Rachel Carson’s Deadly Legacy

This week, the world celebrates the 100th birthday of environmental icon Rachel Carson, author of the 1962 book, Silent Spring . To mark the event, a Senate resolution offered by Sen. Ben Cardin, Maryland Democrat, would honor Miss Carson for what its sponsor says is a "legacy of scientific rigor coupled with poetic sensibility."

Another proposal offered by Rep. Jason Altmire, Pennsylvania Democrat, would name a post office in Miss Carson’s home town of Springdale , Pa. , after the author. Both these measures are on hold because one senator objects. According to Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, Miss Carson’s work does not pass the test of "scientific rigor." Instead, the needlessly alarmist tone of Silent Spring has produced tragic results.

Mr. Coburn is right, yet he is among few lawmakers with the courage to step up. In Silent Spring , Miss Carson used explosive rhetoric to condemn the pesticide DDT and other man-made chemicals, which she described as "elixirs of death" that would eventually cause "one in four people" to die from cancer. Such claims generated enough fear to prompt nations to outlaw the use of the pesticide.

Unfortunately, DDT use was discontinued in many places even though it had proven to be one of the world’s greatest public health tools. It played a vitally important role in the eradication of mosquitoes carrying malaria in the developed world and was making progress in other nations.

This success was so great that DDT’s discoverer, Paul Herman Muller, earned a Nobel Prize 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—get seriously ill and more than a million die every year from malaria in large measure because many nations stopped using DDT.

To address this situation the World Health Organization announced last September that it would facilitate increased use of DDT to fight malaria. The WHO’s director of the Global Malaria Program, Dr. Arata Kochi, pleaded with environmentalists asking them to "help save African babies as you are helping to save the environment" by supporting greater DDT use.

The WHO considers DDT’s public health risks to be very low. In fact, there is no compelling body of evidence that DDT causes any human health problems. There is some evidence that DDT impacted reproduction of birds of prey when it was applied widely in the environment for agricultural uses. However, malaria control does not require use of the chemical in the environment, and hence does not affect birds. Instead, it is sprayed in and around huts and other residential structures to prevent mosquitoes from entering to feed on humans at night.

Thus far, few environmental groups have answered Dr. Kochi’s plea to help save African babies by advancing DDT use. Instead, some actively seek to thwart the WHO policy on DDT. In particular, the Pesticide Action Network of North America (PANNA) and Beyond Pesticides are spreading misinformation about DDT risks.

Greens also continue to make misleading claims about chemicals in general, echoing Miss Carson’s rhetoric. For example, some suggest that chemicals are causing a cancer epidemic. Yet, according to National Cancer Institute annual reviews of cancer data, cancer death rates have been declining for more than a decade and 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 a significant cancer cause.

Based on these unfounded claims, environmental activists oppose the spraying of all pesticides in the United States to control such things as the mosquito-borne West Nile virus. But 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 1,000 West Nile virus-related deaths and nearly 20,000 illnesses. Out of those cases, nearly 10,000 suffered with encephalitis or meningitis—excruciatingly painful swelling of the brain or membranes around the brain and spinal cord, which produces permanent paralysis for some.

Mr. Coburn is right to challenge the conventional wisdom. Miss Carson was wrong—and millions continue to pay the price. Why should anyone honor that legacy?