It all started with a post office. Ed noticed that a senator didn’t want to name a post office after Carson and made some wacky claims about DDT. What I didn’t realize when I read his excellent post was that there appears to be a movement afoot to tar and feather Rachel Carson.

Deltoid has been out in front in addressing some of this BS, and I hope to join him soon. If you look through the archives on his site, you will probably find yourself, like me, reading with your mouth hanging open in amazement.

I want to jump in here with some actual data on mosquitoes, DDT, and malaria, but the amount of horse hockey that’s been thrown around is just so huge, I’m having trouble finding a spot to start. When people make comparisons between Rachel Carson and Hitler in number of people killed, it’s hard to know what to say.
Except maybe: Are you on crack? WTF???”
I’m assuming you would prefer a more nuanced approach than that.

Ed did some of the work for me, with a follow up to his initial post, and uncovered some interesting connections to Lyndon LaRouche, of all people. (Isn’t he dead yet??) What I’m noticing is a tendency to rely on very old data, and to ignore…well…FACTS.

So look for more in the weeks ahead, and in the mean time take a gander at Ed and Deltoid‘s blogs.


Here are the main posts addressing the issues so far:

Posted by Gwen Pearson

Writer. Nerd. Insect Evangelist. Have you heard the good news? BUGS!


  1. And now John Tierney at the New York Times has chipped in:

    I think there’s a fundamental issue about focus in the criticism: It turns out that DDT isn’t a great danger as a carcinogen by itself; but the dangers of DDT as a pesticide don’t have anything to do with carcinogenicity in humans. It’s still poisonous, and it’s still a definite harm to wildlife, plus it drives evolution of pests when used unwisely, which was most of the time in most places prior to Carson’s book.

    Yes, Carson was wrong to urge DDT is a massive threat to humans as a cause of cancer; no, that’s not the chief harm of DDT, nor is a lack of carcinogenicity likely to save the chemical as a pesticide. WHO notes that DDT had ceased to be effective against mosquitoes. Had indiscriminant use continued, we’d be facing a bigger malaria crisis — I think that’s what the general facts show.

  2. Actually, Carson *didn’t* make many carcinogenic claims for people in Silent Spring; or at least I didn’t see it the last time I read the book.

  3. Ok; read Tierney’s load of crap. Apparently I need to dig my copy out and read it again.
    Amazingly, no one seems to be looking at any NEW information that came out after 1970!
    I can’t believe that made it into NYT.Oh, but wait! Here’s how he describes himself: “John Tierney always wanted to be a scientist but went into journalism because its peer-review process was a great deal easier to sneak through.”

  4. Rachel Carson’s 100th birthday remembrance certainly brought out a diversity of
    viewpoints. Was she a visionary who eliminated toxic chemicals from America’s
    environment, or was she a crack pot whose radical actions are responsible for
    millions of malarial deaths?

    I hope that the next centennial anniversary of her birthday will put her accomplishments
    into proper perspective. In a day in which any chemical that could be safely
    manufactured and used was approved, she pointed out environmental and human
    health problems of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) … chemicals designed
    to kill … occurring beyond their manufacture and use points. The process of
    democracy at its finest allowed the analysis, debate and banning of these
    chemicals over two decades. There is no other arena in history where man has
    reversed a technological course for environmental reasons. Yea human race!

    The use of PCB, DDT, toxaphene, chlordane, heptachlor, Lindane, Aldrin,
    Dieldrin, hexachlorocyclohexane and hexachlorobenzene were banned in the
    developed countries because they were suspected of causing cancer or were
    acutely toxic in the environment. Yea Rachel!

    As these bans were pursued in developing countries, argument focused upon
    malarial vector (mosquito) control. Why? The real battle should have been the
    use of DDT in general agriculture. When developing countries banned agricultural
    DDT, what did they use to control pests? Toxaphene? Banning DDT on grains and
    its discriminate use for mosquito control would avoid the spread of DDT in
    dangerous quantities and controlled mosquitoes. The DDT ban fight became a
    smokescreen for the use of all the other POPs.

    Now toxaphene, probably the most used pesticide on the planet, circulates
    through the air from its uses in developing countries and pollutes cold, clear
    waters from the northern Great Lakes to the Arctic. Lake Superior, a lake the
    size of the state of Maine with depths going to below sea level. Its waters, if
    spilled over the continental United States would cover the area to a depth of
    six feet and is frightfully polluted with foreign toxaphene. Its trout harbor 5
    parts per million of toxaphene, ten times the level that would classify them as
    hazardous waste!

    Arctic polar bear and killer whales are on the edge of survival or decimated by
    banned pesticides and PCBs. PCBs and pesticides circulate through our air in
    hundreds of millions of molecules per breathful quantities, amounts that are now
    being connected to asthma, diabetes and cancer. Inuit ingest 15X a tolerable
    quantity of poisons.

    Rachel Carson was on the right track. Unfortunately, her work is not complete
    and the planet is still at risk. See the web site for
    more details.

    Melvin J. Visser

  5. Just got a copy of her biography, but not read it yet.

    I remeber when “Silent Spring” came out, and the howls of protest from big industry.

    But, within a very short time (less than 10 years) action had been taken, along the lines suggested by the by-now-dead-of-cancer Carson.

    I find it difficult to believe that there are peole stupid enough to want to do away with her findings and work.
    But, then there are still lots of peole who believe in invisible sky fairies of one sort or another, are there not?

  6. This article wasn’t behind the proprietary veil: “What the World Needs Now is DDT,” from the NY Times in 2004:

    The anti-Carson forces have been hammering away for years.

  7. Bug Girl:

    “Actually, Carson *didn’t* make many carcinogenic claims for people in Silent Spring; or at least I didn’t see it the last time I read the book.”

    Then I’d suggest that you look again on page 228, where Carson recounts the fantastic tale of an unnamed housewife who, over the course of three months, sprays her basement three times with DDT, develops leukemia and dies within a month.

    Carson claimed that DDT was carcinogenic and she was wrong.

  8. DDT is a carcinogen in every mammal tested so far, except for a few cancers in humans. There is no other carcinogen known for other mammals that is not also a carcinogen for humans. Since DDT is a strongly suspected cause of liver abnormalities that are precursors to liver cancer, it is likely that it is a carcinogen for liver cancer in humans, even if a weak one.

    Yes, it is not probable that a woman who used DDT would get cancer quickly — but leukemia is one of those that could be triggered quickly.

    If we disallow DDT as a human carcinogen, which would be contrary to the conclusions of WHO, CDC and NIH, we still have the rest of the case against DDT. It’s a toxin. It’s poisonous. It creates nerve damage. It shrinks mammalian testicles. When it breaks down in the environment, it makes chemicals that mimic hormones and cause developmental defects in chordate embryoes, often resulting in hermaphroditic sex organs. It gives males swelled, female-like mammary glands.

    In addition, the chemicals concentrate to dangerous levels in the first trophic level after producers, and concentrate geometrically in each trophic level on up.

    Which gets us back to the American symbol, the bald eagle. Eagles eat meat, which comes from second- or third-level consumers. Eagles get dangerously high levels of these chemicals. If a dosage is not fatal, it most likely would cause serious developmental defects in embryoes. In birds, it has been shown to reduce the thickness and tensile strength of the egg shells, making eggs unable to hold together during incubation in a nest — it kills the unborn chicks by destroying the egg shell.

    Carson was not wrong to claim DDT as a potential carcinogen. Fortunately for humans, it has turned out not to be a potent carcinogen for cancers we’ve tested, like breast cancer. There are not many other cancers that have been tested, however.

    But were she dead wrong about DDT’s carcinogenicity, it should be restricted (as it is) for its toxicity, and for its long-lived deleterious effects once in the environment.

    In looking for DDT effects, I pulled out one of my old ecology texts and stumbled into a great chart, a careful study of DDT levels in all trophic levels of a New York estuarine system. Advocates of broadcast DDT use had bragged that rather than finding high concentrations of DDT in the water of the estuary, downstream from farms and mosquito spraying, there was very little DDT in the water.

    The study of the plants and animals told why the water was so clean: The DDT quickly concentrated in the living things, to dangerous levels. The DDT was poisoning the living animals especially.

    The argument that Carson was wrong to claim DDT as a carcinogen is cynical, misleading, and wrong. DDT not being implicated in breast cancer does not materially alter Carson’s case against DDT.

    Carson claimed DDT might be carcinogenic, and she was right. DDT is a proven carcinogen in mammals.

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