007 4:02 PM  
Blogger shawnkielty said...

I did find that the wikipedia entry on DDT was fairly informative and has an ongoing argument in the discussion page to prove that most of these points have already long been argued.

Most of the 107 countries that currently report cases of malaria don't actually ban the use of DDT, however, some of the conditions of funding for malaria control programs do. This, combined with the increasing resistance of mosquitos to DDT (wikipedia article), tends to take a bit of the wind out of the sails of arguments that claim the ban prohibits the use off DDT in prevention of malaria.

There are some fairly good sources to be found for data and reasonably represented facts to be found at both the World Health Organization site and the center for disease control.

May 22, 2007 9:55 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

Thank you for posting the new links, Shawn, and for reiterating the CDC link.

I do have reservations, though, about Wikipedia as an authoritative source. Its structure makes the info open to manipulation. Granted, there's a self-policing aspect to the site, but it's not guaranteed or always timely.

Thanks for contributing to the discussion.

May 23, 2007 9:01 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Something else worth remembering is that Carson never called for banning DDT. Richard Nixon's EPA did that 8 years after she died. And there is no proof that she would have supported reduced DDT use in malaria-plagued countries.

What Carson did call for was a serious look at our abuse of chemicals, especially when we know so little about their effects on humans.

As an example of how little we still know about DDT, in 2001 the CDC and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences reports that abuse of DDT before 1966 possibly led to "an epidemic of pre-term births that we are just now discovering."

The scientists found "elevated levels of DDT's breakdown product, DDE, in the stored blood of mothers recorded as giving birth to premature or low birth weight infants."

So even now that we're using DDT in other countries, we cannot be sure its abuse will not lead to premature births among those populations. The WHO says DDT should be used in proper amounts for malaria control, but we know that humans have the attitude of "Well, if a little is good, more is better."

Carson's lesson remains -- be careful how you use chemicals, when humans know so little about their implications.

June 07, 2007 4:56 AM  

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