"Silent Spring" was wrong, Sen. Coburn is right

"Silent Spring" was wrong, Sen. Coburn is right

Logomasini op ed in The Washington Examiner
May 28, 2007

Sunday was the 100th birthday of environmental icon Rachel Carson, and lots of people are proposing all sorts of memorials to honor her legacy. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

 

Yet, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., stands largely alone in efforts to stop these measures—a position for which he deserves much credit.

 

Coburn apparently recognizes that the conventional wisdom about <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Carson’s legacy is wrong, as the results of following Carson’s advice have been quite grim.

 

Nonetheless, Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., introduced a bill to name a post office in Pittsburgh after Carson. Similarly, Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., has a resolution to commemorate Carson’s book, “Silent Spring,” which he dubs a “legacy of scientific rigor coupled with poetic sensibility.”

 

The truth is that Carson’s work was weak on “scientific rigor” and its poetry anything but sensible. Carson used explosive rhetoric and junk science to advance an anti-technology agenda that turned many people against using all man-made chemicals.

 

Most seriously, Carson inspired enough fear to prompt nations to discontinue using the pesticide DDT, even for malaria control. Before Carson completed her book, DDT played a vitally important role in the eradication of mosquitoes carrying malaria in Western nations and was making progress in other nations around the globe.

 

This success was so great that DDT’s discoverer, Paul Herman Muller, earned a Nobel Prize in Medicine, and the National Academy of Sciences declared in 1970: “To only a few chemicals does man owe as great a debt as to DDT…DDT has prevented 500 million deaths due to malaria that would otherwise have been inevitable.”

 

Today, hundreds of millions of people—mostly African children under five—become seriously ill and more than a million die every year from malaria in large measure because so many nations stopped using DDT following publication of Carson’s book.

 

Last September, Dr. Arata Kochi, director of the World Health Organization’s Global Malaria Program, called on the environmental community to “help save African babies as you are helping to save the environment.” Kochi’s plea was part of an announcement that the WHO would seek increased use of DDT to fight malaria.

 

Rather than answer his call, two activist groups, the Pesticide Action Network of North America (PANNA) and Beyond Pesticides, prefer to carry on the Carson legacy. They are shamelessly working to undermine the WHO’s endorsement of DDT by spreading misinformation about DDT risks.

 

In addition, environmental advocates continue to make misleading claims about chemicals in general. In particular, they suggest that chemicals are causing a cancer epidemic, echoing Carson’s claims from decades earlier.

 

Yet, according to National Cancer Institute annual reviews of cancer data, cancer death rates have been declining for more than a decade, while incidence has been stable. In addition, we know that cancer is caused primarily by smoking, poor diets and infections. There is little evidence that man-made chemicals are causing a cancer epidemic.

 

Nonetheless, environmentalists’ anti-technology ideas are having serious impacts. Ironically, they have even launched attacks on the chemicals that replaced DDT for pest control.

 

Many such advocates fight pesticide spraying of nearly all chemicals, undermining efforts to reduce the number of mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus in the United States. They have even tried to prevent mosquito control officials from applying chemicals, as well as bacteria, to waters where those products could kill or prevent the development of mosquito larvae.

 

Hindering such mosquito control efforts is serious business. Since the West Nile virus appeared in the United States in 1999, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documented nearly 5,000 West Nile virus-related deaths and nearly 20,000 illnesses.

 

Out of those cases, nearly 10,000 suffered from encephalitis or meningitis—excruciatingly painful swelling of the brain or membranes around the brain and spinal cord.

 

These ailments sometimes leave permanent brain and nerve damage that can mean paralysis for some. More than 13,000 people have suffered from West Nile fever, another terribly painful ailment, which can last for months.

 

Carson suggested that there were better alternatives to the chemicals she condemned. But Carson was wrong, and millions of people continue to pay the price.

 

Why should we and our federal tax dollars honor that legacy?