Tag Archives: DDT

THE DDT DIRTY SECRET: How Rachel Carson Cost Millions of People Their Lives

Rachel Carson Dale Yeager Blog
Rachel Carson Dale Yeager Blog

On Jan. 24, 2017, PBS aired a two-hour special on Rachel Carson, the mother of the environmental movement. Although the program crossed the line from biography to hagiography, in Carson’s case, the unbridled praise was well deserved—with one exception.

Rachel Carson was an American hero. In the early 1960s, she was the first to warn that a pesticide called DDT could accumulate in the environment, the first to show that it could harm fish, birds, and other wildlife, the first to warn that its overuse would render it ineffective, and the first to predict that more natural means of pest control—like bacteria that killed mosquito larvae—should be used instead.

Unfortunately, the PBS documentary neglected to mention that in her groundbreaking book, Silent Spring, Carson had made one critical mistake—and it cost millions of people their lives.

On Nov. 1, 1941, Rachel Carson published her first book, Under the Sea-Wind. Although written for adults, the book had a child-like sense of wonder. Under the Sea-Wind told the story of Silverbar, a sanderling that migrated from the Arctic Circle to Argentina; Scomber, a mackerel that traveled from New England to the Continental Shelf; and Anguilla, an American eel that journeyed to the Sargasso Sea to spawn. “There is poetry here,” wrote one reviewer.

On July 2, 1951, Carson published her second book, The Sea Around Us. Two months later, The Sea Around Us was #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, where it remained for 39 weeks: a record. When the dust settled, The Sea Around Us had sold more than 1.3 million copies, been translated into 32 languages, won the National Book Award, and been made into a movie. Editors of the country’s leading newspapers voted Rachel Carson “Woman of the Year.”

In October 1955, Carson published her third book, The Edge of the Sea, a tour guide for the casual adventurer. The New Yorker serialized it, critics praised it and the public loved it: more than 70,000 copies were sold as it rocketed to #4 on the New York Times bestseller list.

Today, most people under the age of 40 have probably never heard of Rachel Carson. But in the early 1960s, almost every American knew her name.

On Sept. 27, 1962, Rachel Carson changed her tone. Her next book, Silent Spring, which she called her “poison book,” was an angry, no-holds-barred polemic against pesticides: especially DDT.

The first chapter of Silent Spring, titled “A Fable for Tomorrow,” was almost biblical, appealing to our sense that we had sinned against our Creator. “There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change… the cattle and sheep sickened and died… streams were lifeless… everywhere there was the shadow of death.” Birds, especially, had fallen victim to this strange evil. In a town that had once “throbbed with scores of bird voices there was now no sound, only silence.” A silent spring. Birds weren’t alone in their suffering. According to Carson, children suffered sudden death, aplastic anemia, birth defects, liver disease, chromosomal abnormalities, and leukemia—all caused by DDT. And women suffered infertility and uterine cancer.

Carson made it clear that she wasn’t talking about something that might happen—she was talking about something that had happened. Our war against nature had become a war against ourselves.

In May 1963, Rachel Carson appeared before the Department of Commerce and asked for a “Pesticide Commission” to regulate the untethered use of DDT. Ten years later, Carson’s “Pesticide Commission” became the Environmental Protection Agency, which immediately banned DDT. Following America’s lead, support for international use of DDT quickly dried up.

Although DDT soon became synonymous with poison, the pesticide was an effective weapon in the fight against an infection that has killed—and continues to kill—more people than any other: malaria. By 1960, due largely to DDT, malaria had been eliminated from eleven countries, including the United States. As malaria rates went down, life expectancies went up; as did crop production, land values, and relative wealth. Probably no country benefited from DDT more than Nepal, where spraying began in 1960. At the time, more than two million Nepalese, mostly children, suffered from malaria. By 1968, the number was reduced to 2,500; and life expectancy increased from 28 to 42 years.

After DDT was banned, malaria reemerged across the globe:

  • In India, between 1952 and 1962, DDT caused a decrease in annual malaria cases from 100 million to 60,000. By the late 1970s, no longer able to use DDT, the number of cases increased to 6 million.
  • 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.
  • In South Africa, after DDT became unavailable, the number of malaria cases increased from 8,500 to 42,000 and malaria deaths from 22 to 320.

Since the mid 1970s, when DDT was eliminated from global eradication efforts, tens of millions of people have died from malaria unnecessarily: most have been children less than five years old. While it was reasonable to have banned DDT for agricultural use, it was unreasonable to have eliminated it from public health use.

Environmentalists have argued that when it came to DDT, it was pick your poison. If DDT was banned, more people would die from malaria. But if DDT wasn’t banned, people would suffer and die from a variety of other diseases, not the least of which was cancer. However, studies in Europe, Canada, and the United States have since shown that DDT didn’t cause the human diseases Carson had claimed. Indeed, the only type of cancer that had increased in the United States during the DDT era was lung cancer, which was caused by cigarette smoking. DDT was arguably one of the safer insect repellents ever invented—far safer than many of the pesticides that have taken its place.

Carson’s supporters argued that, had she lived longer, she would never have promoted a ban on DDT for the control of malaria. Indeed, in Silent Spring, Carson wrote, “It is not my contention that chemical pesticides never be used.” But it was her contention that DDT caused leukemia, liver disease, birth defects, premature births, and a whole range of chronic illnesses. 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.

In 2006, the World Health Organization reinstated DDT as part of its effort to eradicate malaria. But not before millions of people had died needlessly from the disease.

Paul A. Offit, MD is a professor of pediatrics and director of the Vaccine Education Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the author of the forthcoming book Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong (National Geographic, April 2017).

End Zika? Bring Back DDT!

Zika DDT Dale Yeager
Zika DDT Dale Yeager


The Zika virus – which I began warning travelers about 2 years ago on my Twitter page @SERAPH1 – has now reached epic proportions. Numerous health organizations around the world have declared that the thousands of travelers who attend the Summer Olympics in Brazil will likely accelerate the spread of the disease.

It’s a mess!

Jillian Kay Melchior recently penned an excellent op-ed on Zika and a solution I strongly support…DDT.

The Zika virus outbreak makes it clearer than ever: It’s time to end the ban on DDT — a ban that was never sensible in the first place, but now is downright unjustifiable.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that Zika has infected nearly 300 pregnant women in the United States, putting their babies at risk for a devastating birth defect. This summer, as many as 40 million Americans will visit regions where carrier mosquitoes thrive, including large swaths of the South.

There’s also a moderate risk of Zika-carrying bugs in New York City, and parts of the city offer Zika mosquitoes the perfect conditions in which to thrive.

That means hundreds of babies are at risk of a horrifying brain defect called microcephaly. Infants who don’t perish outright need extensive care, which can cost up to $10 million.

Unfortunately, alarmism has led to a decades-long ban on the most effective pesticide against the disease-spreading mosquito, even though science has proven it reasonably safe.

Mosquitoes are responsible for more deaths than any other creature on Earth. DDT kills mosquitoes most effectively; in the 1960s, the National Academy of Sciences said that “to only a few chemicals does man owe as great a debt as to DDT,” adding that it had prevented as many as 500 million deaths.

Nonetheless, the United States continues to enforce its 1972 ban on DDT, citing dubious health and environmental concerns.

Numerous studies directly contradicted environmentalists’ claims that the chemical caused cancer. Likewise, thousands of studies examining other purported health risks produced results that were “weak, inconclusive or contradictory; in other words there is no evidence of harm,” Namibian health minister Richard Nchabi Kamwi noted in the Wall Street Journal.

Claims of damage to the environment proved equally nebulous. Rachel Carson, the environmentalist who drove the DDT ban, based her argument on several fraudulent claims.

For example, she claimed DDT had rendered the robin “on the verge of extinction” — and that same year, America’s foremost ornithologist declared it “the most abundant bird in North America,” the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons noted more than a decade ago.

Yet Carson’s junk science won out, and not just in the United States.

The Zika-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquito is already a hearty bug, capable of breeding in small puddles of water and thriving in tough urban environments. It has also, tragically, proven especially resilient to alternative pesticides.

Latin America had nearly eliminated the Aedes aegypti mosquito using DDT in the last century. But the scaremongering that began in the United States spread south, and with it, the mosquito population surged, bringing Zika with it.

Globally, discouraged use of DDT has come at enormous human cost; Dr. Rutledge Taylor’s documentary estimated that the DDT ban could be linked to as many as 1.5 million unnecessary deaths a year.

It’s bad enough to ban the most effective Zika-fighting tool we have. Even worse, the same sort of unscientific dogma is behind an effort to regulate other safe, effective pesticides at precisely the time they’re most needed.

In April, at the behest of concerned environmentalists, Orange County decided against aerial spraying for mosquitoes — even though 17 of its residents have died from West Nile infections over the last two years, with hundreds more infected.

Likewise, more than 55,000 acres of private land in Massachusetts will go unsprayed this summer out of environmental and health concerns, despite the increased risk of West Nile.

Meanwhile, the alarmism continues to spread like wildfire. Argentine environmentalists recently claimed that the pesticide pyriproxyfen — not Zika — is the real cause of the microcephaly boom. Scientists across the globe are now struggling, with varying success, to debunk this rumor to a credulous public.

“It’s ridiculous,” one top microcephaly expert recently told USA Today. “These guys come out of the blue, and people believe them, with no evidence at all.”

Thanks to environmentalists, Zika-caused deaths and diseases are preventable tragedies. So let’s start preventing them.

Jillian Kay Melchior, political editor at Heat Street, is a fellow with the Independent Women’s Forum.