Outside view: Carson springs up again

By GORDON S. JONES, A UPI Outside view commentary  |  Aug. 11, 2002 at 6:21 AM
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DRAPER, Utah, Aug. 11 (UPI) -- The week I went to work at the Environmental Protection Agency in June of 1972, Administrator William Ruckelshaus issued an order banning the domestic production of DDT. My job, for two-and-a-half years, was to administer that ban.

It made no sense to me then and it makes no sense to me now.

I have occasion to recall this because of an invitation I received to an Interior Department briefing to be held in the Rachel Carson Room. I had not known that there was a Rachel Carson Room in the departmental headquarters and, while I'm not overly surprised, I do think it inappropriate to name a room for a woman responsible for more than 60 million deaths.

While that may seem to be an extreme statement, consider the facts.

It is not too much to suggest that Carson was the impetus behind the U.S. ban on DDT and the ensuing limited availability in the Third World. Her 1962 book "Silent Spring" excited a backlash against the single most effective pesticide ever developed.

DDT had been used against lice during the World War II but it wasn't until 1948 that it was shown to kill malarial mosquitoes. Virtually overnight, malaria stopped being the killer it was. In Sri Lanka 2.8 million people died from it in 1948. In 1964, that number was 17. That is not a decimal error. Deaths from malaria dropped from 2,800,000 to 17 in less than two decades. Worldwide, DDT is credited with saving over 100 million lives.

Against that record, Saint Rachel of the Environmental Movement had her work cut out for her, but she proved herself up to it. "Silent Spring" is an evocative work, full of images of sun-filled glades, and limpid pools. The springs are silent, you see, because the birds are dead.

DDT may kill the insects, Carson tells us, but then the birds eat them.

The DDT builds up in their systems, the birds lay eggs with thin shells and the little birds don't survive. Eventually, in Carson's paradigm, the species become extinct.

The science, contrary to the conventional wisdom, doesn't really support her arguments.

Yes, there was evidence of eggshell thinning but it was never tied conclusively to DDT. In fact, Ruckelshaus rejected the recommendations of his own scientists when he formulated the DDT ban.

My own reading of the evidence and the hearings I conducted while at EPA led me to conclude that heavy metals -- arsenic, mercury, and cadmium -- were more likely the agents behind the eggshell thinning.

EPA officials were not all the impressed by the data either. The ban covered future production, stocks "in the pipeline" and that DDT in the possession of private individuals. At the same time, the acting director of the Office of Pesticide Programs told me that he had a 75-pound bag of DDT and that he fully intended to use it on his own garden -- ban or no. One of the deputy directors used to eat a spoonful each year to show his college classes that it was, essentially and to human beings, harmless.

It has been 30 years since DDT was banned as a result of Rachel Carson's literary skills. Malaria and other diseases controlled by the "miracle pesticide" are on the rise again. In Sri Lanka, five years after DDT was banned under pressure from U.S. regulators and diplomats, malaria deaths were back up to 2.5 million per year.

The dead are not very visible to American politicians because, in most places at least, they don't vote. A move is afoot in the United States Senate -- promoted by Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. -- to have the United Nations oversee a worldwide ban on the use of DDT.

This would have little if any effect in the United States because it is no longer used here. In the Third World, it is a very different story.

Millions in the developing nations, mostly poor children, will die as a result. Lieberman, who wants to be president, is trying to solidify his credentials with American environmentalists -- who all worship Rachel Carson.

He is less concerned with the poor children in India who cannot vote in U.S. elections. This does not mean his is unfeeling or an evil man; just that he is putting his own political agenda ahead of what is best for many others around the world.

Too often, there are those in the environmental movement who, like Rachel Carson, may have altruistic intentions yet ignore the consequences of what they espouse. As a result, a bird is saved but millions of people die. We can all meditate on that little fact while we are waiting for the briefing to start in the room named for Carson in the Department of Interior building.


Gordon S. Jones is a writer and political scientist working in Utah. In a 30-year career in Washington, his portfolio of activity included work on science and environmental issues both as a congressional staffer and in public policy organizations.

-- Editor's note: "Outside View" commentaries are written for UPI by outside writers who specialize in a variety of important global issues.

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