Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Remembering an Environmental Hoax

If anybody was the mother of the modern environmental movement, it was Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring was largely responsible for getting DDT banned. But in reality, her writing was sloppy, and indeed downright dishonest.

This is something to remember when hearing current environmentalists fuss and fume about the latest environmental threat.

The details are here:
In 1962, when Rachel Carson published her book Silent Spring, I was delighted. I belonged to several environmental-type organizations, had no feelings of respect for industry or big business, had one of my own books published by the Sierra Club, and I had written articles for The Indiana Waltonian, Audubon Magazine, and other environmental magazines.

At the time, I had been engaged in field work at the University of Wyoming research station in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for three summers and I worked as biological coordinator for the National Park Service in Glacier National Park. I eagerly read the condensed version of Silent Spring in the New Yorker magazine and bought a copy of the book as soon as I could find it in the stores. As I read the first several chapters I noticed many statements that I realized were false; however, one can overlook such things when they are produced by one’s cohorts, and I did just that.

As I neared the middle of the book, the feeling grew in my mind that Rachel Carson was really playing loose with the facts and was also deliberately wording many sentences in such a way as to make them imply certain things without actually saying them. She was carefully omitting everything that failed to support her thesis that pesticides were bad, that industry was bad, and that any scientists who did not support her views were bad.

Dedication: A Lie

Birds Vs. Human Deaths

I then took notice of her bibliography and realized that it was filled with references from very unscientific sources. Also, each reference was cited separately each time it appeared in the book, thus producing an impressive array of “references” even though not many different sources were actually cited. I began to lose confidence in Rachel Carson, even though I thought that as an environmentalist I really should continue to support her.

I next looked up some of the references that Carson cited and quickly found that they did not support her contentions about the harm caused by pesticides. When leading scientists began to publish harsh criticisms of her methods and her allegations, it slowly dawned on me that Rachel Carson was not interested in the truth about those topics, and that I really was being duped, along with millions of other Americans.

As a result, I went back to the beginning of the book and read it all again, but this time my eyes were open and I was not lulled into believing that her motives were noble and that her statements could be supported by logic and by scientific fact. I wrote my comments down in rough draft style, and gathered together the scientific articles that refuted what Carson had reported the articles indicated. It was a most frustrating experience.

Finally, I began to join the detractors of Silent Spring, and when hearings were held to determine the fate of DDT in various states of this nation, I paid my own way to some of them so that I could testify against the efforts to ban that life-saving insecticide. It was gratifying to find that great numbers of scientists and health officials whom I had always held in high esteem were also testifying at those hearings, in defense of DDT and in opposition to the rising tide of antipesticide propaganda in environmental publications and in the media.

In testifying and speaking in public, I frequently exposed the misleading references Rachel Carson had cited in her book, presenting her statements from Silent Spring and then reading the truth from the actual publications she was purporting to characterize. This revealed to the audiences just how untruthful and misleading the allegations of Silent Spring really were.

Now, nearly 30 years later, the controversy is still boiling about how truthful Rachel Carson was. I recently learned that a movie honoring Rachel Carson and Silent Spring is being made for television. Because I believe such a movie would further misinform the public, the media, and our legislators, I decided to type up my original rough notes from 1962-1963 and make them available. Here they are, page by page, starting with her dedication.

Dedication: A Lie

Dedication. In the front of the book, Carson dedicates Silent Spring as follows: “To Albert Schweitzer who said ‘Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the Earth.’”

This appears to indicate that the great man opposed the use of insecticides. However, in his autobiography Schweitzer writes, on page 262: “How much labor and waste of time these wicked insects do cause us ... but a ray of hope, in the use of DDT, is now held out to us.” Upon reading his book, it is clear that Schweitzer was worried about nuclear warfare, not about the hazards from DDT!

Page 16. Carson says that before World War II, while developing agents of chemical warfare, it was found that some of the chemicals created in the laboratory were lethal to insects. “The discovery did not come by chance: insects were widely used to test chemicals as agents of death for man.” Carson thus seeks to tie insecticides to chemical warfare. However, DDT was never tested as an “agent of death for man.” It was always known to be nonhazardous to humans! Her implication is despicable.

Page 16. Carson says the pre-war insecticides were simple inorganic insecticides but her examples include pyrethrum and rotenone, which are complex organic chemicals.

Page 17. Carson says arsenic is a carcinogen (identified from chimney soot) and mentions a great many horrible ways in which it is violently poisonous to vertebrates. She then says (page 18): “Modern insecticides are still more deadly,” and she makes a special mention of DDT as an example.

This implication that DDT is horribly deadly is completely false. Human volunteers have ingested as much as 35 milligrams of it a day for nearly two years and suffered no adverse affects. Millions of people have lived with DDT intimately during the mosquito spray programs and nobody even got sick as a result. The National Academy of Sciences concluded in 1965 that “in a little more than two decades, DDT has prevented 500 million [human] deaths that would otherwise have been inevitable.” The World Health Organization stated that DDT had “killed more insects and saved more people than any other substance.” A leading British scientist pointed out that “If the pressure groups had succeeded, if there had been a world ban on DDT, then Rachel Carson and Silent Spring would now be killing more people in a single year than Hitler killed in his whole holocaust.”

It is a travesty, therefore, if Rachel Carson’s all-out attack on DDT results in any programs lauding her efforts to ban DDT and other life-saving chemicals!

Page 18. Referring to chlorinated hydrocarbon insecticides (like DDT) and organophosphates (like malathion), Carson says they are all “built on a basis of carbon atoms, which are also the indispensable building blocks of the living world, and thus classed as ‘organic.’ To understand them we must see how they are made, and how they lend themselves to the modifications which make them agents of death.”

Surely it is unfair of Carson to imply that all insecticides are “agents of death” for animals other than insects.

Page 21. After referring to untruthful allegations that persons ingesting as little as one tenth of a part per million (ppm) of DDT will then store “about 10 to 15 ppm,” Carson states that “such substances are so potent that a minute quantity can bring about vast changes in the body.” (She does not consider the metabolism and breakdown of DDT in humans and other vertebrates, and their excretion in urine, and so on, which prevents the alleged “biological magnification” up food chains from actually occurring.) Carson then states: “In animal experiments, 3 parts per million [of DDT] has been found to inhibit an essential enzyme in heart muscle; only 5 parts per million has brought about necrosis or disintegration of liver cells. ...” This implies that considerable harm to one’s health might result from traces of DDT in the diet, but there has been no medical indication that her statements are true.

On page 22, Carson adds, “... we know that the average person is storing potentially harmful amounts.” This is totally false!

Page 23. Carson says, “the Food and Drug Administration forbids the presence of insecticide residues in milk shipped in interstate commerce.” This is not true, either! The permissible level was 0.5 ppm in milk being shipped interstate.

Page 24. Carson says: “One victim who accidentally spilled a 25 percent industrial solution [of chlordane] on the skin developed symptoms of poisoning within 40 minutes and died before medical help could be obtained. No reliance can be placed on receiving advance warning which might allow treatment to be had in time.”

The actual details regarding this accident were readily available at the time, but Carson evidently chose to distort them. The accident occurred in 1949 in the chemical formulation plant, when a worker spilled a large quantity down the front of her body. The liquid contained 25 pounds of chlordane, 39 pounds of solvent, and 10 pounds of emulsifier (Journal of the American Medical Association, Aug. 13, 1955). Carson’s reference to this as a “25 percent solution” spilled on the skin certainly underplays the severity of that drenching, which was the only account known of such a deadly contamination during the history of chlordane formulation.
The article goes on and on with examples of distortion and sloppy pseudo-science.

But it told the New Moralists in the environmental movement what they wanted to hear, and gave them the first (in the modern era) of many bogey men.

Labels: , , , ,

7 Comments:

Anonymous scott said...

Bringing this stuff up as if it's somehow central to understanding current environmental issues is really sad. I hope your great grandchildren forgive you for it one day.

10:17 PM  
Blogger John McAdams said...

Scott,

The fact that environmentalists have lied in the past does hurt their credibility today. There is no way around that.

8:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The fact that environmentalists have lied in the past does hurt their credibility today. There is no way around that."

So on the basis of a biography of Nixon, would you draw the same conclusion about the Republican Party?

1:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The implicit argument seems to be that because Rachel Carson made mistakes in her research that we should be skeptical about the vast scientific evidence and consensus regarding anthropogenic global warming. In other words, one person got the science wrong; therefore we should be skeptical about the assessment of the vast majority of climate scientists about global warming.

This is of course a terrible argument, and anyone who has ever taken a freshman logic class would know that.

1:47 AM  
Blogger John McAdams said...

we should be skeptical about the vast scientific evidence and consensus regarding anthropogenic global warming.

You don't actually know about that "vast scientific evidence." You only know what the media tells you about it.

It's the same media that puffed a "new ice age" in the 70s, and puffed the DDT scare.

10:03 PM  
Blogger John McAdams said...

So on the basis of a biography of Nixon, would you draw the same conclusion about the Republican Party?

On the basis of Nixon, you should be skeptical about all presidents, and alert to the way they may abuse their power.

10:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the real point is to keep your eyes open, even when (and maybe especially when) you WANT to believe what you are hearing/reading/watching. Critical thinking is something that many of us put away after we choose our value sets, in our late teen/early adult years, and it can be difficult and painful to re-examine an idea that one holds as true.

10:35 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home