Wednesday, September 15, 2010

DDT, Bed Bugs, and Rachel Carson

At dinner with my sister-in-law last night the bed bugs scourge came up (great dinner conversation, I know!) and the conversation turned to DDT. I mentioned off-hand Rachel Carson, her book Silent Spring, and the DDT/Malaria controversy. It occurred to me that with bed bugs and thus DDT back in the news it would be helpful to link to this excellent 2008 article on Carson,

Rachel Carson launched the modern environmental movement. She was posthumously awarded the US presidential medal of freedom, and has conservation areas, prizes and associations named in her honour.
Yet Carson has also been accused of killing more people than Hitler. Her detractors hold her responsible for a “ban” on the use of the insecticide DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), which, they claim, halted a campaign that was on the verge of eradicating malaria in the 1960s.

Some mainstream journalists have accepted this story, which in turn has led to pressure on the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other bodies to change policies and personnel. Yet perhaps the most striking feature of the claim against Carson is the ease with which it can be refuted. It takes only a few minutes with Google to discover that DDT has never been banned for anti-malarial uses, and that it is in use in at least 11 countries.

It takes only a little more time to discover that the postwar attempt to eradicate malaria by the spraying of DDT was a failure, largely because Carson’s warnings that overuse of insecticides would lead to the development of resistance in mosquito populations were ignored. Modern uses of insecticides are far closer to the methods advocated by Carson than to the practices she criticised.

How, then, did the idea that Carson was responsible for millions of deaths gain currency?

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