45th Anniversary of a deadly book

Of all places, it was at the Daily Californian, UC Berkeley’s twice weekly newspaper, that I found an article remembering the publication 45 years ago of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the book that condemned millions of people to death:

This September marks the 45th anniversary of the publication of “Silent Spring,” Rachel Carson’s anti-pesticide manifesto credited with inspiring the environmentalist movement.

But this anniversary is no cause for celebration. The legacy of “Silent Spring” includes more than a million deaths a year from the mosquito-borne disease malaria. Though nearly eradicated decades ago, malaria has resurged with a vengeance because DDT, the most effective agent of mosquito control, has been essentially discarded—discarded based not on scientific concerns about its safety, but on environmental dogma.

Published in 1962 at the height of the worldwide anti-malaria campaign, “Silent Spring” sparked a crusade against DDT. The widespread spraying of DDT had caused a spectacular drop in malaria incidence—Sri Lanka, for example, reported 2.8 million malaria victims in 1948, but by 1963 it had only 17. Yet Carson’s book made no mention of this. It said nothing of DDT’s role in eradicating malaria in industrialized countries, or of the tens of millions of lives saved by its use.

Instead, Carson filled her book with misinformation, alleging that DDT causes cancer. Her unsubstantiated assertion that continued DDT use would unleash a cancer epidemic generated a fear of the pesticide that endures as public opinion to this day.

But the scientific case against DDT was, and still is, nonexistent. Almost 60 years have passed since the malaria-spraying campaigns began—with hundreds of millions of people exposed to large concentrations of DDT—yet, according to international health scholar Amir Attaran, the scientific literature “has not even one peer-reviewed, independently replicated study linking exposure to DDT with any adverse health outcome.” Indeed, in a 1956 study, volunteers ate DDT every day for over two years with no ill effects then or since.

Abundant scientific evidence supporting the safety and importance of DDT was presented during seven months of testimony before the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency in 1971. The presiding judge ruled unequivocally against a ban. But the public furor against DDT—fueled by “Silent Spring” and the growing environmental movement—was so great that a ban was imposed anyway. The EPA administrator, who hadn’t even bothered to attend the hearings, overruled his own judge and imposed the ban in defiance of the facts and evidence. And the 1972 ban in the United States led to an effective worldwide ban, as countries dependent on U.S. funded aid agencies curtailed their DDT use to comply with those agencies’ demands.

You can read the rest of the article here, including quotations from Carson’s ideological descendants, all of whom are pretty pleased with the fact that mosquitoes lived so we don’t have to.

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