Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Rachel Carson

Over at Millard Fillmore's Bathtub, Tim Paganos is outraged and incredulous that anyone would vote against naming a post office after Rachel Carson. The infidels must be moronic, knuckle-dragging Repuglicans who drown puppies and shoot bald eagles!

I read Silent Spring decades ago and was as awe-struck (awe-stricken?) as any other teenager. But the fact of the matter is that the worldwide virtual ban of DDT has resulted in the deaths of millions of people. I had thought that this was pretty well known, but apparently not.

The problem is that DDT is what you need to use to kill malaria-carrying mosquitoes. And if you don't kill those mosquitoes, people die. Here, for example, is a recent article from the WSJ, chosen more or less at random, entitled "Suffering in Silence: The real legacy of Rachel Carson,"
The World Health Organization now estimates that there are between 300 and 500 million cases of malaria annually, causing approximately one million deaths. About 80% of those are young children, millions of whom could have been saved over the years with the regular application of DDT to their environments.

The article is actually quite balanced, both about Carson herself and the pros and cons of DDT use:
Carson cannot be blamed directly for these deaths. She didn't urge total bans in "Silent Spring." Instead, on the single page obliquely acknowledging DDT as an anti-malarial agent, she writes, "Practical advice should be 'Spray as little as you possibly can' rather than 'Spray to the limit of your capacity.'"

In the National Archives exhibit, Carson is described as "a passionate voice for protecting the environment and human health." Her concerns about the effects of insect death on bird populations were well-founded. But threats to human health were central to her argument, and Carson was wrong about those. Despite massive exposure in many populations over several decades, there is no decisive evidence that DDT causes cancer in people, and it is unforgivable that she overlooked the enormous boon of DDT for malaria control in her own time.

In short, Rachel Carson may not be the devil incarnate; but neither is she particularly admirable. Why anyone would vote to name anything after her -- even a post office -- is a mystery to me.

Finally, Tim asserts, "I don’t believe Carson ever alleged that DDT did cause cancer anywhere, so the study is moot." Sorry, Tim:
Some of Carson's star anecdotes about DDT's carcinogenic qualities turned out to be flawed: Her tale of "a housewife who abhorred spiders" spraying her basement in August and winding up dead of "acute leukemia" by October seems absurd to the modern reader, as does the man who winds up hemorrhaging in the hospital due to a "severe depression of the bone marrow" just "a short time" after spraying for roaches. Neither cancer could have been caused by DDT in so short a time.

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