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50 years on and the DDT debates continue

Katherine Rowland

Pg 20 green3 reu 300x225 50 years on and the DDT debates continue

Poisoned fish in a Chinese lake (Credit Reuters)

Author of a pandemic slaughtering millions…Eco-imperialist…Responsible for more deaths than Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot combined…

Rachel Carson would roll in her grave to hear the accusations aimed at her legacy. A marine biologist by profession, Carson was also a lyrical writer whose early hymns to ocean life (The Sea Around Us, The Edge of the Sea) emphasized the interconnectedness of man and nature. While The Sea Around Us enjoyed a solid 86 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and won the National Book Award in 1952, it is Silent Spring for which Carson is best known. Invoking the horror of a world so poisoned that it is bereft of even birdsong, Silent Spring an elegant and cautionary account of the perils of man-made chemicals. While scientists and citizens alike cite Carson’s 1962 opus as the genesis of the modern environmental movement, a small but vociferous number smear the book as a polemic, a product of eco-hysteria, and continue to protest her most lasting influence: the ban of the pesticide DDT.

Why, 50 years after the publication of Silent Spring, would Rachel Carson’s name invoke not only the course – both triumphant and travailed – of the environmental movement but also accusations of present-day death and suffering?

The answer is two-fold: one is health; two is trade.

Proponents of DDT contend that in addition to the chemical’s agricultural applications, it is one of the world’s most effective public health pesticides and has a crucial role to play in combating malaria. Its use is also severely restricted by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, or POPs – 12 highly toxic chemicals that NGOs such as Greenpeace and the Pesticide Action Network refer to as the “dirty dozen.”

DDT was among the 12 chemicals banned by the Stockholm Convention, but the only one marked with an asterisk. The notation of caveat, this asterisk bears the brunt of a considerable quandary.  On the one hand, DDT is among the world’s most hazardous man-made substances and banned outright in most parts of the globe. On the other, it is one of the most potent known means of preventing an epidemic that affects 300 to 500 million people each year.

In addition to imposing worldwide restrictions on these 12 toxins, the Stockholm Convention promulgated the precautionary principle, a form of risk assessment much like what Carson called for decades earlier.  Unlike regulations that assume a substance is safe until proven harmful, the precautionary principle calls for more rigorous assessment of human and environmental risks before a product enters the market.  Good for the public, but bad for business, as such assessments are time consuming, costly and often-damning.

Before the terms of the Stockholm Convention were finalized, a number of lobbying organizations sprang to attention, calling for the necessity of DDT in malaria control, and fingering Rachel Carson and her “callous eco-radical” followers as the cause of millions of deaths.

“It really started with Silent Spring,” Dr. Gilbert Ross, medical director of the lobbying group the American Council on Science and Health, told me in 2010.  “Rachel Carson’s polemic – more of an epic poem than a scientific work.” When Ross, who has published pro-DDT articles in numerous outlets, was promoted to medical director of the organization in 1999, his medical license had been revoked on account of his former participation in a fraud scheme that relieved New York’s Medicaid program of roughly $8 million.  His license was reinstated in 2004. The group has received substantial funding from dozens of major corporations, including the American Cyanide Corporation, the chemical giants Du Pont and Union Carbide, Monsanto and the National Agricultural Chemicals Association.

Ross features as one of the experts interviewed in the documentary film, 3 Billion and Counting, which investigates the global consequences of the DDT ban, laying bare “the greatest ecological genocide in the known history of man.” Produced, written and directed by Dr. D. Rutledge Taylor, the film embarks on a “trek from R. Carson’s Silent Spring to the dead silence of millions of corpses and billions of suffering ones.” Rutledge describes his film as a depiction “of the greatest crime against humanity that this world has ever known. It is about the greatest human death toll in known history, far greater than the Holocaust and all wars combined.”

The centennial of Carson’s birth in 2007 summoned forth all manner of celebratory gestures.  Conferences were held to discuss her significance, proposals sought to name streets, college programs and even a bridge in her honor.  This latter gesture was stymied by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), who objected to naming a bridge after someone he describes as responsible for millions of unnecessary deaths.  Coburn had received substantial campaign contributions from a member of the board of the pro-DDT think tank, the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute greeted the centennial by launching a new website, Rachel Was Wrong, devoted to “uncovering Silent Spring’s deadly consequences.” The site offers a dramatic eulogy to African lives claimed by malaria, as well as links to other pressing scientific issues, like the myth of chlorine’s harms.  The site, which was active only during the months immediately surrounding Carson’s controversial posthumous birthday, served largely as a platform for directing abuse against the environmental movement – the “greens” and “science deniers,” who preside over population control by means of epidemic disease.

The groundswell of interest in the public health applications of the pesticide have less to do with controlling an epidemic than with issues concerning the regulation of international chemicals production and trade. And it has been toward these ends that Carson – and the environmentalism she espoused – has been implicated. 50 years after the publication of Silent Spring, it is time to honor her legacy with sound science that preserves the natural world and public interest, rather than corrupt her insights for financial and corporate interests.

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  • Buffoonmonitor

    ….Which is why DDT is (still) allowed to be used as an IRS strategy.

    If you’re arguing that no resistance develops from mutations then you’re, out an out, plain wrong.

    If some of the twits in here had had their way we’d have had widespread indiscriminate spraying of DDT for the last 60+ years. Which, I’m sure you’d agree, would have been a very damaging and ultimately ineffective way to fight Malaria.

    Have a little peak at the arthropod pesticide resistance database.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brian-Jamieson/629899261 Brian Jamieson

    Ok so even if these studies are flawed regarding the impact of accumulated DDT in our ecosystems we should still proceed with caution since there remains a question about what DDT can do. Particularly since we do know that it does accumulate and has a long life span. Studies have found DDT can cause cancer in laboratory animals including rats, mice or hamsters. There is also possible correlation between human breast cancer and DDT accumulation requiring further studies. Robert Evan Hardy’s point below regarding its use in agriculture undermines its usefulness to fight malaria since mosquitoes have developed resistance is also a good reason to proceed with caution and I would support maintaining the ban.


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