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Rachel Carson’s Legacy Attacked by Right-Wing Misinformation
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by Lisa M Mayo | 2007

Centennial observances were marred by advocates of pesticide use.

On May 27, 2007, environmentally aware citizens across the globe celebrated the centennial birth of Rachel Carson, the former U.S. Fish and Wildlife scientist and author who penned Silent Spring, which became the seminal classic that many attribute with igniting today’s modern environmental movement. Centennial events in the U.S. included plays, book readings, tours of Carson’s former homes in Maryland and Pennsylvania, and speeches filled with praise. However, not everyone wanted to pay tribute to Carson. A certain group of right-wing activists and pundits were ramping up their effort to taint Rachel Carson’s legacy and spread a misinformation campaign that ultimately seeks to label her a mass murderer.

One of the leaders of this anti-Carson campaign is the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), whose efforts include a website titled “Rachel Was Wrong.” Its home page features a graphic showing a blood-red mosquito over a green outline of Africa and photos of young malaria victims.  CEI is a right-wing think tank whose sponsors have included Dow Chemical and Monsanto — two of the former manufacturers of DDT. The anti-environmental thrust of the CEI website is that Rachel Carson single-handedly brought about the banning of DDT in the U.S., and was responsible for the millions of malaria victims who have died from the disease worldwide.

WHO endorses DDT

Adding fuel to this right-wing fire was the controversial decision last year by the World Health Organization (WHO) to support indoor residual spraying of DDT in malaria-prone regions. According to WHO, each year more than 500 million people suffer from acute malaria, resulting in more than 1 million deaths; and at least 86 percent of these deaths are in sub-Saharan Africa. At the present time, experts state that several of the best ways for fighting malaria include using biological controls and insecticide-treated bed netting, as well as improving health care, public education, water drainage, and sanitation.

Residual indoor spraying of DDT carries significant risks. As the Pesticide Action Network International reports,  “Often DDT intended for public health use is diverted to illegal agricultural use, carrying greater danger for human exposure than indoor residual spraying, and hastening the development of resistant mosquito populations. New DDT use adds to exposure from old stockpiles that are not properly contained or controlled...and demands for DDT use for malaria control also increase the burden on the communities living near production plants.A DDT factory in the Eloor-Edayar region in India has a long record of contaminating the environment, including rivers. The local community is now protesting their poisoning as a result of emissions from this factory.”

Despite the calls for increased use of DDT, studies have shown that there are regions where malaria is being controlled without the use of the chemical. Since 2000, Mexico has eliminated the need for DDT in its battle against malaria, using drugs, improved personal and household hygiene, and biological elimination of mosquito breeding sites. In Kenya, a non-DDT program is reducing malaria by improving water management in rice-growing communities and by using biological controls and mosquito netting. Vietnam reduced malaria deaths by 97% when they abandoned DDT for drugs, mosquito netting and health education. And the World Wildlife Fund has experienced success in the Kheda district in India, where non-chemical methods were found to be more cost-effective.

The Sierra Club, along with several other major environmental organizations, raised alarms about WHO’s decision to endorse DDT. According to the Sierra Club website, “The Sierra Club is deeply concerned that WHO’s new position statement on ‘indoor residual spraying’ increases the potential for widespread misuse and accidents due to the continued manufacture, storage and applications of DDT…The Sierra Club believes that DDT should be considered as the option of last resort only, when all feasible non-toxic and less toxic alternatives have been tried and proven ineffective. Sierra Club encourages governments and the WHO to give priority to increasing the informed use and accelerated development of such non-toxic and less toxic alternatives.”

Concerns About DDT Persist

The Sierra Club is right to be worried about the misuse and abuse of DDT. In 2001, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a paper examining the probability that heavy use of DDT in the United States before 1966 may have produced a previously undetected epidemic of premature births. A NIEHS press release stated that  scientists “found elevated levels of DDT’s breakdown product, DDE, in the stored blood of mothers recorded as giving birth to premature or low birth weight infants.” Dr. Matthew Longnecker, the lead author on the study, said “The findings of our study strongly suggest that DDT use increases pre-term births, which is a major contributor to infant mortality. If this association is causal, it should be included in any assessment of the costs and benefits of insect control using DDT.” Dr. Longnecker also stated that other agents that are less toxic and less persistent, but more expensive, should be used to control malaria. Longnecker is now reportedly working with epidemiologists in Mexico to see if women from malaria-prone areas, who were exposed to DDT, are experiencing an increase in pre-term births.

Centennial Observance Marred

Despite the controversy of WHO’s decision, right-wing political figures quickly jumped on the organization’s pro-DDT actions and sought to use Rachel Carson’s centennial birthday as an opportunity to launch a major campaign to poison the reputation of one of the most honored heroines in the environmental movement.

Sadly, this misinformation campaign even spread to Maryland’s General Assembly. In the 2007 session, Senator Brian Frosh (D-16-Montgomery) introduced a bill to officially declare May 27 as “Rachel Carson Day.” Carson was born in Pennsylvania but spent much of her life living in her home off New Hampshire Avenue in Silver Spring, Maryland, and not only wrote Silent Spring at that residence but also died there in 1964, after a long and difficult battle with metastatic cancer. (Her Silver Spring home is now a National Historic Landmark.)

To mark Carson’s centennial birthday, the Newton Marasco Foundation sponsored a two-month celebration in the spring, co-chaired by Maryland Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-8th), that included a play about Carson presented  on Capitol Hill. Despite the general acclaim of the centennial celebration, the Maryland General Assembly failed to pass the “Rachel Carson Day” bill. Frosh expressed frustration with the shortsightedness of Maryland’s politicians and their unwillingness to honor one of the state’s most respected citizens—a woman who had earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom and authored a book that is often listed as one of the most important works in American literary history. Comments by Senator Andrew Harris (R-7-Baltimore County) – who has a lifetime score of only 9% from the Maryland League of Conservation Voters and who is running to unseat Congressman Wayne Gilchrest revealed the politically charged reasoning behind the snubbing of Carson’s bill in the Assembly. In March, 2007, a Washington Post article quoted Harris as saying “Millions of people — literally millions of people — died as a result of banning DDT as a result of that book.” Fortunately for Marylanders, Governor Martin O’Malley saw through the political rhetoric being peddled by Republicans and officially declared May 27 as “Rachel Carson Day.”

In May 2007, Republicans in the U.S. Senate also jumped on the anti-Carson bandwagon. Two bills to honor Carson were introduced in the Senate by a bi-partisan coalition of senators — including Senators Arlen Spector (R-PA), Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) — but both bills were stopped with a parliamentary hold by Senators Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Norm Coleman (R-MN). Coburn’s spokesman John Hart told media outlet Raw Story ,  “Dr. Coburn believes the tremendous harm Carson’s junk science claims about DDT did to the developing world overshadow her other contributions. Millions of people in the developing world, particularly children under five, died because governments bought into Carson’s junk science claims about DDT. To put it in language the Left understands, her ‘intelligence’ was wrong and it had deadly consequences.” This same position has been parroted by conservative media sources ranging from the FOX News Channel to Rush Limbaugh to the New York Times’ John Tierney to ABC’s John Stossel, revealing a coordinated misinformation campaign by the right-wing echo chamber that so often succeeds at manipulating America’s national dialogue to serve a narrow ideological agenda.

Lies and Facts

One of the most frequent lies spread by anti-Carson pundits is the oft-repeated refrain that Rachel Carson supported the banning of DDT—a notion that has even been repeated in respected publications such as The Washington Post. In fact, Carson never called for the banning of any pesticide. This important fact is highlighted on the U.S. Department of State’s centennial website tribute to Carson called “Pen Against Poison” where it states:

Oddly enough, many people on both sides of the debate still don’t quite understand the central message of Silent Spring. Carson was no lover of mosquitoes, or of insects in general, and in fact never advocated abandoning chemical control methods. On page 12 of Silent Spring she unambiguously writes, “It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used. I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potential for harm.’

Another lie  often repeated is that Carson’s science was entirely wrong. In fact, Carson’s warnings about the unintended impact of DDT on wildlife was undeniably correct, and the banning of DDT in the U.S. is the reason why President George Bush was able to remove the American bald eagle from the Endangered and Threatened Species List in 2007. Without a serious reduction of DDT use in America, bird species at the top of the food chain, such as eagles, ospreys, pelicans, and falcons, would have continued to accumulate DDT in their fatty tissues and been faced with possible extinction due to thinning eggshells.

Despite the well-documented evidence of DDT’s impact on birds’ eggshells, conservative pundits today still dismiss the fact that DDT reduced the calcium content in shells. Yet even today we can see the impact of DDT on eagles. From the 1940’s through the 1970’s, Montrose Chemical Corporation discharged tons of DDT waste into California’s coastal waters, and now more than 110 tons of DDT remain concentrated in 17 square miles of sea bottom. The company’s actions have devastated the ability for birds in the area— such as eagles—to breed around the Channel Islands of California. For years, scientists were forced to remove fragile eagle eggs from nests there and incubate them artificially so the shells would not crack under the weight of the parents. On March 31 and April 1, 2007, an eagle pair on Santa Catalina Island successfully hatched two healthy chicks, and these are the first eagles known to hatch on Santa Catalina Island without human assistance since 1945, due to the impact of DDT in the local environment.

In 2001, Montrose agreed to a financial settlement for the environmental impact of the company’s DDT discharges. In the 2005 settlement report, authored by the California state and U.S. federal government agencies serving as settlement trustees, they confirmed: “Strong correlations have been reported between concentrations of DDT and eggshell thinning in seven families of birds, including pelicans, cormorants, herons, ducks, eagles, falcons, and gulls. Eggshell thinning has also been experimentally induced in three families of birds... In addition, geographical patterns of eggshell thinning across the United States are consistent with the locations of high environmental concentrations of DDT. The final piece of evidence supporting the connection between DDT and eggshell thinning is that attempts to experimentally induce eggshell thinning with other compounds such as PCBs, dieldrin, mercury, and lead have failed at concentrations of these compounds typically found in the environment.”

Scientists Find Continued Impact of DDT Exposure

As for the impact of DDT on human health, Rachel Carson offered a warning based on the best science of the day. And as illustrated by the NIES report, even now—45 years after the publication of Silent Spring—scientists are still discovering the unintended impact of DDT use. Examining health articles on websites such as the Pesticide Action Network of North America reveals that recent studies are finding retired malaria-control workers with reduced liver function and chronic nervous system effects from long-term exposure to DDT, elevated levels of DDE (DDT’s breakdown chemical) in mother’s blood serum leading to biological deformities in male children, and DDE in women’s bodies interfering with their  ability to lactate. In addition, DDT and DDE have been tied to higher incidences of undescended testes and poor sperm quality in human males, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer continues to list DDT as a possible human carcinogen.

One final issue that many conservative critics often ignore completely is a topic that Carson discussed in Silent Spring — the propensity for mosquitoes to develop immunity to DDT. May Berenbaum, head of the department of entomology at the University of Illinois/Urbana-Champaign, wrote an article entitled, “If Malaria’s the Problem, DDT’s Not the Only Answer,” The Washington Post, June 5, 2005.  The article stated, “By 1972, when the U.S. DDT ban went into effect, 19 species of mosquitoes capable of transmitting malaria, including some in Africa, were resistant to DDT. Genes for DDT resistance can persist in populations for decades. Spraying DDT on the interior walls of houses — the form of chemical use advocated as the solution to Africa’s malaria problem — led to the evolution of resistance 40 years ago and will almost certainly lead to it again in many places unless resistance monitoring and management strategies are put into place.” Berenbaum also issued the same warning that the Sierra Club issued regarding the ill-advised promotion of DDT, “Overselling a chemical’s capacity to solve a problem can do irretrievable harm not only by raising false hopes but by delaying the use of more effective long-term methods.”

Attacks on Carson Mask Attacks on Environmental Movement

Despite the determination and prevalence of the right-wing campaign against Rachel Carson, the reality is that Carson never placed the lives of animals and insects over the lives of human. Protecting life — all life—was always at the forefront of Carson’s efforts.

As pro-industry politicians and think tanks continue their attacks against Rachel Carson, it becomes evident that their campaign is less about the tragic deaths of malaria victims and more about the desire to attack the environmental movement itself. Carson was a major figure in the history and development of environmentalism in America; her writings inspired the creation of the EPA, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and Earth Day. Even today, she still inspires countless young people to take up the cause of environmental activism and to fight for tougher environmental regulations — and that is what the right-wing echo chamber seeks to diminish.

On May 27, 2008—the next “Rachel Carson Day”—may all Marylanders remember that one of their own fought illness, hardship, and tremendous personal attacks to ensure that future generations would better understand the symbiotic relationship between humans and their environment. Better than anyone, Carson understood that what we do to our world, we ultimately do to ourselves.         

> 2007 Table of Contents


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