Rising wrote a column praising Rachel Carson near her birthday last spring, and got a lot of comment. On November 25 his column dealt with the criticisms of Carson, drawn from comments to his earlier column. Rising’s view is quite middle of the road, and points the way to why the critics of Carson seem so shrill to me.
A single quote (interestingly it was repeated in two of the communications I received) will indicate the response that bothers me: “Rachel Carson is responsible for more deaths than Pol Pot.” Sadly, that statement represents the carefully mounted and continuing attack on Carson.
DDT played an extremely important disease-controlling role in World War II, but consider the following:
• Its supporters credit DDT with eliminating malaria in this country but that disease was already largely gone here by 1939 when Hermann Mueller discovered that the chemical was lethal to insects.
• An international campaign led by Fred Soper to eliminate malaria through use of DDT that indeed saved thousands of lives had largely run out of steam by the early 1960s when “Silent Spring” was published. Mosquitoes were building up resistance and geographical factors particularly in African countries, made spraying extremely difficult. Between 1960 and 1989 deaths from malaria actually decreased when treatment shifted from insecticides to medicine.
• Carson never did call for banning DDT and other pesticides in “Silent Spring.” She wrote, “It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used. I contend that we have allowed these chemicals to be used with little or no advance investigation of their effect on soil, water, wildlife and man himself.”
• The 1972 Environmental Protection Agency ban of DDT in America was instituted 10 years after “Silent Spring” was published and eight years after the author’s death from cancer. Although Carson’s influence was evident, the act cites substantial scientific evidence of DDT’s adverse effects on wildlife and increased insect resistance.
• The focus of “Silent Spring” was on the indiscriminative use of insecticides for agricultural purposes, not on its use as a public health measure. Carson critics have made much of the World Health Organization’s 2006 approval of DDT, but that approval is “under strict control and only for indoor residual spraying,” thus exactly the kind of use Carson supported.