Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, April 13, 2007

Anniversary of Silent Spring

Forty-five years ago today, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was published. At the time, Rachel Carson was my age--55. I wrote 101 Ways to Help Birds as my small contribution to what she'd started--my original working title was Resounding Spring. I grew up with the DDT truck going down my block one or two times a week on summer evenings--when they heard it coming, the boys in the neighborhood would jump on their bikes and chase it, each vying to be first to grab onto one of the bars jutting out the back of the truck. My brother would come home drenched and smelly. Now his body is covered with weird subcutaneous fatty lumps--when he wears short sleeved shirts, you can see them bulging out everywhere. I'm incensed when I read that banning DDT is responsible for the deaths of people by malaria--I addressed that in my book and on a recent listserv when someone suggested that Rachel Carson wasn't such a hero:

There is no place on earth where malaria has ever been successfully controlled or reduced by using DDT on the outdoor environment. Really--no place in the world. The only way DDT has ever been effective to combat mosquito-borne diseases has been when it was applied indoors, on upper walls and ceilings of houses and on the netting covering beds. Applied in the environment, it's encouraged the evolution of resistant mosquitoes, which have a short life span and rapid reproduction, while enormously reducing the populations of many mosquito predators, such as dragonflies, which have long life span and slow reproduction; had a devastating effect on birds and other wildlife; and its metabolite worked its way into our own food chain. And DDT is still being applied environmentally today--India, for example, uses huge amounts and yet still has serious typhoid and malaria problems. And even today DDT works its way around the world such that a researcher from Illinois told me last October that it's still being detected in wolves in northern Minnesota! By the 1960s, Breeding Peregrine Falcons had been completely wiped out east of the Rockies. Eagles and Osprey were disappearing. Thousands of dead robins were picked up on the Michigan State University campus, documented and linked to DDT by George Wallace, the university ornithologist. DDE (the metabolite of DDT) was being detected in human mother's milk. Yes--I do think that was cause for justifiable outrage.

I strongly believe that public outrage is one of the most effective means, for better and for worse, in making any bureaucratic entity change the status quo. And I strongly believe in protecting human health, especially for those people who are the least powerful and able to protect themselves, and most of the people dying from malaria today are the least powerful of all--impoverished babies and children. Most issues are not cut-and-dried--there are nuances that a fair and open dialog can reveal. A fair and open reading of Silent Spring, for example, shows that Rachel Carson believed DDT and other pesticides could have a positive value in combating diseases, but that it was wiser to limit use to the smallest effective use possible rather than the widest, heaviest use. ..

I get a Google Alert when news stories about DDT are published. And I feel a great deal of outrage at how the issue has been taken up and distorted by certain anti-environment entities, as if Rachel Carson was wrong about the impact DDT was having on humans and birds when it was released into the environment and worked into our food chain, which was the precise use she was criticizing. So yes, outrage on this issue is still appropriate.