Sunday is the 38th annual Earth Day. The idea for such a commemoration was conceived by Frederick Gary Dutton, a Democrat Party power broker and Kennedy family confidante who, upon leaving politics, managed public relations for Mobil Oil. The first actual Earth Day, in 1970, was organized by Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson as a "teach-in." But it was the publication of Rachel Carson’s "Silent Spring" that provided the inspiration for the modern environmental movement.
Carson was a born naturalist; as a young child she spent whole days roaming the woods near her home in Springdale, Pa. She studied biology in college and went on to earn a master’s degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins University. Her attention turned to pesticides in the 1940s, after a friend complained about government spraying pesticides on her property.
Through "Silent Spring," Carson imbedded in the public consciousness a concern for the affects of chemicals on the environment. But she also grossly overstated the risks of pesticides such as DDT. Unfortunately, her simplistic environmental theories fomented unfounded fears about synthetic chemicals, in general. It is interesting to note that Paul Muller, the Swiss chemist, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1948 "for his discovery of the high efficiency of DDT as a contact poison against several arthropods."
Carson asserted that DDT was to blame for the "decimation" of pelicans, falcons and eagles; she claimed the pesticide interfered with their calcium metabolism, thereby thinning the shells of their eggs and dooming their offspring. She also insisted that DDT caused cancer in humans, which prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to ban the pesticide in 1972.
But Carson never advocated a ban on DDT. In "Silent Spring" she stated: "Spray as little as you possibly can" rather than "Spray to the limit of your capacity." In fact, subsequent research determined that eggshell thinning among some bird species started 50 years before DDT was introduced, and it has no affect on fowl, poultry or passerine species such as sparrows, robins and crows. Only raptors are negatively impacted.
The DDT ban was responsible for the needless deaths of tens of millions of people worldwide who died after use of the pesticide for malaria control was prohibited. Indeed, DDT had been largely responsible for reducing malaria deaths worldwide from 1,740 per million in 1930 to 480 per million in 1950 — a 70 percent decrease.
In addition to the human suffering, malaria has perpetuated poverty in Third World countries. The World Health Organization estimates that the DDT ban and the subsequent malaria epidemics have resulted in an annual loss of $12 billion among poor nations due to the loss of labor productivity and foreign investment.
In South Africa, for example, the DDT ban caused malaria cases to skyrocket from 5,000 in 1996 to 60,000 in 2001. Deaths from the disease rose from 50 to 425 during the same period. When South Africa reinstated use of DDT, malaria cases dropped 96 percent.
A measure of reason took hold within the WHO last year when the agency reversed its ban on the pesticide and began actively promoting its use to control malaria. The U.S. Agency for International Development has earmarked $1.2 billion for malaria control over the next five years.
Fear of pesticides was also responsible for the Alar fiasco that culminated in its ban by the EPA in 1989. The scare was perpetrated by the Natural Resources Defense Council, with help from CBS’ "60 Minutes," which reported that the Alar sprayed in fruit orchards was causing cancer. Celebrities rushed in front of TV cameras and before Congress to testify that apple juice was killing our children.
Apple growers in Michigan and elsewhere suffered a 60 percent drop in sales and $60 million in losses, according to the Michigan Farm Bureau.
It was later revealed that the "research" used by NRDC to justify its report was based on inordinately high levels of Alar fed to laboratory rats. To ingest the same amount of Alar that caused cancerous tumors in the rats, a person would have to eat more than his or her weight in apples daily.
April 22 is the perfect day to reflect on the DDT and Alar sagas. We would do well to resurrect Sen. Nelson’s concept of the commemoration as an educational exercise. And, rather than advocating for the costly regulation of phantom risks, Carson’s followers should focus on real threats to human health and the environment.
Bruce Edward Walker is science editor at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.