Rachel Carson's reputation is up for grabs
When Donald Trump was appointed president, no one considered it good news for science. Trump has a habit of saying things like, “You know the hottest day ever was in 1890-something. Ninety-eight.”
There was also concern that under cover of Trump, the war on Rachel Carson’s legacy might be stepped up. In fact, attacks on Carson soon came in Forbes, the Daily Beast and Range Magazine, published in Washoe Valley.
An early warning came on Feb. 5 from blogger Erik Loomis: “I see people are once again going down the ’Rachel Carson is a mass murderer’ road.”
The next day, Michael Miltzik in the Los Angeles Times wrote that “the promotion of pesticides with little regard to their harmful effects is on the verge of seeing a revival. Consider the attempt by House Republicans last year to tie the fight against the Zika virus to a loosening of pesticide regulations.”
A marine biologist and a gifted writer, Carson already had a couple of bestsellers to her credit in 1962. But that year’s Silent Spring was different. While The Sea Around Us was a lilting Hallmark card, Silent Spring was an urgent get-well message. Carson wrote that pesticides were being used indiscriminately to deal with farm insects and malaria. More than that, she instructed her readers on ecology, a word that was little known at the time. Nature is systems, she wrote, interconnected and interdependent. Injure one, and others will eventually feel the wound. “We poison the caddis flies in a stream, and the salmon runs dwindle and die,” she said. “We poison the gnats in a lake, and the poison travels from link to link of the food chain, and soon the birds of the lake margins become its victims.”
She used Nevada’s state flower and the then-current, years-long federal sagebrush eradication effort underway in the West to make the point—removing the shelter and food the sagebrush provides to the sage grouse meant one day “the grouse will disappear along with the sage.”
At the time, pesticides—usually dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT—were being used as a public health tool across the United States, sprayed in great billows on the natural landscape but also on crowds at public places, schools, swimming pools, residential neighborhoods. Nevada attorney Jeff Menicucci recalls seeing it in Sparks. “They used to come through with fog trucks,” he said. “It was really foggy.” Of the scent, he said, “It was actually rather pleasant. It wasn’t acrid.”
He doesn’t know if it was DDT, but it probably was. That’s because DDT had a reputation for going after pests while leaving humans alone. This was more sales pitch than proven fact (Lancet medical journal: “DDT has had mixed success in Africa”), but it has lingered for decades.Military tool comes home
The first widespread use of DDT was in World War II, when it was used against mosquito larvae in various theatres of the war to combat malaria and typhus, by most accounts doing a terrific job of protecting troops from disease. (The developer of its pesticide use won a Nobel Prize.) But that did not nullify the possibility that there were other, less benign effects.
Indiscriminate spraying was encouraged by the manufacturers, eager to sell more. In typical U.S. fashion, the corporations preached that if a little is good, a lot is better. Pestroy, an arm of Sherwin Williams, had a commercial whose narrator said, “For this new insect destroyer contains a lot of DDT, not just a little. Its DDT content is even higher than government specifications.” This heavy use accelerated the development of insect immunity because tougher survivors mate with tougher survivors. Then later flare-ups come on with a vengeance.
Carson was writing what many scientists had been saying all along. She gave voice to their concerns, but she became the target of the chemical companies.
Silent Spring was a huge bestseller, serialized in the New Yorker, selected by the Book of the Month Club, and covered on CBS Reports.
Pesticide firms went ballistic. “Meetings have been held in Washington and New York,” the New York Times reported. “Statements are being drafted and counter-attacks plotted. A drowsy midsummer has suddenly been enlivened by the greatest uproar in the pesticides industry since the cranberry scare of 1959.” It was the beginning of a war now in its 55th year.
President Kennedy asked a White House scientific advisory panel to look at the issue. After a second and third presidential administration continued studies, DDT was not banned, though Carson critics keep saying it was. Rather, it was limited to public health uses. No limit was put on its overseas use. The reason for limiting its use in the U.S. was its threat to the environment.
If anything, industry attacks increased, though the author had died two years after her book was published. Rent-a-scientists were trotted out to say what the corporations wanted said. Doctrinaire conservatives, arguing that a mythical ban on DDT killed millions in underdeveloped countries, started accusing Carson of being a mass murderer on the scale of Stalin and Hitler. Their tactics were often tawdry.
In the Sept. 28, 1962 number of Science Magazine, a book review—sometimes misrepresented as a scientific study—by agricultural bacteriologist I. L. Baldwin appeared. It has been quoted against Carson often, including by New York Times reporter John Tierney, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and Newsbusters, which claimed Baldwin “clinically tore [Silent Spring] apart.” Here is how Alston Chase in Range describes Baldwin’s article:
“I.L. Baldwin, former chair of a National Academy of Sciences committee on the effects of DDT on wildlife and professor of agricultural bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin writing in the journal Science, suggested that Silent Spring, rather than being scientific, was ’a prosecuting attorney’s impassioned plea for action. Rather than a ’chemical death rain’ spreading across the country, as Carson claimed, he added, ’actually less than five percent of all the area of the United States is annually treated with insecticides’.”
To provide a fuller, more nuanced view of the Baldwin article, here are additional excerpts so the reader can judge:
Baldwin: “Many of the new materials have been used without adequate testing, or they have been used under improper conditions. Sometimes lives have been lost or health has been destroyed. At other times our economy has suffered when shoddy materials have been used in clothing, equipment, and structures. Often men have lost their means of livelihood. … The author’s mode of approach to the use of pesticides will undoubtedly result in wider recognition of the fact that these chemicals are poisons and in a more careful and rigorous control of every step in the pathway that pesticide must travel, from the research laboratory, through the process of obtaining government approval, to use in the field. Perhaps the tremendous improvements in public health and welfare that have resulted from the use of these materials have caused us to become careless in our control and use of them.”
Baldwin’s concern about Carson’s book seems to have been a public relations one, that she accentuated the negative instead of the positive about U.S. technology. It was a common view that fit into the cold war era when the U.S. was trying to project an image of technical superiority over the Soviet Union. (It is also useful to note that Baldwin in 1967 wrote a defense of biological weapons research.)
It is true that Carson did not write in Silent Spring like many scientists do, but she was part of a wave that had not been seen since the early 20th century muckrakers. The post-World War II romance of unquestioning regard for U.S. technology and know-how was fading. In Vietnam, a few weeks before Silent Spring appeared, New York Times reporter Homer Bigart wrote a classic lead on a story challenging that know-how: “American antimalarial spray killed the cats that ate the rats that devoured the crops that were the main props against agitation in the central lowlands of South Vietnam. The result: a hungry, embittered rural population tending to support the Viet Cong insurgents.”
Many threats to the public were dealt with in book-length exposés like Carson’s—The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard (public relations), The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford (the funeral industry), Unsafe at Any Speed by Ralph Nader (vehicle engineering), The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (sexism).
Chicago editorial cartoonist Bill Mauldin showed funeral directors and pesticide peddlers being rolled into two typewriters with RACHEL CARSON and JESSICA MITFORD embossed on the keys.
Challenging the superiority of U.S. expertise did not sit well with everyone. “Miss Rachel Carson’s reference to the selfishness of insecticide manufacturers probably reflects her Communist sympathies, like a lot of our writers these days,” read a letter to the editor of the New Yorker.
There is a limited number of mainstream critics of Carson, with the result that the same ones keep being quoted again and again—John Tierney, Aaron Wildavsky, Thomas Sowell. Few of them are scientists.
Baldwin’s point about pesticides being distributed on only five percent of the land area of the United States, incidentally, might well prompt informed citizens to wish it were more. According to Canadian biologist Bridget Stutchbury of York University, “An estimated 1.4 billion pounds of DDT were applied in the U.S. before it was banned, and decades later the chemical and its breakdown product, DDE, linger in the environment.” Dissipating that amount across more land might have reduced the damage it could do.
Carson’s critics have a way of treating DDT as a silver bullet to deal with malaria. It is not. DDT alone cannot solve the problem of malaria. Other techniques with or without DDT can. Getting rid of standing pools of water, swamps and other breeding grounds, good nutrition, and health care do the trick. University of Maryland entomologist Raymond John St. Leger was recently quoted by the New York Times, “The solution isn’t going to be relying on any single technology as the silver bullet.” But that doesn’t mean there is no other way than DDT.Adept adapters
Henry I. Miller in Forbes: “No study has ever linked DDT environmental exposure to harm to human health.”
Chase in Range: “There is no evidence DDT caused cancer in humans.”
In an incredibly labor-intensive 2015 study headed by epidemiologist Barbara A. Cohn, women in Alameda County, California, who received obstetric care from 1959 to 1967—years of heavy DDT use in the U.S.—and their adult daughters were located. Among the 9,300 daughters, there was a four-fold increased risk for breast cancer if they were exposed to one form of the insecticide in utero. The study’s conclusion: “Findings support classification of DDT as an endocrine disruptor, a predictor of breast cancer, and a marker of high risk.”
As science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway put it after reading the massive study, “DDT does cause cancer, it does affect human health, and it does cost human lives. Rachel Carson was not wrong.”
The world’s premier medical journal, Lancet, reported in 2005 that “DDT at amounts that would be needed in malaria control might cause preterm birth and early weaning, abrogating the benefit of reducing infant mortality from malaria.” That wasn’t the most chilling part. It was that there is no current way to know if it does more harm than good: “DDT might be useful in controlling malaria, but the evidence of its adverse effects on human health needs appropriate research on whether it achieves a favourable balance of risk versus benefit.”
Last month the Times of India reported that at a medical conference in Saharsa, Dr. R. K. Sinha of Patna Science College said a cancer/DDT link had been shown “by intensive researches conducted at the Mahavir Cancer Hospital where the number of cancer patients from Kosi region and north Bihar was much larger because of extensive use of DDT to prevent kala-azar and malaria.”
Carson critics are reluctant to mention DDT’s limited lifespan of effectiveness. When married to the adeptness of mosquitoes in adapting rapidly, it renders DDT far less effective than the endless claims both from manufacturers and political critics. The critics are given to blaming Carson for the product’s failings. In the Daily Beast article, Paul Offit wrote, “In Sri Lanka, before the use of DDT, 2.8 million people suffered from malaria. When the spraying stopped, only 17 people suffered from the disease. Then, no longer able to use DDT, Sri Lanka suffered a massive malaria epidemic: 1.5 million people were infected by the parasite.”
Note the phrase we italicized. Why would Sri Lanka “not be able to use DDT”? It was legal to buy. It was available for sale. The fact is, Sri Lanka did keep buying DDT, did keep using it—and it stopped working.
Oreskes and Conway, in their book Merchants of Doubt: “In 1968, malaria flared up again, and DDT couldn’t control it. Still, the Sri Lankans persisted, using even more DDT over larger areas at more frequent intervals. Still, it didn’t work. … So Sri Lanka didn’t stop using DDT because of what the United States did, or for any other reason. DDT stopped working, but they kept using it anyway.”
Offit does not give his source. Oreskes and Conway do—the World Health Organization.
Hyperbole works, too. Offit also wrote in the Daily Beast piece, “An influential author can’t, on the one hand, claim that DDT causes leukemia (which, in 1962, was a death sentence) and then, on the other hand, expect that anything less than that a total ban of the chemical would result.” Of course she can. After all, that’s exactly what happened—Carson issued her warnings and a partial, hole-filled limit on DDT resulted a decade later.
Some scientists say the Rachel Carson critics are holding her to science that did not exist in her lifetime. Biologist Stutchbury, who writes articles with titles like “Tracking mated pairs in a long-distance migratory songbird,” and also wrote the book Silence of the Songbirds, told us that “we have learned exponentially more about environmental contaminants in the past 50 years (not surprisingly) and also the underlying mechanisms for linking the chemicals to poor human health. In Rachel Carson’s day, the double-helix structure of DNA had only been discovered 10 years earlier!”
After reading the Range Magazine article, Stutchbury wrote, “I wonder if Mr. Chase would happily consume an apple laced with aldrin or chlordane, both of which were heavily used in the 1970s but are so toxic they are now banned in most countries. Modern ecotoxicologists have discovered countless examples of man-made chemicals that are carcinogenic or neurotoxic to humans and other animals. Scientists have unprecedented ability to objectively measure our impacts on our own health and the health of ecosystems that sustain human well being. What is not scary about the fact that today 17 percent of the world’s birds and 41 percent of amphibians are currently threatened with extinction?”Role model or bad example
Recently, the Salt Lake Tribune published a letter to the editor that recalled Mormon leader Gordon Hinckley had in 1989 held Rachel Carson up as a model for women. Hinckley, later president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, told LDS woman and girls she “alerted the nation and the world to the hazards of toxic chemicals. She was criticized and denounced for what she wrote but people read and began to realize the dangers that were being created around them.”
In 2012, endocrine chemicals pioneer Theo Colborn told the New York Times, “If Rachel had lived, we might have actually found out about endocrine disruption two generations ago.”
Near the end of the century, Silent Spring was named by a jury of journalists and journalism faculty convened by New York University as number two on a list of the 100 best works of journalism of the 1900s, by Discover magazine as one of the 25 greatest science books of all time, and by William F. Buckley’s National Review as number 78 on a list of the 100 best nonfiction books of the 1900s.
Why, then, did she become the target of freelance political slanderers and scientific amateurs?
There is, of course, the effectiveness of the book. Carson wrote almost lyrically. This even came across in interviews. When she spoke with CBS, she said, “We spray our elms and the following springs are silent of robin song, not because we sprayed the robins directly but because the poison traveled, step by step, through the now familiar elm leaf-earthworm-robin cycle. These are matters of record, observable, part of the visible world around us. They reflect the web of life—or death—that scientists know as ecology.”
The second was that Carson was a woman, and in 1962, it was easy to portray professional women as silly and out of their depth. The Feminine Mystique, after all, was still a few months away and the new women’s movement emerged in the late 1960s. Women were easy marks in 1962. “As for insects, isn’t it just like a woman to be scared to death of a few little bugs!” read that letter to the editor of the New Yorker. Something similar continues today—portraying Carson as a dilettante, as Chase did by making reference to “her wealthy and well-connected Long Island birder neighbors” and Miller did by suggesting she sacrificed children “for the possibility of slightly improved fertility in raptors.”
Rachel Carson is useful as a bad example. If her work is discredited, she will speak against all government regulation. It will work, to the extent that the slanders are believed.