Today is Rachel Carson’s 100th birthday

And to observe the occasion, CEI’s Jeremy Lott and Erin Wildermuth provide a reality check on her legacy in today’s Baltimore Sun:

In 1948, Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Muller was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine. He was the first non-physician to win in that category – a surprise given the nature of the celebrated discovery. He had found that dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) was an extraordinarily effective pesticide…

It was especially effective against malaria. In Sri Lanka, to take one celebrated example, there were 2.8 million reported cases of malaria in 1948. In 1963, after a DDT campaign, the number of cases dropped to 17, with zero reported fatalities – only to rise into the hundreds of thousands again shortly after DDT was discontinued.

Given the impressive results, many people thought of DDT as a miracle drug…

Public opinion began to shift, however, after 1962.

That year marked the publication of Silent Spring, a self-described “fable” about the dangers of pesticides by Ms. Carson, a best-selling nature writer, Johns Hopkins University graduate and longtime Maryland resident…

The book popularized certain fears about DDT by exaggerating them. The pesticide was said to be decimating bird populations not just because it cut down on insect populations but also because it thinned eggshells, which led to far fewer young birds. Worse, what was afflicting birds might be afflicting humans. Ms. Carson – who would die of breast cancer shortly after the book’s publication – alleged that DDT caused cancer in humans and predicted an epidemic if its use wasn’t drastically curtailed.

Dr. Richard Tren of Africa Fighting Malaria charges that Ms. Carson “misrepresented some scientific data while ignoring data that would not support her case.” Quite true.

Alleged links between DDT and cancer rates were never strong. In 1972, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency empanelled administrative law Judge Edmund Sweeney to hold evidentiary hearings to determine the drug’s dangers. After seven months of hearings, he determined it is “not a carcinogenic hazard to man.” Further, using DDT according to EPA specifications did “not have a deleterious effect on fresh water fish … wild birds, or other wild life.”

Evidence given for the drug’s direct effects on birds was particularly thin. Ms. Carson cited a study by Dr. James DeWitt to argue that quail that were fed DDT laid eggs in decent numbers but “few of the eggs hatched.” She had a different working definition of “few” than most people. The DDT-fed quail eggs hatched 80 percent of the time, compared with 83.9 percent for the non-DDT control group.

But misrepresentation had ridden halfway around the world before sound science could get its trousers on.

News reports broadcast allegations of the pesticide’s effects, including poisoning mothers’ breast milk. People were spooked. The EPA mollified their fears by overruling its own finding and banning DDT.

Worse, the State Department made foreign aid contingent upon recipient countries not using banned pesticides, including DDT. Similar aid criteria by other Western nations helped to make the prohibition stick. The result was that malaria and other insect-borne diseases staged a major comeback. Only in the last few years have the U.S. government and international bodies come to their senses and started using DDT again to fight off some nasty diseases.

For more on Carson’s lethal legacy, see the new website Rachel Was Wrong.