DDT, Malaria, and the attack on Rachel Carson

I’ve been spending the last weeks reading with increasing alarm (and frequency) nasty, vitriolic attacks on Rachel Carson. The folks promoting DDT aren’t just making claims that are scientifically and factually incorrect; they also targeted a gentle nature writer and are comparing her to Stalin and Hitler.

Now, you all know what a calm, reasoned, and peaceful person I am. But this really pisses me off!

Maybe knowing that Carson was dying of breast cancer as she was writing Silent Spring is what makes this so upsetting to me; it feels like an attack on someone who is suffering in a way I can really identify with.
I have a sister who is a naturalist, a writer, and a breast cancer survivor, and I’d be horrified and infuriated if this happened to her.

So, I’m leaping to Rachel’s defense, and debunking some really silly claims at the same time. (Claims that have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, NY Times, and on major TV channels, BTW.)

I won’t double post what I wrote to debunk the DDT/malaria claims here, partly because it’s waaaaay long, but also because I hope to get enough links to that individual post to knock some of the pages out of the top slots at Google. (Your help in this is appreciated, if you have a blog.)

As an entomologist, I do know a few things about mosquitoes and pesticides. :) I also taught parasitology for many years, so I know a bit about malaria. I’ll be using that knowledge in upcoming follow-up posts to address the bad science of denying mosquito resistance to DDT occurred, and addressing claims that there are no side effects of DDT use.

You may also wish to read Deltoid’s blog–he’s been doing an awesome job of looking at who is paying and orchestrating these attacks on Carson, and the pro-DDT message.

Please help me save the reputation of an early SkepChick. She wasn’t correct about everything she wrote, (particularly given the state of molecular science 45 years ago), but she was undeniably a brilliant nature writer:

“Who has decided—who has the right to decide—for the countless legions of people who were not consulted that the supreme value is a world without insects, even though it be also a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight? The decision is that of the authoritarian temporarily entrusted with power; he has made it during a moment of inattention by millions to whom beauty and the ordered world of nature still have meaning that is deep and imperative.”


Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really! If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

Related Articles


  1. How can one help?

    Actually would LOVE to hear more about her.

    Also what is DDT? I mean the internet version of course, not the chemical.

    As for the breast cancer part, since both my parents have died of cancer, I can relate. Any and all forms of cancer are a horribly degrading painful way to die.

  2. And i can relate to those who've managed to get treated early and survive.

    the son of one of my best friends had cancer of some form too. I think it was brain. He was only three but somehow managed to survive. He's still ok.

    My friend, who happens to be indian, is a first class person. He shaved his head completely bald to make his son feel comfortable with his shaved head. (Proof that religion does not imply a "bad" sociapath control freak like Mr. Falwel, my friend is actually a christian. He is however not an overbearing one but an open minded giving person.)

    Anyway, would love to learn more about this person. I guess I've have some googlign to do over the weekend.


  3. great posts, buggirl, thanks. I hope everyone reads the long post on your personal blog, too.

    I have to wonder sometimes how and why people buy into stuff like this. Do they really believe it? It's unfathomable to me.

  4. They really believe it. And publish it in major journals too–this drivel was recently picked up as "news" in American Scientist, who really should know better.

    That's what happens when you have a need for content 24/7, and not enough people trained at news outlets with the ability (or time) to evaluate what they harvest from the web.

  5. Good posts on DDT. I commend you for your approach that (for the most part) looks at pragmatic problems instead of digressing into environmentalist dogma. A few points where I believe you missed the boat…

    1. The sampling of viewpoints you indicate is far from balanced. The ones calling Carson "Hitler" or "Stalin" reprsent but a mere-portion of fringe extremeist/alarmist advocates. You seem to lump all Pro-DDT supporters in with this extreme group and globally condemn them for it. In fact this type of rhetoric has been coming from the extreme environmentalist groups as well. One could even extend and make the arugment how Carson's book, which is far from perfect and is noted more for its beautiful prose and style than for hard-hitting scientific content, is one kind of extremist/alarmist rhetoric in itself. Now I am not saying that banning DDT is an issue pushed only by the extremists in society, I am simply pointing out you may want to check your writing against the very rhetorical nonsense you seek to condemn.

    2. You make a very convincing case for mosquito resistance to DDT. However, just because some insects are becoming resistant to the use, does not mean that DDT does not have value as a control for mosquitoes. Using your logic, one could construct a similar argument for the discontinued use of Penicillin. This drug is becoming increasingly reistsant to strains of bacteria and in fact is completely ineffective against many. Furthermore, many people die or are hospitalized due to adverse reactions to the drug. In this way, Penicillin is far more dangerous than DDT is and is ineffective in more ways than DDT is. However, no one is suggesting that use of Penicillin be halted or banned because of this. The fact remains that Penicillin is still valuable for use in many instances and the benefits of its use far outweigh the harms.

    Additionally, Resistance to DDT has been shown to be heavily dependant upon the manner in which it is used. Farmers have been blamed for irresponsibly using DDT in doses that actually encourage resistance in mosquitoes.

    3. How DDT is supposed to be used. You argue effectively that there are better alternatives to haphazard spraying of DDT in outdoors areas, and you are correct on that. DDT should only be used for localized indoor use for spraying on walls or furniture. Many assume DDT will still be spread a la the old fashioned way via huge outdoor spraying (as we have seen in many a newsreel footage from the 50s) When DDT is used in the way reccomended by agencies such as the Malaria Foundation International, it can be used safely and effectively to curtail mosquito dangers.

    4. Health effects in Humans. I know you said you would get to this in later posts, but I will address it now because I can. The scientific community is at best unsure of what effects DDT have on humans. It has been hinted that some correlation exists between DDT and a myriad of disorders including, but not limited to, reduced verbal attention, psycological problems, liver disorders, visumotor speed, cancer, and decreased sperm mobility. This is a big red flag as there is no clear physiological effect you can point to nor any biological mechanism that causes any of these effects. These studies deal mostly with correlations, many of which are not statistically significant. And as I dont need to tell you, correlation is not causality.

    anyway, thats all for now, this comment is very long, sorry.

  6. KingJoeVII,

    assuming (and I don't know if I'm smart to assume this) you are being honest in your doubts, you should follow the link over to Deltoid and read through the many links there about the attacks on Carson. Follow the links there too. You'll see a lot of accurate info about DDT and resistance, and the fact that it isn't banned for malaria control (as falsely claimed by many). You'll also see proof of the involvement of conservative groups in this smear, as well as folks you'd probably be surprised to doing it, like the tobacco companies. And while I agree these are all extremist/alarmist nutcases, they aren't fringe by any sane standard. They are big time players with a lot of media presence and clout.

  7. Thanks for the info anthrosciguy

    Yeah I have been looking over the stuff on Deltoid…I have to say much of it comes dangerously close to the kind of conspiracy theory stuff that I find repulsive. It's not as bad as, say, a 9/11 conspiracy, but some of the same rhetoric is used to support some of the assertions – creating causal links without sufficient evidence, false assumptions, etc.

    To give you an example or two, claiming that "Big Tobacco" is using this issue as a round about way to create a "general unease" with the WHO and drive a wedge between public health and the environment. This argument is flawed in several ways. First, "Big Tobacco" is a loaded term propagated by anti-industry advocates. In todays culture, this term already carries with it a negative connotation that this industry is evil and therefore can do no good. If you take a look, you will see that many of the "Big Tobacco" companies are parts of corporations where tobacco is but a small part (I'm thinking here of Phillip Morris). By merely mentioning this term the author(s) indicate a clear disposition towards an anti-industry standpoint.

    Secondly, why would Tobacco want to criticize the WHO for not supporting malaria controlling measures (specifically DDT) when the WHO has indicated DDT as one of it's three main intervention strategies for controlling mosquitoes? Surely this makes little sense for tobacco companies to try and attack this facet of the organization when there are many more easier targets for them to go after.

    Finally, What motivation do tobacco companies have to try and distance public health from the environment? The public health interest is obvious, but why does tobacco care about the environment at all?

    Again, much of this borderlines on the generic anti-industry, anti-chemical agriculture, pro-organic rhetoric that is out there. If anything it seems as though the anti-DDT people are playing more off of these public fears than anything else.

    just my opinion of course, and I could be dead-wrong about it…

  8. King Joe, I think you missed my point. I'm not anti-DDT, I'm anti portraying DDT as the savior of all people with malaria and attacking an innocent woman.

    I linked to articles in the New York Times and Fox News in that article–elsewhere I have linked to CBS, Washington Post, etc.

    Those don't seem like "fringe" to me.

    also, I haven't covered DDT resistance yet–I've only mentioned it in passing. It's a major issue, and I'll be covering it more fully next week.

    FYI, I'm hardly a shill for environmentalists. I once worked for BASF, as well as Burroughs Wellcome, and have received funding for my research from agricultural interest groups tied to the pesticide industry.

  9. To give you an example or two, claiming that “Big Tobacco” is using this issue as a round about way to create a “general unease” with the WHO and drive a wedge between public health and the environment. This argument is flawed in several ways.

    Well, here's the thing — they wrote it down, just like the Discovery Institute did with their Wedge Document. Reading what they actually wrote and seeing who they hired and what astroturf group they set up isn't a conspiracy theory — not in the sense of it being crazy or silly. It's just looking at verified facts. This is the relevant link over at Deltoid. And if you follow the link over to Eli Rabett's blog, you'll find links to the actual proposals to Philip Morris about setting all this up. That isn't some tinfoil conspiracy theory — it's an actual conspiracy. And the only crazy part is not believing it when you see their own words telling you how it was done, who paid for it, and then resulting actions.

  10. I feel that this area has been covered before in the <a>Washington Post.

    As it was pointed out that countries choosing to use DDT may face sanctions on agricultural products from the EU (possibly other DDT "free" countries).

    What I really want to know is. How many people has Rachel Carson killed?

    Is it less or more than President Bush Jr? Saddam Hussein? Thomas Hamilton?

    Just a ball-park figure will do.

  11. Rachel Carson has killed FUCKING NO ONE and that is why this pisses me off so much. She's dead, has no family, and there is no one to complain about the domain "" that blames her for millions of deaths.

    She wrote a book about nature. Yes, it influenced people–but at no point did she ever call for a ban. She asked for responsible use of pesticides at a time in history in which people really, truly thought they could fix just about everything with a chemical.

    For that, she deserves this kind of vilification? Particularly when most of what they say is utter crap??


    Countries using DDT might face sanctions if they use DDT *agriculturally.* That is completely different than using it for vector control.

  12. To use an earlier comparison:

    Countries using DDT agriculturally would equate to doctors describing antibiotics for an ear infection for example: It's pretty much pointless and in the end all it achieves is a higher risk of resistance. (Of course, in the case of ear infections there are exceptions where antibiotics are useful).

    So, doctors are allowed to prescribe antibiotics, if they are dealing with a case that warrants the use of antibiotics.

  13. Exarch: exactly, although the analogy is better if you add "and if the bacteria is believed to be one that will respond to the antibiotic prescribed."

    Like antibiotics, not all pesticides are equal, or effective.

  14. wait a minute Sid–were you talking about May Berenbaum's article? Because that one IS awesome.

    I thought you were talking about the Post article that just repeated all the junk science claims, and interviewed a neocon shill for good measure.

    I retract my temper tantrum :p

Leave a Reply to ricky moosetonCancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button