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


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 7

Anonymous (not verified)
on Oct 23, 2012

though i don't deign to suggest that i've done the intensive research you have done, your polemic's reliance on the drumbeat of "not one person has died from DDT ever" does a lot of discredit to your piece. why waste the reader's time repeating this when you could instead defend against the apparently credible claim that malarial mosquitoes are becoming DDT resistant? Shore up your position rather than try to discredit the entire environmentalist movement which any sane person can see, has faults as well as substantial merit.

BigJohn (not verified)
on Oct 29, 2012

I dislike using invectives, but in this case I'll make an exception, You are a moron. You are obviosly a luddite who opposes humanity and human acheivement. Most environmentalists are communists who switched to environment issues when Communism proved a failure. On your side are the Globalists like the Rothschilds and Rockefellers and straw men like tricky Dick Nixon, the best democrat the republicans ever put in the whitehouse. His EPA(he created five new federal bureacracies), with good old Donald in charge ignored science and fact and eliminated a useful tool in Man's war against disease, DDT. May a million malaria infested moaquito's infest you and your loved ones.

Mary Orcutt (not verified)
on Oct 29, 2012

What a comment!

Mary Orcutt (not verified)
on Oct 29, 2012

The problem was not that DDT caused deaths, rather that it was very persistent in the environment, built up in the tissues of mammals and caused problems in the food web. It caused egg shells to be too thin, so that some birds were becoming endangered. Humans are smart enough to think of ways to control mosquitos safely and effectively.

on Oct 29, 2012

I cannot believe that you wrote this article with anything other than pandering to the Ag Chemical Industry. While you show obvious disregard for the health and welfare of the citizens of the world, we are extremely glad that the EPA banned it. Let's be clear on the impact from DDT:
DDT and DDE, like other organochlorines, have been shown to have xenoestrogenic activity, meaning they are chemically similar enough to estrogens to trigger hormonal responses in animals. This endocrine disrupting activity has been observed in mice and rat toxicological studies, and available epidemiological evidence indicates that these effects may be occurring in humans as a result of DDT exposure. The US Environmental Protection Agency states that DDT exposure damages the reproductive system and reduces reproductive success. These effects may cause developmental and reproductive toxicity: A review article in The Lancet states, "research has shown that exposure to DDT at amounts that would be needed in malaria control might cause preterm birth and early weaning ... toxicological evidence shows endocrine-disrupting properties; human data also indicate possible disruption in semen quality, menstruation, gestational length, and duration of lactation."
Human epidemiological studies suggest that exposure is a risk factor for premature birth and low birth weight, and may harm a mother's ability to breast feed. Some 21st-century researchers argue that these effects may increase infant deaths, offsetting any anti-malarial benefits.
Several recent studies demonstrate a link between in utero exposure to DDT or DDE and developmental neurotoxicity in humans. For example, a 2006 University of California, Berkeley study suggests that children exposed while in the womb have a greater chance of development problems, and other studies have found that even low levels of DDT or DDE in umbilical cord serum at birth are associated with decreased attention at infancy and decreased cognitive skills at 4 years of age. Similarly, Mexican researchers have linked first trimester DDE exposure to retarded psychomotor development.
Other studies document decreases in semen quality among men with high exposures (generally from IRS)
Studies generally find that high blood DDT or DDE levels do not increase time to pregnancy (TTP.) There is some evidence that the daughters of highly exposed women may have more difficulty getting pregnant (i.e. increased TTP).
DDT is associated with early pregnancy loss, a type of miscarriage. A prospective cohort study of Chinese textile workers found "a positive, monotonic, exposure-response association between preconception serum total DDT and the risk of subsequent early pregnancy losses." The median serum DDE level of study group was lower than that typically observed in women living in homes sprayed with DDT.
A Japanese study of congenital hypothyroidism concluded that in utero DDT exposure may affect thyroid hormone levels and "play an important role in the incidence and/or causation of cretinism." Other studies have also found that DDT or DDE interfere with proper thyroid function.
Occupational exposure in agriculture and malaria control has been linked to neurological problems (i.e. Parkinsons) and asthma.
In 2002 the Centers for Disease Control reported that "Overall, in spite of some positive associations for some cancers within certain subgroups of people, there is no clear evidence that exposure to DDT/DDE causes cancer in humans."[1] The NTP classifies it as "reasonably anticipated to be a carcinogen," the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies it as a "possible" human carcinogen, and the EPA classifies DDT, DDE, and DDD as class B2 "probable" carcinogens. These evaluations are based mainly on the results of animal studies.
More recent evidence from epidemiological studies (i.e. studies in human populations) indicates that DDT causes cancers of the liver, pancreas and breast There is mixed evidence that it contributes to leukemia, lymphoma and testicular cancer. Other epidemiological studies suggest that DDT/DDE does not cause multiple myeloma, or cancers of the prostate, endometrium rectum, lung, bladder, or stomach.
Breast cancer: The question of whether DDT or DDE are risk factors of breast cancer has been repeatedly studied. While individual studies conflict, the most recent reviews of all the evidence conclude that pre-puberty exposure increases the risk of subsequent breast cancer.
So: not a single person has ever died from DDT? LIAR.

Mary Orcutt (not verified)
on Oct 29, 2012

Wow! Thanks for that iniformation.

on Feb 23, 2013

I liked how sciguybm's comment was just as interesting as the article itself.. and definitely more informative.

I think that much of what the original article is true, DDT *did* save a lot of lives from malaria, and at a cost that was arguably not as high as scig's comment may imply, but I think that DDT, like many other new 'tools' in the tool box (fluoride, Roundup, BPA, etc) come out, start getting used, and end up in countless places in the 'food web' (as Ms Orcutt put it) and the ramifications are long lasting and... well... ramped up so largely and with such a fury and becomes so entrenched into the mindset that they can't be looked at objectively.

My real question is... like most 'tools' in the 'tool box'.. they oftentimes have another tool that may do the same thing... safer and arguably even better than the one which is easiest to grab.

In the decades since DDT, nothing else has been invented or new approaches haven't been developed that are capable of accomplishing the same thing, just as easily, if not easier, and much safer or w/out as much controversy surrounding it as DDT?

As far as the EPA regulations and what not on it... that stands for the USofA, but there are other countries with their own regulatory bodies... the ones dying of malaria elsewhere due to mosquitoes... let them decide for themselves whether the risk is worth the reward. Who are we, as non-citizens of that country to judge how that country wants to save itself from the ravages of parasites? The US, I imagine, would be more than willing to manufacture DDT and sell it to them if they lack the capabilities themselves.

In the end, as is continually and increasingly the case with Farm Press publications or articles, there seems to be a pre-inserting of polarism in the tops that disallows more open dialogue. Great topics but sometimes too opinionated or heavy handed on its approaches.

Neutrality is nicer. Less is more. all of that stuff.

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