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InsiderOnline Blog: May 2014

The Dose of Rachel Carson Makes the Poison

May 27 was the 107th birthday of Rachel Carson, and Google decided to devote a doodle to celebrating the environmentalist on its homepage. Carson is most famous for her 1962 book Silent Spring, which warned of the detrimental effects of pesticides on the environment. Carson’s warnings were particularly influential in curbing the use of DDT, an insecticide that had been widely used in agriculture and to control mosquito-spread malaria and typhus. The book is not without its critics, including Henry I. Miller of the Hoover Institute. In 2012, on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring, Miller wrote that the book was “an emotionally charged but deeply flawed denunciation of the widespread spraying of chemical pesticides for the control of insects.” Miller continued:

In the words of Professor Robert H. White-Stevens, an agriculturist and biology professor at Rutgers University, “If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.”

In 1992, San Jose State University entomologist J. Gordon Edwards, a long-time member of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society and a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, offered a persuasive and comprehensive rebuttal of “Silent Spring.” As he explained in “The Lies of Rachel Carson,” a stunning, point by point refutation, “it simply dawned on me that that Rachel Carson was not interested in the truth about [pesticides] and that I was being duped along with millions of other Americans.” He demolished Carson’s arguments and assertions, calling attention to critical omissions, faulty assumptions, and outright fabrications.

Consider, for example, this passage from Edwards’ article: “This implication that DDT is horribly deadly is completely false. Human volunteers have ingested as much as 35 milligrams of it a day for nearly two years and suffered no adverse effects. Millions of people have lived with DDT intimately during the mosquito spray programs and nobody even got sick as a result. The National Academy of Sciences concluded in 1965 that ‘in a little more than two decades, DDT has prevented 500 million [human] deaths that would otherwise have been inevitable.’ The World Health Organization stated that DDT had ‘killed more insects and saved more people than any other substance.’”

In addition, DDT was used with dramatic effect to shorten and prevent typhus epidemics during and after WWII when people were dusted with large amounts of it but suffered no ill effects, which is perhaps the most persuasive evidence that the chemical is harmless to humans. The product was such a boon to public health that in 1948 the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Dr. Paul Müller for his discovery of the “contact insecticidal action” of DDT. [Forbes, September 5, 2012]

Also in 2012, Roger Meiners and Andrew Morris examined the book in some detail, highlighting the book’s impact on the mindset of the environmental movement. They noted that Carson was inconsistent in claiming on the one hand that she was against only the overzealous application of pesticides while also suggesting that policy should strive to reduce chemical residues to zero. Meiners and Morris:

The problem is that a “no-residue” policy is tantamount to a no-use policy. As Larry Katzenstein explains‚ Carson’s rhetorical question is an articulation of the present-day environmentalists’ version of the precautionary principle. Carson’s view that policy regarding synthetic chemicals should be “no risk” was not uncommon in her time‚ as exemplified in the Delaney Amendment. The policy is not only unrealistic but poses significant harm […] .

The contradiction could be reconciled by striving to balance the risks and benefits of not using pesticides against those of using them. Many of Carson’s disciples‚ however‚ do not favor such balancing of the risks of using DDT versus the risk of abandoning its use. This is evident from their support of a global ban on all DDT uses prior to the signing of the Stockholm Convention’s ban on persistent organic pesticides and the continuing efforts to phase out DDT despite its public health benefits. [“Silent Spring at 50: Reflections on an Environmental Classic,” by Roger Meiners and Andrew Morris, Property and Environment Research Center, April 2012]

See also: “Rachel Was Wrong: Agrochemicals’ Benefit to Human Health and the Environment,” by Angela Logomasini, Competitive Enterprise Institute, November 2012.

Posted on 05/30/14 08:14 PM by Alex Adrianson

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