RACHEL CARSON'S BOOK, SILENT SPRING, published in 1962, was a major force behind the environmental movement. It would be impossible to write the history of the movement without acknowledging the pivotal role the book played. The central theme of the book is a world of pending disaster brought about by the widespread use of herbicides and insecticides. These are alleged to threaten the health of nature and humanity, and possibly put life on earth itself in jeopardy. The "silent spring" in the title is a future, silent, bird-less spring brought about by the "silencing" of birds whose reproductive processes are ended by man-made chemicals. Carson repeatedly uses the insecticide DDT as an example of a chemical menace to the world. In spite of considerable literary skill, most her allegations have proved to be wrong. As such, Carson's book shares responsibility for millions of human deaths from diseases that could have been prevented by pesticides like DDT.
That Silent Spring is deemed one of the best non-fiction works of the century is not supportable by examination of its allegations. It's a compendium of nonsense. Nevertheless, the book was a major contributing factor in the DDT ban of 1972, and established the potent role of exaggeration and dishonesty in the many environmental debates that have followed to this day.
To many scientists familiar with the technologies of agronomy, ornithology, entomology, botany, etc. the book was not well received. Dr Thomas Jukes, University of California professor/biochemist wrote that it "is so dramatically contrary to facts, so eloquently and persuasively, and so permanently influential that its negative impact is difficult to overstate."
As if a premonition, Carson's book begins with a distortion of truth in the dedication section. She says "to Albert Schweitzer who said 'man has lost the capacity to foresee and forestall. He will end by destroying the Earth.' " She leads the reader to believe that Schweitzer was opposed to the use of pesticides. Yet in his autobiography, Schweitzer explicitly supports DDT as a ray of hope for mankind. His quoted statement is about nuclear warfare, not pesticides.
Carson makes explicit reference to DDT being deadly to humans. Nothing is further from the truth. In 1965, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that "in little more than two decades DDT prevented more than 500 million deaths that would otherwise have been inevitable."
Since the DDT ban, hundreds of millions have suffered from the effects of malaria and other diseases, and several million die annually. Estimates of 30 to 40 million people dying since the DDT ban are reasonable. These include the mosquito-borne diseases of malaria, yellow fever, encephalitis, elephantiasis, and the flea and lice-borne diseases of typhus, plague, sleeping sickness, and nagana . As Charles T. Rubin put it in his detailed and withering analysis of environmentalism, The Green Crusade, Rachel Carson is the unacknowledged master of the murder mystery.
Environmental promoters of the DDT ban were aware of the likely human tragedy. The lead scientist of the Environmental Defense Fund, when queried in 1970 about the potential harm to humans of the pending DDT ban, responded ,"So what. People are the cause of all the problems. We have too many of them. We need to get rid of some of them, and this as good a way as any." He was then asked "Doctor, how do you square this killing of people with the mere loss of birds?" He responded "It doesn't really make a lot of difference, because the organo-phosphate acts locally and only kills farm workers, and most of them are Mexicans and Negroes." Congressman de la Garza was outraged, but could not force the EDF scientist to testify before his committee.
In 1971, EPA director William Ruckelshaus ordered DDT hearings, with Judge Edmund Sweeney as the examiner. After 7 months, 125 witnesses, and 9,362 pages of testimony, Judge Sweeney's findings included:
DDT is not a carcinogenic hazard to man.
DDT is not a mutagenic or teratogenic hazard to man.
The use of DDT under the registrations involved does not have a deleterious effect on fish, estuarine organisms, wild birds, or other wildlife.
DDT is extremely low in acute toxicity to man.
DDT is not a safety hazard to man when used as directed.
DDT can have a deleterious effect on freshwater fish and estuarine organisms when directly applied to water.
DDT can have an adverse effect on beneficial animals.
DDT is concentrated in organisms and can be transferred through food chains.
DDT is not a carcinogenic hazard in man.
DDT is not a mutagenic or teratogenic hazard to man.
DDT uses under the registrations involved do not have a deleterious effect on freshwater fish, estuarine organisms, wild birds, or other wildlife.
There is a present need for the continued use of DDT for the essential uses of defined in this case.
Judge Sweeney advised against the DDT ban. On June 14, 1972, William D. Ruckelhaus overruled Sweeney and banned the pesticide DDT. Such a resounding rejection of scientific advice had seldom been seen until that fateful day in 1972. It was not to be the last.
Some of the benefits of DDT included:
DDT prevented typhus epidemics, by killing the body lice that were the only vectors of the rickettsiae that cause the disease.
DDT halted plague by killing fleas before they could transmit the plague bacilli to mammals, including humans.
DDT halted malaria by killing the Anopheles mosquitoes that are the only vector of the protozoans (Plasmodium) that cause the disease.
DDT halted yellow fever by killing the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that transmit the virus that cause that horrible disease.
DDT halted sleeping sickness by killing the Glossina tsetses that transmit the trypanosomes that cause the debilitating disease to humans and livestock.
DDT halted many other human diseases, including elephantiasis, leishmaniasis, river blindness, and Oroya fever.
DDT prevented the fevers and dysentery that often transmitted by domestic flies.
DDT prevented much malnutrition in third-world nations, which resulted in healthier people with greater resistance to contagious diseases.
DDT helped humans settle large areas that were previously uninhabitable because of Arthropod-transmitted diseases.
DDT protected all kinds of vertebrate animals from irritation, envenomization, and parasitism by arthropods.
DDT killed blood-sucking parasites of birds, thereby reducing deaths from avian malaria, fown pox, encephalitis, and Newcastle disease, etc.
DDT prevented the death of hundreds of millions of forest trees by killing the caterpillars of gypsy moths, tussock moths, and hundreds of other species of destructive forest insects.
DDT prevented the destruction of great fields of crops by reducing the numbers of dozens of types of insects.
DDT prevented the mass destruction of fruits, berries and melons, by killing great many kinds of pests in orchards and row crops.
DDT led to much lower food prices, as a result of limiting the destruction of crops.
Things DDT Did Not Do
DDT did not have any adverse effect on humans, domestic animals, or wildlife even including deliberate poisoning or suicide attempts.
DDT did not kill birds, mammals, fish or other vertebrate animals when applied in any legally approved manner.
DDT not cause breast cancer, prostate cancer, stomach cancer, or any other kinds of cancer.
DDT did not cause plummeting sperm counts or other reproductive difficulties in heavily exposed animals.
DDT did not disrupt the endocrine systems and hormones of humans and other mammals.
DDT did not adversely influence reproductive processes in humans or other mammals.
DDT did not harm breast-feeding infants whose mothers contained traces of DDT residues.
DDT did not harm volunteers who agreed to ingest as much as 36 mgs. of it every day for nearly two years.
DDT did not cause declines of populations of brown pelicans, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, ospreys, or other birds.
DDT did not kill robins living near elm trees that were sprayed to protect them from Dutch Elm Disease.
DDT did not cause birds to produce eggs with shells that were too thick for the young to hatch or too thin to protect the eggs from being broken.
DDT did not kill the honey bees that are so important as pollinators of flowers and as producers of commercial honey.
DDT did not destroy microorganisms in the soil or water (on the contrary, those microorganisms destroyed the DDT and its residues in soil and water).
DDT did not inhibit photosynthesis in marine algae, freshwater plants, or any terrestrial plants.
DDT did not persist at any significant levels for long periods of time in aquatic habitats, in soil, or in tissues of living animals.
DDT did not "biomagnify up the food chains," thus did not cause concentrations of pesticides to increase in animals higher on the food chains.
DDT did not pollute the oceans, even along the shores that are teeming with people.
DDT did not enter falling rainwater, thus did not accumulate on roofs or elsewhere in urban areas.
DDT did not leach out of the soil and get into nearby ground water, because it is not soluble enough in water to do that.
DDT did not "blow around the world" and thus did not blow onto Antarctica or the surrounding areas.
Rachel Carson's Silent Spring never met minimum standards of science and should not be considered a reliable source of environmental information. Her book has in fact been remarkably harmful to millions around the world.