Scientific Tipping Points: The Banning of DDT, Part II

Tim Londergan, Sept. 25, 2018

Part I of this series provided a history of DDT from its initial synthesis, to its uses as a pesticide, to its eventual ban in the U.S.  In this Part, we summarize the life of Rachel Carson, and her book Silent Spring.  It was the publication of Silent Spring in 1962 that provided the “tipping point,” turning public opinion from strong support for chemical pesticides to grave concern regarding real and potential harm to our ecosystem.

  1. Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson was born on May 27, 1907, in Springdale, Pennsylvania, a few miles outside Pittsburgh.  She began writing at a young age and had her first story published when she was ten years old.  Rachel’s deep connection with the natural world was fostered by her mother, who took her daughter on frequent excursions through the woods surrounding the family farm.

Fig. 2.1: Rachel Carson in Silver Spring, Maryland.

After graduating first in her high school class, Carson attended the Pennsylvania College for Women, known today as Chatham University.  There she majored in biology, although she maintained her interest in writing through contributions to the student newspaper and literary supplement.   When she graduated, Rachel Carson won a fellowship to study at Woods Hole.  There she saw the ocean for the first time; this began a life-long fascination with the sea and with marine ecosystems.

Carson next attended Johns Hopkins University as a graduate student in zoology and genetics.  She earned a master’s degree in zoology in 1932.  At that point, she intended to continue her graduate studies; however, she dropped out in order to assist her family.  Carson’s father had died suddenly, leaving her mother struggling financially during the Depression.  In order to support herself and her mother, Carson took a position at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries.  There she was assigned to write copy for a weekly series of radio broadcasts intended to provide information about the bureau, and to educate the public about aquatic life.

This job combined Rachel’s interests in marine biology and writing; not surprisingly, she was a great success in this position, and her supervisor encouraged her to apply for a full-time post.  After Rachel outscored all other applicants on the civil-service exam, she was hired in 1936 as a junior aquatic biologist at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (it is now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).  Rachel Carson was the second woman ever hired by that agency into a full-time professional position.

Carson’s responsibilities at the Bureau of Fisheries were twofold.  First, she was assigned to produce brochures and literature that described to the public the work of the Bureau; and second, she analyzed and reported on data that the Bureau compiled on fish populations.  In her spare time, Carson also wrote articles on marine life for several different publications, particularly the Baltimore Sun.

In 1937, Carson published an article called Undersea in the Atlantic Monthly.  That article received so much favorable publicity that Simon & Schuster urged her to turn it into a book.  In 1941, this was published as Under The Sea Wind.  The book featured Carson’s signature writing style that combined considerable technical and scientific detail with lyrical, almost poetic descriptions of natural phenomena.  Although Under The Sea Wind was reviewed favorably, it was not a commercial success.  However, Rachel Carson continued to publish feature articles in various publications.

Carson attempted to leave the Bureau of Fisheries and find work as a naturalist, where she might be able to devote more time to her scientific writing; however, she was unable to find a suitable full-time position.   Furthermore, she was now the sole source of income for both her mother and two nieces, as her older sister had passed away.  So she remained at the Bureau, where in 1949 she was named chief editor of publications.

Rachel Carson then began a book on a life history of the oceans, and she completed the manuscript in 1950.  In June, 1951 The New Yorker magazine began to serialize nine chapters of the book, and one month later The Sea Around Us was published by Oxford University Press.   Unlike her previous book, The Sea Around Us was a triumphant success.  It spent 86 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List (and made it to #1 on that list), won the 1952 National Book Award for Nonfiction, and was abridged by Reader’s Digest.  Fig. 2.2 shows the cover of The Sea Around Us.

Fig. 2.2: Cover of The Sea Around Us.

The success of The Sea Around Us marked a turning point in Rachel Carson’s life.  Her previous book Under The Sea Wind was re-published, and this time it also became a bestseller.  A documentary of The Sea Around Us was produced, and won the 1953 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.  Perhaps most important, the success of her book allowed Rachel to quit her job at the Bureau of Fisheries in order to become a full-time writer.

Carson next published the third volume of a trilogy on aquatic ecology, The Edge of the Sea.  That book was an in-depth examination of life in coastal ecosystems.  It particularly focused on areas in the Atlantic seaboard that were well known to Carson, including Maine, Massachusetts and the Chesapeake Bay area.  Once again, a condensed version of the book was printed in The New Yorker, shortly before the book was published by Houghton Mifflin in October, 1955.

Rachel Carson continued publishing essays on science while she considered ideas for another book.  Initially she considered a monograph on evolution; however, after Julian Huxley published Evolution In Action, she abandoned this idea.  Meanwhile, Carson’s interest in conservation began to grow.  She and her best friend, Dorothy Freeman, initiated plans to buy a plot of land in Maine to conserve it and shield it from development.  She also began to work closely with environmental groups such as The Nature Conservancy and The Audubon Society.

2)  Before Silent Spring: Disturbing News on the Technology Front

Prior to publication of Silent Spring, several widely-publicized incidents had shaken the confidence of the public in areas regarding applied technology and public health.  First were issues that highlighted potential negative effects arising from the use of powerful chemicals.  In 1959, it was discovered that cranberries grown in the western U.S. contained high levels of aminotriazole, a chemical that had been shown to cause cancer in laboratory rats.  As a consequence, the sale of all cranberry products was halted for a year, an incident that was described as “The Great Cranberry Scare.”  In order to reassure nervous consumers that cranberries were once again safe, both John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were shown eating cranberries at public appearances during the 1960 presidential campaign.

Shortly before publication of Silent Spring, it was discovered that the drug thalidomide had severe side effects when taken by pregnant mothers.  That drug had been developed by the German firm Chemie Gruenenthal as a sedative.  Once it was found to have significant anti-emetic effects, the drug was prescribed to pregnant women to combat morning sickness.  At the time, it was believed that drugs taken by pregnant women were not capable of passing the placental barrier.  As a result, thalidomide had not been adequately tested on pregnant women.

Nevertheless, the drug was widely prescribed in Germany under the name Contergan.  It was also licensed in Great Britain and Australia, under the name Distaval.  There it was advertised with the assertion “Distaval can be given with complete safety to pregnant women and nursing mothers without adverse effect on mother or child… Outstandingly safe, Distaval has been prescribed for nearly three years in this country.”

Unfortunately, this claim was to prove disastrously wrong.  When taken by pregnant women prior to their third trimester, thalidomide produced severe teratogenic effects (i.e., inducing defects in the physical development of the embryo or fetus).  Before it was taken off the market in 1961, thalidomide is estimated to have killed about 2,000 children and produced severe birth defects in another 10,000.  Although the majority of the cases were in Germany, there were enough thalidomide babies born in the U.K. that they were housed in special hospitals.

In the 1960s when I was a graduate student at Oxford University, one of my fellow students was involved in a project to design prosthetic limbs for thalidomide children.  The type of birth deformity was related to the point in a pregnancy when a woman began taking the drug.  If the drug was taken on the 20th day of pregnancy it could result in brain damage; on the 21st day damage to the eyes would occur; day 22 would result in damage to the ears and face; day 24 the arms; and days 25 to 28 would produce damage to the legs.  Fig. 2.3 shows prosthetic limbs that were created for a child whose mother had taken thalidomide.

Fig. 2.3: Prosthetic limbs for a child whose mother had taken thalidomide.

A third health issue surrounded the isotope Strontium-90 (Sr-90).  This unstable isotope is a by-product of fission reactions, and it subsequently undergoes radioactive decay.  Sr-90 is a component of fallout from atmospheric nuclear tests.  In the 50s, the U.S. began atmospheric tests of hydrogen fusion weapons.  These tests produced copious amounts of debris, which were carried great distances in the atmosphere.  The Soviet Union began atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons a few years later.

When testing of fusion weapons was carried out in the Pacific, and atmospheric testing of American fission weapons was carried out in the Nevada desert, the public was assured that the fallout was harmless, so long as one avoided the immediate area of the blast.  Fig. 2.4 shows the explosion from the 1954 H-bomb test on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific.

Fig. 2.4: The 1954 H-bomb test over Bikini Atoll.

Sr-90 is generally absorbed in the body through ingestion of foods such as water or milk.  Although most of this is subsequently excreted, some amount of this isotope is absorbed in the bones of the body.  There it is capable of causing bone cancer, cancer of other organs, and leukemia.  Tests done in the late 50s and early 60s discovered two facts.  First, trace amounts of Sr-90 were showing up in milk.  Second, a study of the baby teeth of children in the U.S. showed a significant increase in Sr-90.  Children born after the start of atmospheric nuclear testing had levels of Sr-90 in their teeth that were 50 times higher than those in children born before that period.

So, by the time Silent Spring was released, the public was familiar with examples where the widespread use of powerful chemicals created unforeseen long-term health problems.

3) Rachel Carson’s Motivation for Writing Silent Spring

 Over the years, Carson became interested in issues involving broad-spectrum pesticides.  She took notice of a federal program to eradicate the gypsy moth.  The gypsy moth was an invasive species that posed a threat to hardwood forests in Eastern states.  In an attempt to control the gypsy moth, the U.S. government carried out aerial spraying over a region of 3,000,000 acres using a mixture of DDT, other pesticides and kerosene.  Landowners on Long Island sued to stop the spraying over their properties.  They claimed that the spraying posed a threat to birds, animals, cattle and milk, and possibly humans.  The suit ruled against the complainants; however, a Supreme Court ruling granted petitioners the right to gain injunctions against potential environmental damage in the future.   Fig. 2.5 shows children running behind a truck as it sprays DDT in a residential neighborhood in the 50s.

Children playing in the DDT fog left beh
Fig. 2.5: Children running behind a truck spraying DDT.

A second motivating factor involved Carson’s research of a campaign by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to eradicate fire ants in Southern states.  We will spend some time reviewing this program, as it embodied a philosophy that was strongly criticized by Carson in her ensuing book.  Here we summarize the 1990 article A Rogue Bureaucracy: The USDA Fire Ant Campaign of the Late 1950s, by Pete Daniel, who was the Curator of the Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Fig. 2.6: Title page of Daniel review on the Fire Ant eradication campaign.

The red fire ant was an invasive species that probably arrived in the U.S. in shipments of imported fruits or vegetables.  It was relatively aggressive, had a nasty sting, and built large mounds that interfered with farming.  After its initial introduction, it had spread methodically to several of the Southern states.

A coalition of Southern farmers and Congressmen asked the USDA for information about this insect.  They were told that the fire ant “feeds on various crops that are grown in the South causing serious damage to young succulent plants.  They often attack young, unprotected animals such as newborn calves and pigs and newly hatched quail and poultry. In areas of heavy infestation the ants may chase brooding hens from their nests.”

The USDA, together with its backers in the chemical industry and at agricultural extension services, recommended a campaign to eradicate the fire ant.  In 1957, legislation empowered the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) to coordinate a massive program whose centerpiece was aerial spraying with chemical pesticides such as chlordane, dieldrin and aldrin.   The campaign would eventually involve treating some 20 million acres of land in nine Southern states.

The fire ant eradication effort was carried out with all of the trappings of a military operation.  Indeed, much of the language surrounding the program echoed contemporary concerns about Communist subversion.  The fire ant was portrayed as a foreign invader and a threat to our national security.  The fire ant would be conquered with the latest science and technology – “chemical bombs” of chlorinated hydrocarbons, sprayed from airplanes.  Note that the goal was not to control or limit damage from fire ants, but to obliterate the ant from U.S. soil.

This campaign fit right in with the ethos of the 1950s.  In fact, that era even featured a series of low-budget movies where giant mutant insects suddenly appeared and terrorized American towns.  In most of these movies, the invading insects were eventually conquered by the military.  Examples of this genre were: the 1954 film Them that featured giant ant puppets; the 1955 movie Tarantula in which a 100-foot tarantula rampages across the Arizona desert (and is eventually attacked with napalm by a fighter pilot played by a young Clint Eastwood); the 1957 film The Black Scorpion that featured a horde of giant scorpions descending upon Mexico (not the U.S., this once); and the 1958 movie Beginning of the End, where giant grasshoppers wreak havoc in Chicago.     Fig. 2.7 shows the movie poster for Them.

Fig. 2.7: Poster for the 1954 mutant-insect invasion movie Them.

It is not entirely clear why eradication, rather than control, became the goal of these insect-abatement programs.  It is possible that such programs were viewed as analogous to mass-vaccination campaigns for smallpox and polio, where total elimination of the disease was the goal.  It is conceivable that the efforts were inspired by the success of insecticides such as DDT that seemed capable of wiping out diseases such as malaria and typhus.  Another possibility was that since insects such as the fire ant and the gypsy moth were invasive species, the goal was to return our ecosystem to an earlier state that contained none of these pests.  Finally, eradication campaigns may have simply resonated with an unwarranted 50s-era confidence in the power of science, technology and American know-how to control nature.

One would assume that a program that entailed spraying millions of acres of land with potent chemicals would be preceded by extensive field tests, to determine the most effective types and doses of insecticides.  In retrospect, it seems obvious that significant steps should have been undertaken to limit the destruction of other species and damage to the environment.  However, it appears that no such tests were carried out.  Instead, ARS officials simply consulted with representatives of various chemical companies, in particular Kimon Karabatsos of Velsicol Chemical Corporation.  It was not until 1958, the third year of the spraying program, when deputy ARS administrator W.L. Popham suggested that the agency conduct a study of the fire ant and its feeding habits, and consider the possibility of using biological controls or undertaking a coordinated effort with the Fish and Wildlife Bureau!

The USDA carried out extensive efforts to communicate the program to the public.  However, when a 1959 White House memo noted that “many articles of food are now exceeding the tolerances [of chemical residues],” the same memo emphasized that only selected members of the scientific community, the regulatory agencies and the food trade knew “the essential facts.”  Despite criticism of the program, the ARS continued to spray large areas of the South, all the while denying that the chemicals harmed fish and wildlife.

Although the ARS had promised to coordinate its fire-ant eradication efforts with the Fish and Wildlife Bureau, there was little exchange of information.  The ARS staff tended to minimize or deny reports of damage to wildlife, despite the fact that internal communications revealed that it knew that fire ant control chemicals killed quail, frogs, fish, hawks, owls, crows, red foxes, earthworms, and songbirds.  Eventually, concerted opposition to the spraying program arose from both conservationists and sportsmen.  George M. Kyle, editor of Alabama Conservation, pointed out that the fire ant did not appear among the first twenty-five major pests in Alabama. Fire ants, he revealed, did not attack crops as ARS claimed but “feed principally on larvae of other insects, of which the boll weevil is a major one.” Furthermore, Kyle insisted that chemicals used in the fire ant campaign had killed wildlife, contrary to USDA claims.

In October 1958 Clarence Cottam, Director of the Weider Wildlife Foundation and a former Interior Department official, visited ARS.  Cottam was scathing in his assessment of the fire-ant program.  He stated, “Eradication is impossible from a practical standpoint,” adding that “From an entomological standpoint, I think the program is unsound.  From a wildlife standpoint it is disastrously damaging.”  Cottam concluded, “I have never seen a control program in either Department that has been so poorly handled nor one that has exhibited such a lack of intellectual honesty as this one.” 

 In Dec. 1958, the ARS brought in Dr. Harlow Mills to conduct a review of the fire ant eradication program.  Mills expressed significant dismay with the overall attitude in the ARS division, concluding that control people have been guilty of a domineering, arrogant attitude, sometimes going as far as to leave the impression that as long as the people wanted a control program they were going to get it despite side effects.”  He further criticized the bureau’s ‘eradication philosophy,’ saying that he could not find an entomologist “who believes that an eradication concept is realistic.”  The ARS simply shelved Mills’ report until a further review of the program was carried out.

The coup de grace for the fire ant eradication program came at a Senate hearing in 1960.  ARS deputy administrator M.R. Clarkson claimed that the fire ant had been eradicated on the 1.6 million acres that had been sprayed.  But Senator Holland of Florida responded that, during the five years of the eradication program, fire ant infestations had increased from 90 million acres to 120 million acres!  When attacked, fire ants poured nearly all their energy into reproductive efforts.  In addition, the spraying program killed off competing ant species more efficiently than the fire ants, so paradoxically the ‘eradication’ program actually helped spread that species.

Pete Daniel summarized the fire-ant eradication program as follows: The fire-ant campaign is but a small chapter in the post-World War II rush to exterminate pests and regulate other aspects of the environment by chemicals. In this war, nature has become the enemy, and less effort has been directed toward understanding pests than in massing tons of chemicals to attack them. The scenario has become so common as to be predictable. A promising chemical is approved without adequate testing, insects build up resistance, the chemical threatens both the environment and people, environmentalists complain and are called alarmists, and after poisoning the environment the chemical is banned. 

Rachel Carson was highly knowledgeable about the details of the “fire ant eradication” fiasco.  Through her contacts with environmental groups, she was aware of the arrogance of the ARS staff, their dismissal of complaints from Fish and Wildlife staff and sportsmen, and their confidence in the use of broad-spectrum pesticides that had devastating effects on the ecosystem.   All of this information played a crucial role in defining the book that was to follow.

4)  Publication of Silent Spring

Silent Spring was published by Houghton Mifflin in September, 1962.  However, publication of the book was preceded by its serialization in The New Yorker magazine beginning in June of that year (see Fig. 2.8).  Given the topic of the book and Rachel Carson’s writing ability, Silent Spring would almost certainly have become a widely influential book; however publication in The New Yorker greatly expanded the reach of Carson’s arguments.  In October 1962, Silent Spring was chosen as a Book of the Month Club selection.  The combination of the publicity through the New Yorker and the coverage afforded by the Book of the Month Club provided a nation-wide audience for Carson’s views.

Fig. 2.8: Part I of Silent Spring in The New Yorker, 1962.

Silent Spring was a genuine bombshell of a book.  Its serialization in The New Yorker provoked a tremendous reaction from the public, and the book became an instant best-seller.  Although conservationists and sportsmen had previously criticized the chemical industry’s pesticide programs and the collateral damage to fish and wildlife that ensued from mass-spraying campaigns, Rachel Carson’s book offered a critique of such programs from an ecosystem point of view.

In addition, Silent Spring combined Carson’s gift for explaining technical scientific issues to the general public, together with her lyrical descriptions of nature.  Carson leveled the following charges against the chemical industry, its scientists, and the state and federal bureaucrats who distributed pesticides.  First, the chemicals that were being used were powerful broad-spectrum poisons that often produced serious collateral damage to birds, fish and mammals.  Second, these chemicals were capable of producing long-term damage that was underestimated by the chemical companies.  Third, the chemicals were being applied without sufficient consideration for the complex relationships between living organisms in the ecosystem.  And fourth, large-scale application of pesticides accelerated the rate at which insects would acquire resistance to a particular chemical.  In order to remain effective against insects, either the dosage of the pesticide would have to be increased or a more potent pesticide would have to be substituted for the original.

In Silent Spring, Carson summarized a number of mass-spraying campaigns, all of which had been relatively unsuccessful.  There was a major program of aerial spraying of pellets containing aldrin in Michigan in 1959, directed against the Japanese beetle.  In this case, a spokesman for the Detroit Department of Parks and Recreation added his assurance that “the dust is harmless to humans and will not hurt plants or pets.”   Although the spraying had relatively little effect on Japanese beetle populations, it did cause significant losses in wildlife and bird populations.  Similar eradication programs were carried out against the gypsy moth in Eastern states, against elm bark beetles that helped spread the fungus that caused Dutch elm disease, and against the spruce budworm.   Fig. 2.9 shows aerial spraying of pesticides in a campaign against the spruce budworm.

Fig. 2.9: Aerial spraying of DDT over Baker County, Oregon in 1955.

Carson emphasized that a major focus of her criticism dealt with the large-scale spraying of trees and fields with broad-spectrum insecticides to combat insect pests.  Carson pointed out that such programs indiscriminately killed off a wide variety of insects, birds and other life.  Furthermore, initial campaigns to ‘eradicate’ certain pests tended to be repeated, often using increasingly heavy doses of pesticides.

In addition, Carson criticized the widespread use of powerful chemicals that were available to the general public.  She noted that chemicals such as chlordane, DDT, dieldrin and lindane were common ingredients in preparations recommended for use in both homes and gardens.  Some of these products are shown in Fig. 2.10.  Carson pointed out that few people were aware of the active ingredients of many “household” items, and she suggested that long-term accumulation of these chemicals could have unforeseen adverse consequences.

Fig. 2.10: insect sprays for use in the home in the 1950s.

5)  Pushback Against Silent Spring

Not surprisingly, Silent Spring caught the attention of the chemical industry and its lobbyists.  In 1963, I had a summer job at DuPont (my father was a research chemist at DuPont).  I was impressed that many of my scientific colleagues wanted to discuss Silent Spring with me.  After a while, I noticed an amazing similarity in these discussions.  The talking points and arguments were nearly identical: Rachel Carson was a radical environmentalist; she wanted to return the world to conditions that existed in the pre-industrial age; she wanted to ban all pesticides.

Eventually it became clear that my colleagues were all repeating the official DuPont line regarding Carson and her book.  It was not clear how many of them had actually read Silent Spring.   A common complaint was that Carson’s book was not a fair-minded assessment of the value of chemicals in combating agricultural pests or in fighting disease.  This is certainly correct.  Carson did not intend for her book to extol the benefits of pesticides; she felt that the chemical industry and the popular press had done a fine job of praising their products.  Instead, she focused on the widespread and (to her mind) unwise use of massive amounts of powerful chemicals, without a clear understanding of the long-term implications of what she termed ‘biocides.’

The opening chapter of Silent Spring was called A Fable For Tomorrow.  It imagined a town where most or all of the birds had been killed either directly or indirectly as a result of pesticides.  Although Carson emphasized that “no community … has experienced all the misfortunes I describe,” her fable presented a chilling prospect of the consequences of over-use of powerful chemicals.

The Monsanto Corporation took Carson’s fable quite literally.  In the October 1962 issue of their in-house publication Monsanto Magazine, they published a fable called The Desolate Year, in which they imagine a scenario where the United States would be devoid of pesticides for a year.  In their dystopia, insect plagues ravage the country and deadly diseases run rampant.

Chemical industry lobbyists, led by American Cyanamid scientists Robert White-Stevens and Thomas Jukes, claimed that “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.”  William Darby of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine characterized Carson as a member of “the organic gardeners, the anti-fluoride leaguers, the worshippers of ‘natural foods,’ and those who cling to the philosophy of a vital principle, and pseudo-scientists and faddists.” Finally, former Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson commented in a letter to Dwight Eisenhower that Rachel Carson had never married despite being physically attractive; wondering why a “childless spinster would be concerned about genetics,” Benson therefore concluded that she was “probably a Communist.”

In the 56 years since the publication of Silent Spring, the attacks on Rachel Carson have abated, but they have not ceased.  Shortly before the 100th anniversary of Carson’s birth in 2007, Keith Lockitch published an essay in Capitalism Magazine titled “Rachel Carson’s Genocide” (Capitalism Magazine is an online publication with close ties to the Ayn Rand Institute).  And the Competitive Enterprise Institute hosts a website  It contains an article by Angela Logomasini titled Activists Celebrate Carson’s Dangerous Anti-Chemical Legacy.  Ms. Logomasini is a Senior Fellow of The Competitive Enterprise Institute.  That institute is funded by well-known opponents of government regulations such as the Charles Koch Foundation, Murray Energy and Monsanto.

I have read the articles by both Lockitch and Logomasini.  In both cases, they argue that Carson is largely responsible for banning DDT, and that the use of DDT would reduce or eliminate malaria around the world.  In part I of this series we discussed the question of DDT and malaria.  Note that today, countries can use DDT for treatment of disease, and DDT is used in a number of countries as part of a process called Indoor Residential Spraying (IRS).  Thus, it is disingenuous to blame Carson for today’s malaria cases, when countries maintain the discretion to use DDT against malaria.

The IRS protocol is a program that targets mosquitoes based on knowledge of their habits.  The insides of some walls in residences are sprayed with DDT.  Since mosquitoes tend to rest before and after feeding, such a program will particularly impact mosquitoes while avoiding large-scale spraying projects that kill wildlife more indiscriminately, and that also hasten the development of tolerance.  The IRS approach is precisely the type of chemical program that Carson endorsed – a focused and limited approach to using insecticides.  Carson repeated this advice from the Director of the Plant Protection Service in The Netherlands: “’Spray as little as you possibly can’ rather than ‘Spray to the limit of your capacity’…Pressure on the pest population should always be as slight as possible.”

There are two general reasons why some countries do not currently use DDT to fight malaria.  The first is in areas where mosquitoes tend to breed year-round in small pools of water that accumulate during rainfall.  Therefore, it is difficult to identify, treat and remove the mosquito breeding grounds, or to spray during a limited breeding season.  A second reason is that the mosquitoes in the area have developed resistance to DDT.  This usually occurs when the areas have experienced large-scale use of DDT for agricultural purposes.  It is notable that neither Lockitch nor Logomasini make any mention of resistance of insects against pesticides.

In 2007, Senator Benjamin Cardin attempted to submit a resolution celebrating Carson for her “legacy of scientific rigor coupled with poetic sensibility” on the 100th anniversary of her birth. The resolution was blocked by Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who said that “The junk science and stigma surrounding DDT — the cheapest and most effective insecticide on the planet — have finally been jettisoned.”   Coburn was presumably continuing the proud tradition of Oklahomans combating the scientific establishment – from Sen. Inhofe bringing a snowball to the floor of the Senate and asserting that the snowball’s existence refuted the idea of global climate change, to Scott Pruitt’s recent reign of terror as administrator of the EPA.

One of the most scathing, and puzzling, criticisms of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring came from Edwin Diamond.  Diamond was the former science editor at Newsweek.  In 1963, Diamond wrote a biting, negative review of Silent Spring in the Saturday Evening Post.  He asserted that Carson’s book belongs with books by “the anti-fluoridation leaguers, the organic-garden faddists, and other beyond-the-fringe groups.”   Noting that a panel of the President’s Science Advisory Committee estimated that deaths from pesticides averaged roughly 150 per year, Diamond opined that “The annual death toll from accidents involving aspirin is about 200 and from bee stings … is about 150.  No one, however, has seriously proposed eliminating the use of aspirin or exterminating all bees.  Nor has anyone, with the possible exception of Miss Carson, proposed to abolish pesticides.”

One puzzling aspect of Diamond’s sneering critique is that initially, Silent Spring began as a collaboration between Diamond and Carson!  After some preliminary work with Diamond, Carson continued the book as a solo effort.  Presumably the bitterness of Diamond’s review is indicative of philosophical differences that arose when he and Carson attempted to compose a book together.

Rachel Carson rightly pointed out that residue from pesticides accumulates in the tissues of fish and mammals.  And she suggested that DDT and its breakdown products might be harmful to animals at the top of the food chain.  Indeed, it appears that the breakdown products dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene (DDE) and dichlorodiphenyldichloroethane (DDD) caused the thinning of eggshells, and related difficulties in reproduction, in species such as the bald eagle, osprey, peregrine falcon and brown pelican.  A decade after the production of DDT was halted in the U.S., the numbers of these birds dramatically increased.

A common feature of all criticisms of Silent Spring is the assertion that Carson’s book advocated banning all chemical pesticides, and DDT in particular.   However, this claim is easily refuted.  Nowhere does Carson advocate banning DDT.  In fact, there are several cases in Silent Spring where Carson advocates limited, targeted approaches using pesticides.   She wrote: All this is not to say that there is no insect problem and no need of control.  I am saying, rather, that control must be geared to realities, not to mythical situations, and that the methods employed must be such that they do not destroy us along with the insects.

Following the publication of Silent Spring, and the concerted attacks from the chemical industry and their spokespersons, Rachel Carson went to some lengths to clarify her stance.

We should be very clear about what our cause is. What do we oppose? What do we stand for? If you read some of my industry oriented reviewers, you will think that I am opposed to any efforts to control insects or other organisms. This, of course is not my position. My particular concern, as you know is with the reckless use of chemicals so unselective in their action that they should more appropriately be called biocides rather than pesticides.

6)  Rachel Carson after Silent Spring

Following the publication of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson became arguably the most widely-known spokesperson for the environmental movement.  She testified in Congressional hearings on the benefits and risks of chemical pesticides.  She was also the subject of a 1963 “CBS Reports” one-hour TV special hosted by Eric Sevareid.  This program reviewed some of the details of pesticide use in the U.S., and featured interviews with Carson and with Dr. Robert White-Stevens, a chemist and spokesman for the chemical industry.  Public reaction from that program was overwhelmingly favorable to Carson and her viewpoints.

However, Rachel Carson was not able to build upon the fame and exposure she obtained from the publication of Silent Spring.  At the time her landmark book was published, she was gravely ill.  In early 1960, Carson had developed a duodenal ulcer, and complications from that illness had slowed her progress in completing her book.  Then in March of that year, she discovered cysts in her breast and underwent a radical mastectomy.  Her doctor told her that this treatment was simply precautionary, but in December 1960 it was revealed that the tumor was malignant and that it had metastasized.

Carson was careful to keep her health issues private.  She quite rightly felt that critics would accuse her of writing Silent Spring because she blamed the chemical industry for causing her cancer.  Prior to publication of Silent Spring, Carson sent advance copies to a number of scientists in an attempt to marshal their support.  She understood that her book would ignite a storm of criticism, and she was concerned that her declining health would make it difficult for her to gain support from her colleagues following publication.

Rachel Carson made a number of public appearances in the year following publication of Silent Spring.  She received several awards in 1963, including the Audubon Medal from the National Audubon Society, the Cullum Geographical Medal from the American Geographical Society, and induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  Unfortunately, her health continued to deteriorate.  The cancer spread to other organs and to her bones, and by early 1964 she was largely confined to her bed.  Rachel Carson died of a heart attack on April 14, 1964.

7)  The Legacy of Silent Spring

Silent Spring had an immediate impact upon its publication in 1962.  However, it has continued to be an important work in the decades following its initial publication.  It was translated into 15 different languages and read around the world.  It has also been honored as an enduring work of the 20th century.  For example, Silent Spring was rated #5 on a list of the 100 Best Nonfiction books of the century compiled by Random House Modern Library.  In 2006, Discover Magazine included it on their 25 Greatest Science Books of All Time compilation.  And Time Magazine included it on their All-TIME 100 Nonfiction Books.

Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring sparked a conversation that is still ongoing in our society: what is the appropriate balance between using chemical pesticides to fight disease and increase agricultural yield, and limiting the use of powerful chemicals in order to preserve the health of the living organisms in our ecosystem?

As we reviewed in Part I of this post, one eventual outcome of Silent Spring was the banning of DDT production in the U.S.  In fact, by 1975 every major pesticide highlighted in Carson’s book had either been banned or had its use severely limited.  In addition, Silent Spring helped pave the way for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.  Her book emphasized that the Department of Agriculture, which was previously in charge of the approval and regulation of pesticides and herbicides, had an inherent conflict of interest.   The USDA had a vested interest in improving and maintaining agricultural production, and this led to a bias in favor of approving pesticides.

More broadly, Carson’s book sparked an interest in conservation efforts, and an appreciation for the health of ecosystems and the creatures that inhabit them.  Our current awareness of issues such as sustainability and species preservation is directly related to questions raised in Carson’s book.   Silent Spring could legitimately be viewed as jump-starting a national environmental movement.

In an Afterword to an edition of Silent Spring published in 2002, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson summarized the prevailing viewpoint at the time Carson’s book was published.  “Ecology was near the bottom of the scientific disciplines in prestige and support … Conservation biology, later to become one of the most rapidly growing disciplines, did not exist … The environment was also excluded from the mainstream political agenda.  America in the late 1950s and early 1960s was an exuberant and prospering nation.  Buoyed by record peacetime economic growth, an ethic of limitless progress prevailed … For the sake of our prosperity and security, we rewarded science and technology with high esteem and placed great trust in the seeming infallibility of material ingenuity.  As a consequence, environmental warnings were treated with irritable impatience.  To a populace whose forebears had within living memory colonized the interior of a vast continent and whose country had never lost a war, arguments for limit and constraint seemed almost unpatriotic.”

And in an introduction to a 1994 re-printing of Silent Spring, Al Gore wrote: For me, personally, Silent Spring had a profound impact. It was one of the books we read at home at my mother’s insistence and then discussed around the dinner table . . . . Rachel Carson was one of the reasons why I became so conscious of the environment and so involved with environmental issues . . . . Carson has had as much or more effect on me than any of them, and perhaps than all of them together.

In 1970, Joni Mitchell wrote the environmental anthem Big Yellow Taxi, a song that describes how the environment is harmed by thoughtless actions (“don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone, you pave Paradise, put up a parking lot”).  The second verse of this song shows directly the influence of Rachel Carson: “Hey farmer, farmer, put away that DDT, give me spots on my apples but leave me the birds and the bees, please.”   Here is a video of Joni Mitchell in a live performance of Big Yellow Taxi.

On Jan. 1, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act.  This Congressional statute led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Fig. 2.11 shows Nixon signing this act, with William Ruckelshaus (who served as the first administrator of the EPA) on the left.

Fig. 2.11: Nixon signing the National Environmental Policy Act in 1970.

The EPA was established to take over responsibility for enforcing environmental regulations.  It thus consolidated functions that had previously been scattered over a number of different federal agencies.  For example, the Department of Interior had been responsible for oversight of water quality, Health, Education and Welfare had regulated air pollution and solid waste disposal, and the Department of Agriculture had regulated pesticides.

After its foundation, the EPA pursued a targeted policy of proposing regulations aimed at protecting the environment and ensuring quality standards.  The Clean Air Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 (commonly known as the “Superfund program”) were all landmark legislative acts supported by and enforced by the EPA.

At the time of this writing, the EPA is under an unprecedented attack from the Trump administration.  EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, until his resignation in July 2018, had decimated the staff of the agency, replaced distinguished scientists on EPA advisory boards with representatives of industry, proposed rolling back a series of environmental protections, and was attempting to make radical regressive changes in the agency.  The only similar period of the EPA happened under the Reagan administration, after Anne Gorsuch was named EPA administrator.  The resulting chaos in the EPA was so dramatic, and the public reaction so negative, that Gorsuch was replaced with William Ruckelshaus, who was appointed EPA administrator for a second time.

One can only hope that Americans pay attention to recent comments by William Ruckelshaus.  “The public will tolerate changes that allow the EPA to meet its mandated goals more efficiently and effectively.  They will not tolerate changes that threaten their health or their precious environment.  These are lessons that Reagan learned in 1983.  We would all do well to heed them.”

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Rachel Carson:
Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin, Sept. 1962)
Wikipedia, Thalidomide:
A Rogue Bureaucracy: The USDA Fire Ant Campaign of the Late 1950s, by Pete Daniel:
The Desolate Year, Monsanto Magazine XLII No. 4, Oct. 1962, p. 4.
Keith Lockitch, Rachel Carson’s Genocide, Capitalism Magazine May 2007;
Angela Logomasini, Activists Celebrate Carson’s Dangerous Anti-Chemical Legacy.
Edwin Diamond, The Myth of the “Pesticide Menace,” Saturday Evening Post, Sept. 28, 1963.
Nicholas Gilmore, The Deafening Criticism Against Silent Spring, Saturday Evening Post, Sept. 27, 2017.
Linton Weeks, The CBS Report That Helped ‘Silent Spring’ Be Heard, The Washington Post, March 21, 2007
Mark Stoll, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a Book That Changed the World, Web virtual exhibition: