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The silent spring that never was: What half a century has wrought

Consider some numbers: U.S. automobile deaths in 2011 — 32,310, yet millions of us get behind the wheel every day; deaths from preventable medical mistakes and hospital infections, 200,000 annually, but people still go to doctors and hospitals; 400 deaths annually from penicillin, still one of the most useful antimicrobial drugs in the medical arsenal; 5,000 deaths annually from food poisoning, but no one stops eating.

Contrast these to: Number of deaths from DDT since it was first widely used by the U.S. military in World War II for prevention of malaria and other insect-borne diseases to present day — exactly zero.

The most vilified pesticide on the planet, long banned in the U.S., yet one of the most effective against malaria, including the eradication of the disease in this country and Europe, not one single case of human death due to DDT has been documented over almost a 70-year period. (There is the oft-cited study where human volunteers ingested up to 35 milligrams of DDT daily for nearly two years with no adverse effects.) In 1948, Swiss chemist Paul Müller was awarded the Nobel Prize for its discovery and its “enormous value in combating malaria and typhus.”

It was, however, the impetus 50 years ago this September for Rachel Carson’s book, “Silent Spring,” which charged that DDT was responsible for declining populations of avian species, and suggested a scenario of a town where the people had been poisoned and the spring silenced of birdsong because of pesticides.

“Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of birds,” she wrote, “and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song.”

Published in September 1962, the book, was a runaway best seller, spurring millions of people in the U.S. and worldwide to become activists in the nascent environmental protection movement, and leading to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency which, under intense pressure, conducted seven months of investigative hearings on DDT.

This on the heels of a National Academy of Sciences report that concluded, “To only a few chemicals does man owe as great a debt as to DDT. It has contributed to the great increase in agricultural productivity, while sparing countless humanity from a host of diseases … In little more than two decades, DDT has prevented 500 million deaths due to malaria…”

The administrative judge for the EPA hearings found DDT not to be a hazard and ruled that it remain available for use, but EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus overruled the decision and banned DDT in the U.S., except for medical emergencies. Pressure from environmental groups and the U.S. government, — which told Third World countries that if they wanted foreign aid money they needed to stop using DDT — led to further bans globally, including many tropical areas where malaria was endemic.

It was the first step in an ever-increasing regulatory authority for the federal agency, which by 2011 had grown to more than 7,000 employees with a budget of nearly $8.7 billion, imposing ever-more onerous regulations on agriculture and the pesticide industry.

Paralleling the almost exponential growth of the EPA was the rise of hundreds of environment-oriented organizations, which became adept at media campaigns and lobbying to influence public opinion — and bringing billions of dollars into their coffers.

However ham-handed and dictatorial the EPA, or the needless scares (and even terrorist actions) of the more strident environmental groups, there has been good from the environmental movement that “Silent Spring” launched: no more chemical-befouled rivers bursting into flame because of indiscriminate dumping; air that’s cleaner and less polluted by industrial plants and ever-increasing vehicle numbers; lakes, rivers and streams more fishable and swimmable — accomplishments that might not have come about, or would have come far more slowly had the regulatory pressures not been there.

But improvements in science have resulted in debunking of Carson’s more sensational claims. U.S. government studies concluded “DDT is not a carcinogenic hazard to man,” and studies of Audubon Society data showed that, rather than large-scale declines, bird populations actually increased nearly four-fold during the period cited and the population of robins, which she cited as “a tragic symbol of the fate of birds,” increased twelve-fold.

Numerous scientific studies concluded that DDT, used in proper dosage, had no harmful effect to humans or the environment.

A half-century post-publication, Carson’s book remains controversial, condemned by many reputable scientists as “junk science” that, broadly applied, would have returned us to the Dark Ages, while others laud it as the spark for a worldwide movement that has slowed or reversed the trend of environmental degradation.

Ironically, in that 50-year span, several million more people have died of malaria (the World Health Organization estimated 216 million cases of malaria worldwide in 2010, resulting in an estimated 655,000 deaths) — while still not a single death has ever been attributed to DDT.


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