Taking aim at Rachel Carson

I've been doing a little research into how the Rachel-killed-millions hoax was spread. In The War Against the Greens (1st edition, published in 1994), the argument appears, but it is confined to the lunatic fringe:

"How many people have died as a result of environmental policies like the banning of DDT?" the Larouchite [Rogelio Maduro] asks rhetorically. "I'd say millions, because it was the most effective weapon against malaria. Right now methyl bromide is supposedly being banned for ozone depletion, but I think this is really an attack on refrigeration, because that's what CFCs and methyl bromides are used for: the storage and transportation of food. If you look at the environmentalists' policies, they say they want to reduce world population to 500 million and 2 billion, and the best way to do that would be to destroy the world food system. That would create mass starvation. That's the way to achieve their aim"

Ron Bailey's 1993 book Eco-Scam: The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse must have found this too nutty to mention, but in his 2002 book: Global Warming and Other Eco Myths: How the Environmental Movement Uses False Science to Scare Us to Death he has a chapter from Angela Logomasini who states:

Nowhere is this danger more apparent than in the efforts to ban DDT, which has led to millions of deaths every year around the world.

The same year Bailey wrote in Reason:

Carson's disciples have managed to persuade many poor countries to stop using DDT against mosquitoes. The result has been an enormous increase in the number of people dying of malaria each year.

So how did the "Rachel killed millions" claim get from lunatic fringe to mainstream?

Well, in 1998, the new Director-General of the World Health Organization, Gro Harlem Brundtland established the Tobacco Free Initiative to reduce death and disease caused by tobacco use. Since it would also reduce tobacco company profits, they used one of their favourite tactics: When an agency plans to take actions against smoking, tobacco companies pay third parties to attack the agency for addressing tobacco instead of some other issue. For example, when the FDA proposed to regulate nicotine, Philip Morris organized and paid for an expensive anti-FDA campaign of radio, television and print ads from think tanks such as the CEI.

So Philip Morris hired Roger Bate to set up a new astroturf group Africa Fighting Malaria and criticize the WHO for not doing enough to fight malaria. The key elements of AFM's strategy:

Simplify our arguments.
Pick issues on which we can divide our opponents and win. Make our case on our terms, not on the terms of our opponents - malaria prevention is a good example. ...
this will create tensions between LDCs and OECD countries and between public health and environment.

The simple argument they used to drive a wedge between public health and environment was that we had to choose between birds and people. That by banning DDT to protect birds, environmentalists caused many people to die from malaria.

The only problem with the simple argument is that it is contradicted by the story of the fight against malaria. The standard history of this is Gordon Harrison's Mosquitoes, malaria, and man: A history of the hostilities since 1880, and he tells you the real reasons why the plan to eradicate malaria failed. It had nothing to do with Rachel Carson stabbing DDT in the back and more to do with mosquitoes evolving resistance to DDT, just as Carson had warned. You don't have to choose between birds and people -- protecting birds by banning the agricultural use of DDT also protects people by slowing the evolution of resistance.

By using DDT, Sri Lanka had reduced the number of cases to just 17 in 1963. They thought that had won and suspended the spraying program. Harrison writes:

Despite these rumblings of trouble the epidemic that hit the island in 1968-69 was shocking, unexpected and deeply discouraging The few score cases suddenly multiplied into more than half a million. In a single season parasites reestablished themselves almost throughout the areas from which they had been so expensively driven in the course of twenty years. Sri Lanka went back to the spray guns, reducing malaria once more to 150,000 cases in 1972; but there the attack stalled. Anopheles culicifacies, completely susceptible to DDT when the spray stopped in 1964, was now found resistant presumably because of the use of DDT for crop protection in the interim. Within a couple of years, so many culicifacies survived that despite the spraying malaria spread in 1975 to more than 400,000 people.

Sri Lanka was only able to get malaria under control again by switching to malathion instead of DDT.

So what was Bate's plan to deal with this?

A book on malaria, either written by one author, or as a collection of papers would be a good start.

If history doesn't support your case, just rewrite it. And that's what Bate did, writing (with Richard Tren) an alternative history: When Politics Kills: Malaria and the DDT Story. They rely heavily on Harrison, citing him over twenty times, but when they write about the Sri Lankan experience, they conspicuously fail to mention that Sri Lanka resumed DDT spraying and that it failed because of resistance, instead claiming that

pressure not to use DDT may have been applied by western donors using resistance as a convenient argument. Recent evidence shows that even where resistance to DDT has emerged, the excito-repellancy of DDT causes mosquitoes not to enter buildings that have been sprayed (Roberts et al., 2000). Under test conditions (see Grieco et al., 2000), for at least one type of malarial mosquito in Belize (the only country in which these tests have so far been conducted),DDT is far more successful than the most favoured vector control pesticide Deltamethrin. Hence it is unlikely that malaria rates would have increased (significantly) even if resistance were found.

But malaria rates did increase because of resistance even though DDT was extensively used. Harrison has an entire chapter on this, which Bate could not possibly have missed. Bate and Tren's history of DDT and malaria is deceitful.

But also very successful in influencing people. Bate and Tren is cited a half-dozen times in Bailey's Eco Myths book I mentioned earlier and along with AFM funded Amir Attaran is the main authority cited on DDT and malaria. Harrison is not cited at all. Bailey's Reason article cites an ACSH which in turn cites Bate and Tren.

But Bate didn't just fool the right-wing anti-environmentalists. His story also proved attractive to "sensible centrists" like Sebastian Mallaby and Nicholas Kristof, because they could write about they support defending the environment but don't agree with the extremist DDT banning baby killing environmentalists. What could be more sensible and centrist than that!

And the upshot of all this hasn't just been that Philip Morris has weakened the World Health Organization's ability to act against tobacco. If you think that DDT was poised to eliminate malaria, then the obvious thing that we should be doing now is spraying more DDT and if folks are distributing insecticide treated bed nets instead it must be because the all-powerful environmentalists won't let them use DDT.

So last year, after being subject to constant attacks for not promoting DDT use, the World Health Organization announced that it would advocate DDT use in areas where there was intense transmission of the disease. But while this might mollify the DDT fetishists, there was no scientific basis for the change.

Via Malaria Matters, a new paper in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene explains the difficulties:

All the evidence confirms
the hypothesis derived from modelling, that in high transmission
settings interruption of transmission is not possible.
This implies that IRS must be continued indefinitely, requiring
long-term predictable financing mechanisms. Despite
the increased global investment in malaria control, these
do not currently exist.

IRS must be carried out at high quality and coverage to be
effective in any setting but particularly in high transmission
settings. This requires highly skilled and motivated staff,
well maintained equipment, efficient logistics support and
systems for flow of funds, communities accessible by road
and acceptance by the community. This has been feasible
where health systems and infrastructure are well developed
(e.g. South Africa) or where a fairly small and defined
area can be targeted (e.g. Mozambique, South Africa,
Namibia and Swaziland) through a vertical programme. Many
sub-Saharan countries have now adopted decentralised
and integrated health systems, making IRS a far more
difficult operational challenge. In addition, the fragile status
of the majority of sub-Saharan African infrastructure
and healthcare systems means that heavy investment is
needed before the task of carrying out high-quality biannual
spray campaigns over broad areas of rural Africa will be

Rapid development of insecticide resistance was one
reason IRS was considered unsuitable in high transmission
settings (Zahar, 1984). Whilst this concern should not prevent
IRS use, it highlights that not enough is known about
the long-term role of IRS in such settings. Development of
alternative insecticides is crucial to ensure that control can
be maintained if resistance arises.

Only after IRS is identified as a suitable approach in
a given setting should insecticide choice be considered.
DDT and synthetic pyrethroids are both highly effective in
many countries. Whilst DDT's longer residual life is a major
advantage, other criteria are also important. DDT is often
cited as the cheapest option (WHO, 2006), yet there are no
robust costing data comparing DDT with the alternatives.
The logistical costs associated with the bulkier DDT as well
as additional safety measures, supervision and internal testing
systems to avoid contamination of export goods with DDT,
must all be considered. Lastly, it is necessary to consider the
implications of longer lasting pyrethroid formulations with a
similar residual life to DDT that may soon become available.

Previous consensus has been that 'IRS cannot be considered
as a principal tool for long-term malaria control in
tropical Africa' (Zahar, 1984). There is no new evidence of
the suitability of IRS in such settings, and the operational
constraints to long-term, high-quality intervention remain.
What is new in malaria control is the gradual but accelerating
improvement in insecticide-treated net (ITN) coverage.
Whilst IRS should be considered an appropriate intervention
where the right conditions are met, its limitations should be
accepted and the need for sustained investment to continue
ITN scale-up should not be overlooked.

In other words, the myths about DDT that Philip Morris paid for and Bate spread are harming the effort to fight malaria.

I agree with Eli Rabett and John Quiggin that

Roger Bate's existence is a strong argument against the existence of a just God.


More like this

This is the long-awaited part 2 of my response to Roger Bate's reply to the article on DDT in Prospect by John Quiggin and me. (Part 1 is here.) In this part I look at Bate's false history of DDT and malaria. Here's Bate's history: But while there were serious concerns about the bioaccumulation of…
In a recent post I observed that the Junk Central Station crew were ignorantly advocating the use of DDT in Sri Lanka after the tsunami, apparently unaware that mosquitoes in Sri Lanka were resistant to DDT. The World Health Organization's plan for malaria prevention in the wake…
Anti-environmentalist writers frequently claim that after DDT had all but eliminated malaria from Sri Lanka, environmentalist pressure forced Sri Lanka to ban DDT, leading to a resurgence of malaria: Roger Bate in Politicizing Science: The Alchemy of Policymaking writes: Some…
Michael Fumento hasresponded to my post way back in January demolishing his foolish proposal that after the tsunami: DDT should be sprayed on water pools, tents, and on people themselves---as indeed was once common in Sri Lanka and throughout most of the world. Unfortunately, mosquitoes in Sri…

the myths about DDT that Bate has spread is harming the effort to fight malaria.

Sure, but it's helping the effort to get more mouth-breathers to hate and marginalize the environmental movement.



Tim your series on this is great. As has been mentioned by others I think these attacks on Rachel Carson are of a piece with those trying to discredit climate change science.

It's interesting to think about Steve Milloy, of Junk Science fame, who has been attacking the ban on DDT for a long time, going so far as to claim that widespread spraying had no negative impacts on birds of prey.

Because he got his start shilling for ...

The tobacco industry.

My parents had her books, and I read them as a child. I say a retaliatory strike on that moronic, inbred fascist piece of s__t Ludwig Von Mises is long overdue.


That needs to become a top priority.

For one thing, neither he nor Hayek ever were able to TOUCH Keynesianism, let alone modern economic syntheses. But Mises in particular is a treasure trove of absurd and insane quotations and I imagine baiting these trolls with that might set them back on their claws.

By Marion Delgado (not verified) on 30 May 2007 #permalink

David Neiwert over at Orcinus has long been talking about the "transmission belt" by which lunatic ideas become mainstream in rightwing discourse. For instance, many ideas which out with the craziest of militia types, Holocaust deniers, and various racists get filtered through people like Rush Limbaugh (often others even whackier before him) and then through various pundits and cable news types, to the point where they are finally spouted by mainstream GOP candidates, among others. Sometimes these things get a push from some corporate money, often from foundation money (the likes of Scaife, for instance). This example, from LaRouche to mainstream rightwingers, is a good example.

"Tim your series on this is great."

you should consider basing an essay on them and submitting it to The Monthly or a like publication.

By Ian Gould (not verified) on 30 May 2007 #permalink

It's interesting to think about Steve Milloy, of Junk Science fame, who has been attacking the ban on DDT for a long time, going so far as to claim that widespread spraying had no negative impacts on birds of prey.

Any birder older than about 40 has almost certainly personally witnessed the remarkable recovery in raptor populations following the banning of DDT. Milloy is asking us to disbelieve the evidence of our own eyes.

Tim needs to write a book on these topics (DDT, Globl Warming, Lancet, Lott, etc). It would be published, easy.

Any birder older than about 40 has almost certainly personally witnessed the remarkable recovery in raptor populations following the banning of DDT.

And seeing as I'm a birder, and over 40, and have done a fair amount of field work with raptors ...

Milloy is asking us to disbelieve the evidence of our own eyes.

you are absolutely right.

It's like asking older farmers to ignore the evidence of climate change ...

I concur Tim. This would make an excellent article or op-ed. It would be not just a chance to set the record straight about Carson, but show some of the underhanded techniques denialists have used to undermine science.

It's really one hell of a story.

I'm an over0 bird nerd and I can state unequivocally that Milloy et al are full of sh*t.



Over 40 of course.


you should consider basing an essay on them and submitting it to The Monthly or a like publication.

I agree. Something like Harper's might be worth a shot too.

Dean, you evil man, you've just tempted me into being annoyed with Spiked again.

Honestly, that piece on Carson seems terminally confused. The writer starts by claiming they have re-read the book, then digresses into claims about her cultural effects, and gos on about her alleged disenchantment with capitalism, but then only quotes some bits to prove some point he has about Carson not being so special or original after all. A point which has some bearing upon the cultural significance of her book, but little upon the actual realities of the science. Then it rambles off on some intellectuallism to do with revulsion towards modern society.
It then accuses her of misanthropism, by means of quote mining.

Sheesh, this person is insane. THe first sentence here is correct. The following ones are as if written by a being from a different planet:

Thus, the Carson Wars obscure the issues, and divert us away from the debates we really should be having. Consider the clash over whether DDT is bad for the Third World (as argued by Carson's fact-ignoring supporters) or whether DDT will save the Third World (as many anti-Carson activists claim). In truth, while DDT would no doubt be extremely helpful for African, Asian and Latin American communities in the short term, spraying the interiors of mud huts with DDT is never going to develop Third World economies and Third World health with the speed that these things deserve. Only industrialisation, irrigation and sanitation can do that, and finally do away with malaria in that part of the world. The obsession with Carson's legacy means that meaningful debates about developing the Third World are not even on the table.
Of course spraying huts with DDT isn't going to develop economices. Unless of course you realise that chronic malarial infections cause a massive social burden, i.e. people with it cannot work or learn or live up to their potential due to being burdened with the parasite. Also, the mosquito is not stopped by industrialisation, sanitation or irrigation. It is stopped by eradication programs, removal of breeding grounds etc etc. All of which could be paid for by us richer countries, or, if your willing to wait a few years, the developing countries as they develop. But to dismiss hut spraying as this chap seems to be doing is bonkers.
The final sentence seems to me to be utterly out of touch as well. Since when has anyone on here been so obsessed with Carson etc that they have shirked meaningful discussion on development of the Third world? Where is Jeff Harvey when you need him?

By the way, you do know that ST monitors these forums, dont you?
*Waves to ST*

Guthrie makes an important point, although there were rural pockets, malaria (and other mosquito born diseases) were pretty much wiped out in the US and Australia and Europe by sanitation and public health methods. In school, we all learned how Walter Reed used such methods to wipe out Yellow Feaver in Panama.

Steve Milloy cites a bunch of chicken studies on his Junk Science website to "prove" that DDT did not harm Raptors (eg, peregrine falcons) through eggshell thinning.

As everyone knows, Raptors are really just chickens (at least at heart).

..and Velociraptors were also chickens, just very big ones with very sharp knife-like claws -- which they never used, of course, since they were too chicken to do so.

Watch it Eli, my attempt at formatting didnt work. THe Spiked columnist is the one claiming that:

"Only industrialisation, irrigation and sanitation can do that, and finally do away with malaria in that part of the world."

Whereas I am saying that irrigation, sanitation and industrialisation are not themselves what get rid of mosquitoes, but are merely things which can, done properly, enable the societies in question to have sufficient surplus product to deal effectively with the mosquitos breeding grounds etc.

Ah, Milloy of the inextinguishable pants, again.
The causal link between DDT use, prevalence of DDT/DDE and raptor breeding failure has been firmly established for decades. To choose but one example,

A discussion of organochlorines, eggshell-thinning and the decline of several populations of North American raptors concludes that a causal relationship exists between the ingestion of prey highly contaminated with DDE and the consequent eggshell-thinning and eggshell breakage. The breeding failure that follows and subsequent population declines of several raptor populations proceeds in a straightforward, logical and well-documented sequence.

Twenty years ago, bald eagles were extremely rare in Colorado (and the rest of the contiguous states, for that matter). This week, my wife saw nesting bald eagles, with chicks, on a farm road just a few miles from our house. It's only one data point, but you can't get that kind of thrill from a table.

My fellow Coloradan hits on an important point:

the breakdown products of DDT, esp. DDE, are the baddies. When the shills say DDT doesn't do blablabla, they may in a narrow sense be partially correct, because the DDE may be doing the damage.



Sorry guthrie. On the other hand, Eli lives in a former marsh that has become a swamp. We wiped out malaria here by the 1930s, but recently have had severe and dangerous infestations of Is (as in AEI, CEI, Icetra)

DDT doesn't thin eggshells, DDE does.

Guns don't kill people, bullets do.

Dano, don't have a link for it, but DDT has about equal toxicity as DDE, and I think that the final breakdown product (DDD) is also just as bad.

And the half-life is so bad that you can find the stuff is soil pretty much anywhere, even though it's been banned in the States for decades. It is the gift that keeps on giving.

Here's some ATSDR factoids to chew on.


I agree Thom. I'm just trying to point out hair-splitting rhetorical techniques in certain instances, à la Big Tobacco. Perhaps I shoulda said in addition to DDT, DDE etc are bad too.




I am here and read your excellent posts with admiration! I also read the article in Spiked and, as expected, it doesn't begin to scratch the surface in understanding exactly what forces are conspiring to keep Africa and much of the developed world mired in poverty. Books by Tom Athansiou and Patrick Bond do that very well, as does Mark Curtis in his books 'Web of Deceit' and 'Unpeople'.

To reiterate: think tanks like the CEI, CATO, AEI et al. ad nauseum are funded heavily by a suite of powerful multi- national corporations whose basic aim is profit maximization. 'The bottom line'. I'd be all touched if I truly believed that corporate planners worked to create social and environmental justice, global equity and promoted human rights. But they don't. They are amoral, psychpathic tyrannies that are legally obliged to seek the bottom line. This is not to say that they did not play a major role in driving wealth concentration in the developed world during and after the industrial revolution, concomitant with a higher standard of living for many, but their intention was always self-valorization. Joel Bakan's book, 'The Corporation' is also a wonderful expose of the corporate mindset.

On top of all this, what pisses me off in the extreme is that the vast majority of these corporate-sponsored 'front groups' and astroturf lobbying organizations are not revealing their hand, which should be obvious to just about everybody but to some clearly isn't. All of the heart-wrenching stuff they paste on their sites about the silent holocaust of malaria while demonizing the legacy of Rachel Carson is nothing more than a blatantly vile use of emotion to push through their real agenda: deregulation. These tyrannies see any regulations as a denial of their 'liberty' (heck, since the 14th amendment was changed just after the Civil War, these entities have obtained the same rights as people). Consequently, they are cynically exploiting a huge tragedy to camouflage their real agenda, which as I've said before is to eviscerate the role of the government in the economy, thereby removing any impedments in the pursuit of private profit.

Like I said in one of my last posts, Rachel Carson was a national treasure, a compassionate researher who was well ahead of her time. She was effectively one of the first true environmental scientists, she popularized ecology, and her pioneering role in the cnservation movement has left an indelible mark in the world. I salute her legacy.

By Jeff Harvey (not verified) on 31 May 2007 #permalink

Tim, you wrote: "When an agency plans to take actions against smoking, tobacco companies pay third parties to attack the agency for addressing tobacco instead of some other issue."

I think you meant the opposite, "addressing some other issue instead of tobacco".

Regarding Spiked, never has so much brain power been expended so pointlessly.

Thats what annoys me.

sorry Guthrie - was just saying your predictive powers had been vindicated...

.. hows the 'monitoring' going ST? - must be distasteful work for you???

By Dean Morrison (not verified) on 01 Jun 2007 #permalink

According to the Pesticide Resistance Database the first report of Anopheles culicifacies's DDT resistance in Sri Lanka dated 1976.

However in Sri Lanka there remain quite a few malaria vectors susceptible to DDT which have developed resistance against other pesticides. It is also obvious that in Sri Lanka there is not a single vector that developed resistance only to DDT but nothing else. Thus I provisionally conclude that DDT even though it has been long and intensively used is still of similar effectiveness as many of its replacements and should not be urged to phase out ASAP.
Since we know that not only do the vectors shift according to the attempts of their control but also malaria shifts among these vectors there should be no prejudice against using whatever chemical is reasonably save and at least effective in part.

By Wolfgang Flamme (not verified) on 01 Jun 2007 #permalink

No mz, reread it. The shills attack the WHO by saying something like "why are you focusing on tobacco when you have malaria to worry about?"

That is, they "attack the agency for addressing tobacco instead of some other issue."

By SmellyTerror (not verified) on 02 Jun 2007 #permalink

RE: Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson's 100th birthday remembrance certainly brought out a diversity of viewpoints. Was she a visionary who eliminated toxic chemicals from America's environment, or was she a crack pot whose radical actions are responsible for millions of malarial deaths?

I hope that the 200th anniversary of her birthday will put her accomplishments into proper perspective. In a day in which any chemical that could be safely manufactured and used was approved, she pointed out environmental and human health problems of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) ... chemicals designed to kill ... occurring beyond their manufacture and use points. The process of democracy at its finest allowed the analysis, debate and banning of these chemicals over two decades. There is no other arena in history where man has reversed a technological course for environmental reasons. Yea human race!

The use of PCB, DDT, toxaphene, chlordane, heptachlor, Lindane, Aldrin, Dieldrin, hexachlorocyclohexane and hexachlorobenzene were banned in the developed countries because they were suspected of causing cancer or were acutely toxic in the environment. Yea Rachel!

As these bans were pursued in developing countries, argument focused upon malarial vector (mosquito) control. Why? The real battle should have been the use of DDT in general agriculture. When developing countries banned agricultural DDT, what did they use to control pests? Toxaphene? Banning DDT on grains and its discriminate use for mosquito control would avoid the spread of DDT in dangerous quantities and controlled mosquitoes. The DDT ban fight became a smokescreen for the use of all the other POPs.

Now toxaphene, probably the most used pesticide on the planet, circulates through the air from its uses in developing countries and pollutes cold, clear waters from the northern Great Lakes to the Arctic. Lake Superior, a lake the size of the state of Maine with depths going to below sea level. Its waters, if spilled over the continental United States would cover the area to a depth of six feet and is frightfully polluted with foreign toxaphene. Its trout harbor 5 parts per million of toxaphene, ten times the level that would classify them as hazardous waste!

Arctic polar bear and killer whales are on the edge of survival or decimated by banned pesticides and PCBs. PCBs and pesticides circulate through our air in hundreds of millions of molecules per breathful quantities, amounts that are now being connected to asthma, diabetes and cancer. Inuit ingest 15X a tolerable quantity of poisons.

Rachel Carson was on the right track. Unfortunately, her work is not complete and the planet is still at risk. See the web site coldclearanddeadly.com for more details.

Mel Visser

DDT is a godsend for many countries like Thailand where I live now. The alternative mosquito killing compounds are 5 to 7 times higher in price and somewhat less effective so more has to be used. These governments have made the choice to use DDT to economically and effectively spare the many many Malaria, Dengue fever deaths that would ensue. Until science comes up with better compounds or a cure of some sort then its the best solution to reduce suffering and death.

Ace, I don;t have first-hand experience of DDT application but most of the literature says the standard dose of DDT is up to ten times greater than for cabramates, the main alternative.

Is your statement that "more has to be used" based on direct experience? If not can you provide a source?

Precisely because you need a much larger dose of DDT, freight costs are much higher and spray teams can treat fewer houses per day.

DDT, as Tim L. keeps saying, is useful in some circumstances but it isn't a panacea.

By Ian Gould (not verified) on 06 Jun 2007 #permalink