May 27 marked the 100th birthday of Rachel Carson, author of the 1962 bestseller Silent Spring, a book that significantly influenced the modern environmental movement.
In the same week, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a free-market think tank in Washington, DC, launched a campaign to reassess Carson’s legacy, particularly as environmentalists find themselves increasingly at odds with malaria prevention advocates in developing countries.
CEI started its campaign by launching a new Web site, http://www.RachelWasWrong.com, which explains in detail “the unintended consequences of [Carson’s] opposition to pesticide use, including millions of preventable deaths in developing countries.”
In Silent Spring, Carson opposed the use of dichloro-diphenyl trichloroethane (DDT), a chemical pesticide that came into use during World War II but was banned by the United States in 1972. Then-U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William D. Ruckelshaus said it “posed unacceptable risks to the environment and potential harm to human health.”
The anti-DDT campaign eventually spread to other countries, including developing nations where the pesticide was being used to kill the mosquitoes that spread malaria.
Thirty-five years later, malaria has once again become a mass killer disease, now infecting hundreds of millions of people and claiming more than 1 million lives worldwide. As a result, disease-control agencies are once again advocating the use of DDT to fight it.
“DDT does what no other chemical in existence can do, at any price,” explained Paul Driessen, senior policy advisor at the Congress of Racial Equality, a civil rights group headquartered in New York City. “It is the least expensive and perhaps the safest insecticide we have. Sprayed just once or twice a year on the walls of houses, it keeps the vast majority of mosquitoes from even entering, irritates the ones that do come in so they don’t bite, kills those that land, and reduces malaria rates by 75 percent or more.”
Many experts believe Carson’s book fueled the worldwide anti-DDT movement, adversely affecting the battle against malaria.
“In [Silent Spring], she attacked the use of DDT as endangering wildlife,” said Don Roberts, professor of tropical public health at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. “History has largely discredited her claims.”
Abandoning DDT house spray programs, Roberts said, has been a colossal disaster for public health.
“In the 1980s and 1990s, most [malaria-]endemic countries progressively abandoned house spray programs,” Roberts said. “As a result, malaria rates began to climb higher and higher.”
Angela Logomasini, CEI’s director of risk and environmental policy, agreed.
“While Carson may have meant well, her rhetoric and anti-technology views produced devastating consequences, particularly for children in Africa,” Logomasini said.
“Our Web site includes photographs of some children who lost their lives to malaria since DDT was banned,” Logomasini stated in a news release. “We ask that people remember their birthdays too, with the hope that it will encourage policymakers to rethink foolish and dangerous policies.”
In 2006 both the U.S. Agency for International Development and the World Health Organization reversed longstanding policies and began recommending use of DDT in malaria control programs through indoor spraying, Driessen said.
Radical environmental groups continue to oppose DDT use. The San Francisco-based Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA) claims on its Web site that Carson “inspired movements for right-to-know, corporate accountability, and public and environmental health. Amidst celebrations of her prolific work, right-wing activists rail against her.”
Other groups are working to spread awareness about DDT’s important role in malaria prevention.
“Since the Malaria Foundation International raised awareness about the importance of DDT for malaria control, there has been an increasing number of knowledgeable advocates working to educate the world with regards to the importance and safety of DDT for malaria control,” said Mary R. Galinski, director of the International Center for Malaria Research & Education at Emory University in Atlanta. “We need to keep vigilant about such education, to disband the false notions that using DDT for malaria control is a health hazard.”
Sanjit Bagchi ([email protected]) writes from India.