So the other day, a doodle commemorating Rachel Carson on her 107th birthday caused a stir in some circles. Twitchy documented some tweets of outrage. Indeed, we now know just how unfounded the fears about DDT were. Is it fair to blame Carson entirely for all the malaria deaths that have occurred in the past few decades? I would say no, but I looked into some myths and facts about her and came to the conclusion that she absolutely does not deserve to be celebrated. Sometimes it gets into the public mindset that a certain person is a hero (like, for example, a certain president from about 80 years ago), and to find the truth you have to dig a little deeper than just looking at their Wikipedia bio.
Carson apologists claim she didn’t really want to get any pesticides banned. Her rhetoric in Silent Spring, though, was extreme. Whatever her intentions, people were inspired by her work to campaign against DDT. She made people believe that several bird species would go extinct if usage continued the way it did, and that it would cause cancer in many people. However, it’s not nearly as dangerous as she made it sound. Even at the time, she could have known that bird populations were not decreasing like she said they were. See The Lies of Rachel Carson for more information. It’s quite obvious that she told some lies that she should have known were lies, and she should not be celebrated for that reason.
It’s true that Carson died before the DDT ban, and she was not the only person in the early 60’s worried about the pesticide. She doesn’t have to get all the blame, but she did make people overly concerned about something that wasn’t that dangerous. There was, in fact, a ban. Some claim it was just banned for agricultural use, not anti-malarial use. There actually was a general ban in the United States, even though at the time it was only being used in the US for agricultural purposes. This influenced other countries to stop using DDT, and made it harder for them to get. Monetary aid was also withheld from some developing countries if they used DDT, and countries with a malaria problem didn’t get funding from the international community for spraying houses with DDT, the best way to prevent malaria. Although it was not banned everywhere, use was discontinued in some places due to outside pressure.
Some people also claim that DDT stopped being effective, because mosquitoes became resistant to it, so it doesn’t matter that it was banned. However, if it was true for some places it was not not true for all. Consider this study of South America in the 90’s, which claimed that DDT would still be effective and safe to use. And this editorial (long, but full of useful information) is about South Africa bringing back DDT in the early 2000’s. Interestingly, it notes,
The move away from DDT in the 60’s and 70’s led to a resurgence of malaria in various countries — Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Swaziland, South Africa and Belize, to cite a few; those countries that then returned to DDT saw their epidemics controlled. In Mexico in the 1980’s, malaria cases rose and fell with the quantity of DDT sprayed. Donald Roberts, a professor at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., has argued that when Latin America stopped using DDT in the 1980’s, malaria immediately rose, leading to more than a million extra cases a year. The one country that continued to beat malaria was Ecuador, the one country that kept using DDT.
So perhaps many deaths and much suffering could have been prevented had there not been this DDT scare. Dramatic things have been said about Carson. She is indirectly responsible for mass killing, for genocide, even. Or she awakened everybody to the need to save the planet. You might try to find some middle ground. What must definitely be acknowledged, though, is that Carson should not be hailed as a hero.
Thanks to this book excerpt, The Truth about DDT and Silent Spring, for the above links.