Environmental activists are gathering today to celebrate the legacy of the late author and biologist Rachel Carson at an event hosted by the Environmental Energy and Study Institute. Yet this legacy is nothing to celebrate.
Carson’s writings included many inflammatory and misleading claims about chemicals, claims that have long been rebuked by scientists. Yet her rhetoric spawned a radical environmental movement that promotes unwarranted bans and restrictions on pesticides that otherwise could be used to make food more affordable and fight mosquito-transmitted diseases such as malaria, the Zika virus, the West Nile virus, and more.
Carson released her first book, Under the Sea, 75 years ago, but it was her third book, Silent Spring, published in 1962, that changed the way people think about chemicals and the environment. The book supposedly alerted the world about the risks associated with chemicals. But Carson presented an extreme and unproven view that painted a picture of a world so poisoned by chemicals that “no birds sing” and “one in four” people would die from chemically caused cancers.
Perhaps the greatest impact of Silent Spring was the negative publicity it generated for the pesticide DDT. Carson claimed that DDT could cause degenerative diseases in humans – from liver damage to cancer. Environmental activists followed Carson’s lead in attacking DDT, filing various petitions before federal agencies to get it banned.
They started at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which rejected the greens’ petition, and then took their case to the newly created U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970. EPA conducted an extensive investigation, leading the agency’s administrative law judge to conclude in 1972 that DDT posed no significant risk to human health, and a ban was unwarranted. Nonetheless, EPA’s first Administrator, William Ruckelshaus, banned it anyway that same year under political pressure from the greens.
Activists have never firmly established any significant human health impacts from DDT. In 1990, the medical journal The Lancet reported: “The early toxicological information on DDT was reassuring; it seemed that acute risks to health were small. If the huge amounts of DDT used are taken into account, the safety record for human beings is extremely good.”
Moreover, DDT has a proven record of advancing public health by helping eradicate malaria from developed nations and reducing rates dramatically in developing nations during the 20th century. In 1970, the National Academy of Sciences reported: “To only a few chemicals does man owe as great a debt as to DDT. … [I]t is estimated that, in little more than two decades, DDT has prevented 500 million deaths due to malaria that would otherwise have been inevitable.”
Unfortunately, Carson’s misleading claims about DDT led many countries to ban it or stop using it to fight malaria. Malaria cases skyrocketed as a result, killing more than a million people a year during the 1990s and peaking at nearly two million deaths by 2004, while also making hundreds of millions seriously ill every year.
DDT’s exact impact on wildlife remains a subject of debate. However, DDT can be used in a targeted manner, without widespread spraying in the environment where could otherwise affect non-target species or impact other wildlife. Indoor residential spraying (IRS) of DDT drives malaria-carrying mosquitoes away from human populations, limiting the spread of malaria without adverse environmental impacts. Such uses are critical in developing nations where many people lack sealed homes with screened windows.
Despite these realities, many of Carson’s environmentalist heirs have tried to stop even these limited public health uses, leaving millions of children in developing nations to die. During the 1990s and into the new millennium, world governments even considered an activist-advocated global ban on DDT under the International Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (known as the POPs Treaty).
A coalition of public policy organizations along with public health officials fought the ban and advocated freedom for communities to decide for themselves whether to deploy DDT. After many years of debate and controversy, parties to the POPs Treaty voted in favor of allowing limited use of DDT in 2001. Even the World Wildlife Federation backed down from its advocacy of a complete ban by 2007, yet today they continue to spread misinformation about DDT and other pesticides.
Many nations were then able to successfully deploy IRS spraying of DDT to curb malaria. As noted in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in 2007: “During the past decade, IRS has been implemented successfully in southern African countries, and DDT has been used successfully for IRS in Mozambique, South Africa, and in parts of Swaziland, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Madagascar.”
Many environmental activists now deny ever opposing DDT for malaria control despite their past overt advocacy for a ban. These groups, however, continue to undermine use of other public health-enhancing pesticides that could be helpful in fighting the Zika virus and other vector-borne diseases. Why anyone would celebrate such a dangerous and extreme agenda is beyond rational and ethical understanding.