Lying about Rachel Carson

As part of its ongoing war on science, Quadrant Online as published a piece by J.F. Beck accusing Rachel Carson of constructing an elaborate tissue of exaggerations and lies.

In his piece Beck is only able to come up with two alleged lies by Carson. First, Beck claims that Carson said that DDT was the product of World War II weapons research:

Carson's suggestion notwithstanding, DDT was not a product of World War II weapons research, having been first synthesised in 1874.

But Beck is lying. Here is what Carson actually wrote about the development of DDT:

DDT (short for dichloro-diphenyl-trichloro-ethane) was first synthesized by a German Chemist in 1874, but its properties as an insecticide were not discovered until 1939. Almost immediately DDT was hailed as a means of stamping out insect-borne disease and winning the farmers' war against crop destroyers overnight. The discoverer, Paul Muller of Switzerland, won the Nobel Prize.

And Beck is well aware of what Carson actually wrote.

Second, Beck claims that Carson said that DDT causes leukemia in a matter of months:

Contrary to Carson's suggestion, no amount of DDT can cause leukemia or any other form of cancer to develop in a matter of months, if ever, and the chemical is not acutely toxic: no one is known to have died of DDT poisoning.

But Beck is lying. After listing a couple of case histories where pesticide use was followed by leukemia, Carson wrote:

As this physician emphasizes, pure exposure to a single chemical is the exception, rather than the rule. The commercial product usually contains combinations of several chemicals, suspended in a petroleum distillate plus some dispersing agent. The aromatic cyclic and unsaturated hydrocarbons of the vehicle may themselves be a major factor in the damage done the blood-forming organs.

And later:

Benzene, a frequent constituent of insecticidal solvents, lodges in the marrow and remains deposited there for periods known to be as long as 20 months. Benzene itself has been recognized in medical literature for many years as a cause of leukemia.

The EPA states "benzene is a known human carcinogen by all routes of exposure", so it would seem that Carson wasn't lying, but rather on the right track. (See also this on the evidence Carson used.)

Beck also claims that DDT "is not acutely toxic". But Cornell's Pesticide Management Education Program reports on the acute toxicity of DDT:

Acute effects likely in humans due to low to moderate exposure may include nausea, diarrhea, increased liver enzyme activity, irritation (of the eyes, nose or throat), disturbed gait, malaise and excitability; at higher doses, tremors and convulsions are possible (3, 6). While adults appear to tolerate moderate to high ingested doses of up to 280 mg/kg, a case of fatal poisoning was seen in a child who ingested one ounce of a 5% DDT:kerosene solution (3).

Beck also denies any chronic toxicity for DDT:

In any event, DDT and other commonly encountered synthetic pesticides are no more dangerous to the average human's health than are the natural chemicals in our food

Recent scientific literature disagrees:

The recent literature shows a growing body of evidence that exposure to DDT and its breakdown product DDE may be associated with adverse health outcomes such as breast cancer, diabetes, decreased semen quality, spontaneous abortion, and impaired neurodevelopment in children.

Beck finishes with this:

The viciousness? It's the left's traditional tool for silencing opposition. If that doesn't work there's always violence.

Apparently Beck is afraid of vicious gangs of Carson supporters beating him into silence.

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The surname Beck is not having a good twenty-first century so far.

Darl McBride (CEO of SCO) came to a UNIX expo with two bodyguards, to protect him (he says) from threats from Linux supporters against his life.


Wait, if DDT isn't acutely _or_ chronically toxic, then why don't we relay TrueSceptic's challenge to Monckton to Beck?

On a more serious note, reading the closing line of Tim's post and the first two comments (well, really, Mark's, but Boris' observation called to mind the near-Beautiful-Mind-esque Glenn Beck) immediately called to mind the classic Hofstader essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics. If, by some chance, you haven't read it, I highly suggest you do.

I read Silent Spring a few years ago and was surprised given its fire-brand reputation just how unradical it was from a 21st Century prospective. I suspect that many people who do NOT consider themselves with environmentalists would agree with most of what she actually said (as opposed to what some claim she said). The debate has shifted that much. The book holds up remarkable well a book that was on the cutting age nearly a half century ago with about the biggest exception being ideas about cancer have moved on a bit.

There is a germ of truth in the lies of Beck etc. though. (Lies often use a bit a truth to make them seem more believable.)

All this has come about because of the sudden rise and prodigious growth of an industry for the production of man-made or synthetic chemicals with insecticidal properties. This industry is a child of the Second World War. in the course of developing agents of chemical warfare, some of the chemicals created in the laboratory were found to be lethal to insects. The discovery did not come by chance: insects were widely used to test chemicals as gents of death for man.

Of course WWII is also in large measure responsible for (or at least vastly speed up the development of) computers, rockets for space travel, many medical advancements, the civil rights movement, etc. To be told that WWII spurred development of certain aspects of the chemical industry should not be surprising.

Slightly off topic, but about the war on science, the US Senator Tom A. Coburn fired off the first shot in a war against science - only he has (for now) limited it to be against _political_ science, which we all know isn't "real" science, right? I wonder if the good senator isn't trying to do a little divide and conquer.

By Harald Korneliussen (not verified) on 09 Oct 2009 #permalink

As in everything else you have to be a bit careful reading MSDSs and the public health literature. DDT is among the safest of the insecticides to human health. There are some real nasties out there including many of the commonly encountered synthetic insecticides. The problem is that sensitivity varies hugely among people, so what one person can bathe in will kill the other. This is at the root of the "smoked 50 packs a day and lived till 90" formulation. The fact is that ~25 percent of males in the west die from smoking related illness.

FWIW Eli's granddad, who was a housepainter cleaned his brushes with benzene and lived to 88. Some people are just lucky.

However Beck is still way wrong.

Argh! "Conservative" attacks on Carson need to stop, now. You guys have your idiots, and we have ours. They all need to be lined up and kicked in the nuts, starting with this guy. Michael Moore is second, followed by...

> The viciousness? It's the left's traditional tool for
> silencing opposition. If that doesn't work there's
> always violence.

This reads more like "we claim they do it so we can do it" -- a threat. Reminiscent of what we heard from some people when Clinton was elected -- first claiming Whitewater was an enormous financial scan, then saying, well, if it's okay for them to screw people financially, then anything goes.

That's the logic of attributing the worst behavior you want to engage in to someone else, then saying they did it first, so you have no compunction about how you behave yourself.

Bully logic, projection.

Reading about these Becks is like listening to Beck.
"It's, uh, november 6th, 1945, and we...
...went up to, and uh, back to the house and watched mtv...
...and playin' pac-man.
It's all really gross and all the kids were diseased.
Giant airplanes, uh, crashing underneath...
...electro-magnetic fuse...guys with flamethrowers...melting.
Taco trucks were crashed.
There was sausage meat all over the...
Sasquatch was eating a burrito."

> DDT is among the safest of the insecticides to human health.

Eli, remember: insecticides kill living organisms. And life has a lot in common even widely separated.

So that isn't REALLY all that reassuring.

Just pointing out that "this is the safest insecticide" doesn't really help.

Downers for DDT was overuse, mind. A bit like the overuse nowadays of anti-bacterial washing up liquid giving some immunologists pause over bacterial resistance.

Conservatives like bashing Carson nowadays. But the person in government who first banned DDT was Nixon's EPA director, Ruckelshaus

By Nick Stokes (not verified) on 10 Oct 2009 #permalink

They would not allow Nixon in the Republican Party today ...

Most of the big enviro/conservation laws in the country were passed during his admin.

He was interested in the negative income tax - wealth redistribution!

He was willing to compromise on universal or near universal health care with Teddy Kennedy, but Teddy overestimated the strength of his hand and refused (and publicly stated that he long regretted it afterwards).

Don't forget détente with the USSR (which Reagan threw into the toilet), and opening relationships with China.

Hell, on many issues he was willing to consider possibilities to the left of what most Dems today will.

He was also a first-class asshole, lawbreaker, dishonest, bombed the hell out of north vietnam and cambodia, and deserved the threatened impeachment that led to his resignation, but still ... imagine ... *that* was our Republican president up there!

I can't stand Nixon personally, in many ways he was a slimy immoral hypocrite and a disgrace who should never have been elected. But he was also an interesting character and mixed bag. He had some good ideas and managed to take one or two big steps forward, and most of them would not sit comfortably with the modern day Repubs.

Teddy Roosevelt is another good example of past Repub presidents whose policies today's Repubs would not be entirely happy with.

Hell, dhogaza, when it comes to global environmental issues, even Ronald Reagan wouldn't be allowed into today's Republican Party. It was the Reagan-era EPA (under Lee
Thomas) and the Reagan-era State Department (under George Schultz) that took the lead in forging the international consensus for CFC regulation that led to the Montreal Protocol.

(I do not intend to minimize the horrendous environmental record of the first few years of the Reagan administration, with James Watt at Interior and Anne Gorsuch at EPA. But it's only fair to note that once Gorsuch was replaced, first by Ruckelshaus and then by Thomas, things really did turn around.)

By Robert P. (not verified) on 10 Oct 2009 #permalink

Eli Rabett, what's gotten into you?

(Read that as Frank Zappa would have said it, it sounds better.)

DDT is among the safest of the insecticides to human health.

And technically, it doesn't kill cows quickly. However, recent studies indicate DDT does damage to eggs and sperm, and so human effects show up in the next generation -- which is largely the problem in birds and smaller animals, too.

In any case, DDT is dangerous and deadly enough that the National Academy of Sciences, after noting DDT was one of the most life-saving chemicals ever produced, and noting that DDT probably saved lives in at least the tens of millions, NAS still called for crash research to find a substitute to phase it out. Dangers outweigh benefits.


Could please give the pages references so that we can verify your claims. It seems that one of your Carson quotes doesn't really repudiate what Beck has said and is fact discussing something else entirely.

Lastly wasn't DDT discovered in 1800's and if so isn't the claim of a Nazi tie-up by and large untrue?

Your thoughts on this would be most appreciated.


Lastly wasn't DDT discovered in 1800's

The answer is in Tim's post. Why don't you try reading it.

Ed, Eli is a chemist and handles trimethyl death daily (well not quite). Insecticides are by definition dangerous, and they all have long term issues. DDT is probably the least dangerous, almost certainly on the immediate basis.

You have another candidate?

Today's Party of Lincoln:

You can fool some of the people all the time. You can fool all the people some of the time. But you can't fool all the people all the time.

By luminous beauty (not verified) on 11 Oct 2009 #permalink

23 Eli,

But could you eat it by the spoonful? That is what has been claimed by Monckton and others.

By otto.nikolaus@… (not verified) on 12 Oct 2009 #permalink

Otto Nikolaus, of course you could eat it by the spoonful. At least once.

By Martin Vermeer (not verified) on 12 Oct 2009 #permalink

No, no NO, Martin/otto.

*Monckton* can eat it by the spoonfull.

Lets have it live on MythBusters!

> Insecticides are by definition dangerous, and they all have long term issues.

> Posted by: Eli Rabett


isn't that what i said in post #11 to which you replied scornfully?

> #12
> you kill more denialists with sugar than snark. At least that is what some people, not me, would say

> Posted by: Eli Rabett

> #13
> On second thought, maybe the snark is more effective.

> Posted by: Eli Rabett

Thanks for this article about yet another attempt to discredit Rachel Carson's work and legacy. So much money and effort dedicated to attack the "mother of the modern environmental movement" and thereby attempt to dismiss everyone who tries to clean up our air, land, water and question the unbridled creation and use of synthetic chemicals, regardless of real or potential risk. 2012 will be the 50th anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring. Let's make it an international celebration. Contact the Rachel Carson Homestead Association in Springdale, Pennsylvania with suggestions.

Best to all,

Fiona Fisher
Director of Communication
Rachel Carson Homestead Association

Teddy Roosevelt is another good example of past Repub presidents whose policies today's Repubs would not be entirely happy with.

Well, the Republicans of his day weren't happy with them either, which is why he started the Bull Moose party ...

Robert P - good points about the Reagan administration, sometimes it's easy to forget just how backwards the party has moved in the last 15 or so years.

So is Eli going to tell us how much DDT the average human or Munchkin could eat per day?

By TrueSceptic (not verified) on 12 Oct 2009 #permalink

Monckton can eat a tablespoon.

At least.

He says he can.

Lets get someone from Missouri...

The LD 50 is ~500 mg/kg so for a 80 kg guy that is about 40 g. A teaspoon of sugar weighs ~ 5 gms, so yeah, you could eat a teaspoon and not die, maybe (depending on who you are) not even feel it. OTOH, you might be the unlucky one and a factor of 8 is not very comforting.

But DDT does accumulate so you could systematically poison yourself if you made a habit of it. In Victorian times ladies took small doses of arsenic so they would look pale.

The dose makes the poison.

Hence the term "Drop dead gorgeous".

At least that's what my history teacher told us when going over some of the things that the Egyptians used to do...

But DDT does accumulate so you could systematically poison yourself if you made a habit of it.

Thank you, Prof. Rabett!
I was reluctant to mix in, not least because it pains me so to see you and Ed Darrell at odds.
But now you've given me the excuse to change the subject, with one of those lovely, underused words:


That's right, folks! Just take a little bit of that poison today, and a little more tomorrow, and pretty soon you'll be immune to its effects, and choking it down by the bucketful -- just like king Mithridates.

This method (using arsenic) was used to great effect by a mobster's girlfriend in Dashiell Hammett's classic Fly Paper, in which it was referred to as the "Maybrick-Seddons trick."

Of course, Eli (being a wise old Rabett) undoubtedly knows how that turned out for the girlfriend -- but let's see if we can get Monckton to try it anyway. Even a classical scholar may have missed a few of Hammett's stories.

>> That's right, folks! Just take a little bit of that poison today, and a little more tomorrow, and pretty soon you'll be immune to its effects, and choking it down by the bucketful -- just like king Mithridates.

Please, this is the 21st century Internet, allusions about poison resistance should be limited to the Princess Bride!

33 Eli,

How was that figure obtained? The LD50 for rats is [113 mg/kg](, about a 1/4 of your figure.

I read Lord Munchkin's claim of "by the spoonful" as "one or more spoons daily for an unlimited period".

I'd love to strap him into a high-chair and do the feeding .

By TrueSceptic (not verified) on 13 Oct 2009 #permalink

Just as we do not trust YOU! Therefore I clearly cannot take the teaspoon in front of me...


I bring you glad tidings and sad ones for the influential chlorine industry (including the industry shills over the road at Jenniferâs blog site):

â06 MAY 2009 | GENEVA/NAIROBI/WASHINGTON DC -- The United Nations Environment Programme and the World Health Organization, in partnership with the Global Environment Facility, today announced a rejuvenated international effort to combat malaria with an incremental reduction of reliance on the synthetic pesticide DDT.

âTen projects, all part of the global programme âDemonstrating and Scaling-up of sustainable Alternatives to DDT in Vector Managementâ, involving some 40 countries in Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean and Central Asia are set to test non-chemical methods ranging from eliminating potential mosquito breeding sites and securing homes with mesh screens to deploying mosquito-repellent trees and fish that eat mosquito larvae.

âThe new projects follow a successful demonstration of alternatives to DDT in Mexico and Central America. Here pesticide-free techniques and management regimes have helped cut cases of malaria by over 60 per cent. â…

IMO this is excellent news. DDT is one of the âdirty dozenâ proposed for elimination by the Stockholm Convention on organochlorines. However, DDT was exempted on the grounds that there was no other insecticide available to combat malaria.

Man-made organochlorine use in agriculture, commencing somewhere around the â40s may have protected crops from insects, however, I believe the manufacture of these chemicals are one of manâs greatest scientific blunders.

Organochlorines have no respect for geographical boundaries and have invaded the entire food chain. They are bioaccumulative, endocrine disruptors and are held responsible for feminising human and non-human embryos.

DDT is fat soluble, so when an animal ingests it-by browsing contaminated vegetation, the chemical tends to concentrate in its fat, instead of being excreted. When another animal eats that animal, it is likely to absorb the prey's burden of DDT. This process leads to an increasing concentration of DDT in the higher links of the food chain. And since DDT has a high chronic toxicity-that is, long-term exposure is likely to cause various physiological abnormalities, this bioaccumulation has profound implications for both ecological and human health.

Nuff said for now. Cheerio…

"Don't forget détente with the USSR (which Reagan threw into the toilet), and opening relationships with China."

Actually it was Carter who suspended wheat sales to protest prisoner slave labor on the Siberian gas pipeline. That got him the infamous tractor-cade protest with farmers on tractors blocking traffic in DC. Then he had the US boycott the 1980 Olympics. Reagan just picked up Carter's torch.

Also, don't fall for the swallow a tablespoon of the stuff gag. When Congress was holding its first hearings on leaded gasoline back in the 50s, a group of chemical industry folks supposedly did this at a press conference. Given the toxicity of lead additives, it is likely that they were actually downing 10X sugar, but it served its PR purpose. It was quite some time before we got the lead out.

It must be a real roller-coaster to be in "the Leftâ¢".

One day you're a bunch of "pussies", soccer moms and wimpy dads, sweater-wearing Alan Alda fans who are afraid of guns, hearts always bleeding for an unlimited supply of victims, signing petitions and letters-to-the-editor in favor of sacrilegious art and the rights of extremists to march and demand you be exterminatedt. Losers who can't make it in the market place, the rough-and-tumble of realpolitik, and the dangerous outside world. Afraid to eat a cow or cut down a tree, worried you'll give your child or your pet a trauma.

The next day, you're a gaggle of hardened brownshirts, burning down Fox News and sniping at Bill O'Reilly, smashing up little conservative bookstores, burning copies of Atlas Shrugged in the town square, marching in to Tim Ball's climate classroom and smashing the windows, planting Guy Fawkes Day explosives in Lord Monckton's seat in the House of Lords, throwing smokers and holders of hamburger franchises into the gulags, outlawing Christianity and making atheism, Islam and anarchism mandatory subjects in the government schools, and all of it backed up by the United Nations, the Communist Party, and global powerhouses like Greenpeace and ACORN.

Whoever they are, at least those folks in "the Leftâ¢" don't lead boring lives. Sometimes I wonder if the depictions don't serve an unintended recruiting function.

By Marion Delgado (not verified) on 17 Oct 2009 #permalink

I used to beilve that SILENT SPRING malarkey until i read the truth maybe the bird declaines is not becuase of pestisides but becuase theres too many of those mosqetos

By King Condor (not verified) on 11 Feb 2010 #permalink