GOP war on science victim: Rachel Carson

Some people do things that are so stupid that one wonders how they manage to shave or put make-up on the next morning, having to look at their own face.

Mugshot of Utah Rep. Rob Bishop

Mugshot of Utah Rep. Rob Bishop

53 Republican representatives voted against naming the post office in Springdale, Pennsylvania, after Rachel Carson, the scientist who wrote Silent Spring, generally considered one of the most important or most influential scientists of the 20th century. No kidding. Springdale is Carson’s hometown.

2007 is the centennial of Carson’s birth — her birthday was May 27. (The bill, H.R. 1434, passed, 334-53.)

Why did the Wacky 53 vote against the honor for Carson, who got the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980? In an earnest ritual of voodoo science, they claim that bans on DDT kill millions, and that DDT is harmless. No, I’m not making this uphere’s the story from the Salt Lake Tribune, which covers territory represented by Rep. Rob Bishop and Rep. Chris Cannon, both R-Utah:

They contend that Carson’s actions – which led to a ban on the chemical DDT used to kill pests – actually has caused more deaths because of malaria and other diseases spread by insects. DDT, Carson wrote, was detrimental to the environment and to humans. Some scientists say DDT led to the California condor’s near-extinction.

“Rachel Carson’s sentimental book, Silent Spring, was a large part of the reason DDT was banned even though the evidence then and now demonstrates that DDT does not cause cancer nor does it do other harm to humans,” Cannon said in a statement. “Millions of people, mostly children, have died because the world did not control mosquitoes with DDT.”

Bishop’s chief of staff, Scott Parker, says his boss has similar concerns “that maybe 100 percent of the things Carson talked about and claimed as facts weren’t completely accurate or proven true by science.”

If they cared to do so, these Members of Congress could call the Library of Congress and get a briefing paper on DDT written by an authority on the subject. Within three or four pages they could be disabused of these crazy ideas they have that Carson’s work was controversial, or wrong, or that there have been ill effects as a result. Almost everything they say in their statements is dead wrong. It would be impossible to get so much science wrong by simple chance.

Here is an NIH paper that notes DDT is not suspected of causing breast cancer. I don’t believe Carson ever alleged that DDT did cause cancer anywhere, so the study is moot.

DDT is a poison, and it acts as a hormone in low doses where it is not toxic — it acts as estrogen. Carson’s case against the poison was based on its devastating effects on ecosystems, where it contaminated fish and birds. Famously, DDT interfered with birds’ ability to make hard calcified shells for eggs. Raptors that ate other animals that had DDT in them, such as osprey and bald and golden eagles, could not make eggs that would survive incubation. We lost dozens of generations of these birds.

The other part of Carson’s case against DDT was that it was simply overused and used inappropriately in agriculture, where broadcast applications led insects to develope immunity to the stuff. Mosquitoes, for example, mutated to digest the stuff almost as food, rather than die from it, making it almost wholly ineffective against many malaria-spreading mosquitoes.

So, what difference does it make that DDT is not also carcinogenic to breasts? None at all. (Oh, it just gets worse: The Hudson Institute put out this piece, with a claim that DDT is safe in homes, and acts as a mosquito repellant, which is not how it works at all; it even gets her birthday wrong, such is the bias of these wackoes.)

My old boss Orrin Hatch was famous among his staffers, early on, for odd ideas, similar to these claims that Rachel Carson doesn’t deserve a post office named after her. Fortunately, Hatch developed a habit of biting his tongue and asking staffers to research issues before spouting off. Hatch is still a member of the Utah delegation. Perhaps he could take Bishop and Cannon under his wing, and give them a few clues.

H.R. 1434 was sponsored by Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pennsylvania, who represents Pennsylvania’s 4th Congressional District, in which Springdale resides.

Update: In my dudgeon, I failed to note the article that originally caught my eye, an op-ed piece by Weber State University zoology Prof. John Mull, in The Salt Lake Tribune on May 12. Mull noted:

Four decades of scientific research have substantiated Carson’s basic message and added considerable detail to it. Much of this understanding has been acquired through research funded by congressional allocations.

Biologist George Woodwell of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts recently summarized the problem as “a chemical corruption of the globe that affects human conception, embryogenesis, fetal development, birth and life thereafter.” His statement is a far more accurate summary of reality than the smokescreens thrown up by Bishop and Cannon to justify their votes.

In fact, the U.S. was one of 150 nations to sign the 2001 Stockholm Convention on POPs. Formally enacted in May 2004, this international agreement bans the use of 12 types of POPs. These include several insecticides – DDT among them – and certain classes of widely used industrial compounds like PCBs.

The Stockholm Convention makes an important exception for DDT. It bans the use of the pesticide in agricultural settings – a policy long in effect in the developed world – while allowing continued and limited applications of DDT for controlling the Anopheles mosquitoes that transmit malaria. Its indiscriminate use in agriculture was largely responsible for harmful effects on many non-target animals, most famously bald eagles and peregrine falcons.

Malaria does remain a serious killer, especially of young children in tropical Africa, but not for the reason that Cannon suggests. Rather, it persists as the deadliest of insect-transmitted diseases for other reasons. These include the evolution of pesticide resistance in mosquitoes and of drug resistance in malaria parasites, lack of access to basic medical care and preventive measures, like mosquito netting, and deforestation and other forms of environmental degradation.

Rachel Carson in 1963, Bob Schutz/AP

Rachel Carson in 1963; photo by Bob Schutz, Associated Press.

15 Responses to GOP war on science victim: Rachel Carson

  1. […] prompted by such an exquisite act of denialism in Congress, seven years ago, when I learned that Utah Congressman Rob Bishop was bragging about blocking the naming of a post office for Carson, based on false claims that Carson had written false or faulty science, that the U.S. ban on DDT use […]


  2. […] Post Office for a year under the bizarre misconception that she played a role in spreading malaria (ditto for Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, who shared the view but was unable to stop the bill in the House), or like the Bush administration officials at the […]


  3. […] was compelled to jump into this issue when Utah’s U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop made a silly and incorrect statement against Rachel Carson, after his failed attempt to derail a bill to rename a post office in her honor on the 100th […]


  4. […] Rob Bishop’s, R-Utah, incendiary and inaccurate statement on the bill was what caught my eye originally about the continuing campaign of calumny against the author and […]


  5. Ed Darrell says:

    By the way, Fred, you’ve been hoaxed. DeWitt’s work is misquoted, and edited, by Steven Milloy. The actual study supports Carson’s writing, exactly as she said.

    See here:


  6. Bug Girl says:

    Oh Ed, beautiful job on finding the complete quote on the WHO blurb!

    I was all set to go, and Junk Science completely changed their FAQ web page :(

    Starting over…


  7. […] My post on the silly opposition to naming a post office after Rachel Carson produced a minor response. Reader Electratig took me to task at his blog. […]


  8. Ed Darrell says:

    Muller’s winning the Nobel for describing DDT effects on insects does not mean the chemical is safe for long term use, nor that it does not do the things Carson described.
    In fact, Muller’s Nobel speech notes that DDT is extremely toxic to insects and extremely long-lived in the environment. While this was originally thought an advantage in fighting some insect pests, it is exactly these characteristics that produce the problems. So Muller’s award, while interesting, does not negate in any way the case against indiscriminate use of DDT — and in fact, his speech suggests more discriminating use such as we have today, as the wiser path. Go here to see:

    Click to access muller-lecture.pdf


  9. Ed Darrell says:

    Here’s a more complete quote from the WHO bulletin, noting that DDT had proven ineffective, ultimately:

    In May 1955 the Eighth World Health Assembly adopted a Global Malaria Eradication Campaign based on the widespread use of DDT against mosquitos and of antimalarial drugs to treat malaria and to eliminate the parasite in humans. As a result of the Campaign, malaria was eradicated by 1967 from all developed countries where the disease was endemic and large areas of tropical Asia and Latin America were freed from the risk of infection. The Malaria Eradication Campaign was only launched in three countries of tropical Africa since it was not considered feasible in the others. Despite these achievements, improvements in the malaria situation could not be maintained indefinitely by time-limited, highly prescriptive and centralized programmes. Also, vector resistance to DDT and of malaria parasites to chloroquine, a safe and affordable drug, began to affect programme activities. A global Malaria Control Strategy was endorsed by a Ministerial Conference on Malaria Control in 1992 and confirmed by the World Health Assembly in 1993. This strategy differs considerably from the approach used in the eradication era. It is rooted in the primary health care approach and calls for flexible, decentralized programmes, based on disease rather than parasite control, using the rational and selective use of tools to combat malaria. The implementation of the Global Strategy is beginning to have an impact in several countries, such as Brazil, China, Solomon Islands, Philippines, Vanuatu, Viet Nam and Thailand. The lesson from these areas is clear: malaria is being controlled using the tools that are currently available. The challenge is now to apply these tools among vulnerable individuals and groups experiencing high levels of morbidity and mortality, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, for which long-term investments are required.

    You can find it at PubMed, here:


  10. Ed Darrell says:

    That’s far short of saying “that no substance has ever proved more beneficial to man than DDT,” don’t you think?


  11. Fred says:

    Here’s a WHO reference:
    “In May 1955 the Eighth World Health Assembly adopted a Global Malaria Eradication Campaign based on the widespread use of DDT against mosquitos and of antimalarial drugs to treat malaria and to eliminate the parasite in humans. As a result of the Campaign, malaria was eradicated by 1967 from all developed countries where the disease was endemic and large areas of tropical Asia and Latin America were freed from the risk of infection.” [Bulletin of the World Health Organization 1998;76(1):11-6]
    Here’s just few references concerning DDT and carcinogenicity:
    According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a division of the World Health Organization (WHO), DDT is classified as Group 2B carcinogenicity; that is, there is an admitted insufficient evidence of carcinogenicity. [IARC, “DDT and Associated Compounds”,, 1997]
    However, the IARC classified combined estrogen-progestogen oral contraceptives, the most widely prescribed contraceptive on the market, as Group 1 carcinogenicity! [IARC, “IARC Monographs Programme Finds Combined Estrogen-Progestogen Contraceptives and Menopausal Therapy are Carcinogenic to Humans”,, 2005]


  12. Ed Darrell says:

    Where exactly would one find a WHO claim that DDT is the most beneficial substance ever known? That’s silly. Got a citation?
    Carson was right. DDT is indeed harmful, implicated in liver cancer and others, a definite carcinogen in other mammals, a poison to humans. Show me a study that says DDT doesn’t seem to be implicated in breast cancer, I note that it mimics estrogen in the environment, is implicated in causing hermaphroditic development in animals in the wild — it may not cause cancer in the breast of women, but it may make the breasts of men grow to look like women’s breasts (it’s a “known endocrine disruptor”). Still like it? Oh, and it shrinks testicles.
    But that’s not what Carson’s complaint was. She noted that it seems to kill birds, which is accurate; worse, it stops the reproduction of birds it does not kill. DDT kills the next generation. In some ecosystems, like estuaries, it quickly accumulates to astronomical levels in the fats of primary, secondary and tertiary consumers. Early studies indicated that DDT could not be found in streams and lakes near agricultural applications — but later studies determined that was because the stuff had concentrated quickly in the plants and animals.
    Here’s the quick lowdown on human health and DDT, as OSHA sees it — true, it’s not as deadly as plutonium, but it’s bad enough:
    Exposure Limits
    OSHA GENERAL INDUSTRY PEL: 1.0 mg/m3 (Skin)
    ACGIH TLV: 1 mg/m3 TWA; Appendix A3 (Confirmed Animal Carcinogen with Unknown Relevance to Humans)
    NIOSH REL: 0.5 mg/m3 TWA, Potential Carcinogen
    Health Factors
    IARC: Group 2B, possibly carcinogenic to humans
    SYMPTOM(s): Paresthesia of tongue, lips, face; tremors; apprehension, dizziness, fatigue, confusion, malaise; headaches; convulsions; paresis of + hands; vomiting; eye, skin irritation; (carcinogenic)
    HEALTH EFFECTS: Chronic/Cumulative toxicity-(CNS) (HE7) and (HE3); Mutagen (HE2)
    ORGAN: CNS, kidneys, liver, skin, PNS

    DDT is still listed as a probable human carcinogen by NIH, first listed in 1985 (22 years after Carson’s death from breast cancer, by the way — she did not have the advantage of modern analysis of these substances).

    But again I emphasize, the difficulty with indiscriminate use of DDT is its effects on wildlife. Notice, please, I did not say “use,” but instead I said “indiscriminate use.” I am wholly in agreement with WHO’s ban on the indiscriminate use of DDT, which leaves it available for specific applications where it can continue to be effective and with care will not cause the pests it is aimed at to become immune to it. Malaria could never have been wiped out with DDT, because the mosquitoes that carry the parasite have become immune to the poison. Jonathan Weiner, in The Beak of the Finch, a story of evolution in our time, recounts how a specific mutation causes mosquitoes to digest DDT rather than die from it; and Weiner notes that many strains of mosquitoes carry as many as 60 copies of the mutated gene. Continued, indiscriminate use of DDT would have made it so the only way the pesticide could be effective is to spray it on a brick, and then use the brick to hit the mosquito — and spraying the DDT would be superfluous. It is accurate that continued environmental degradation has spread the disease, especially in Africa. Menacingly, there is a hybrid mosquito that may carry the parasite, which has moved into the U.S. and is expanding its range north and west across the nation. The hybrid is unaffected by DDT. Overuse of the pesticide has brought malaria to our doorstep.

    Malaria needs to be fought. Odd chemical manufacturers and anti-clean-water advocates who argue that indiscriminate use of DDT would be a good tool, today, are on the road to disaster. Do not follow them.


  13. Fred says:

    Actually, one can also go to the Library of Congress and find that Dr. Paul Muller won the Nobel Prize in 1948 for perfecting the chemical compound now known as DDT. One can also go to the Library of Congress and find that the National Academy of Sciences attributed DDT to saving 500 million lives. One can also find in the Library of Congress the World Health Organization’s affirmation that no substance has ever proved more beneficial to man than DDT. One can also find there that famous environmentalist, J. Gordon Edwards swallowed a tablespoon of DDT on stage before every lecture on the subject, living to age 84 when he died of a heart attack while climbing Divide Mountain at Glacier National Park.

    Again, there is additional information available in the Library of Congress showing Rachael Carson’s quoting of scientific studies, such as that of Dr. James DeWitt, was very selective and misrepresented the actual data obtained by DeWitt. Later studies have shown that factors other than DDT caused of the decline of eagles and certain other birds in the DDT era. In fact, there were great increases in mammals and game birds during the DDT era. For example, observers spotted 12 times more robins in the DDT era than before.

    While true that the USA did not force the rest of the world to ban DDT, one country after another fell in-line with this orthodoxy until only limited use of the chemical is now permitted in several small parts of the world, while millions of others could be benefiting from its widespread use.

    My point is that most works that cite DDT as harmful are not primary source material, and just refer to each other to build a multitude of literature on falsehoods. The primary source evidence proves that the 53 representatives who voted against naming the post office in Springdale, Pennsylvania, after Rachael Carson were correct in their decision.


  14. Ed says:

    I would take this not as a slap to Ms. Carson personally, or even as a statement about DDT, but a backlash to the tremendously silly waves of crisis that periodically wash from the left side of the country. Remember the ozone layer? How we were all to fry from UV if we didn’t switch to roll on deodorant? Remember how the Japanese economy was going to eat our lunch by 2K? Remember Y2K?

    Remember Rwanda? 800,000 innocents murdered brutally? Not many “activists” care to. Nor do the care to remember that a huge amount of the pollution in the world is caused by dictatorial governments who are not responsible to their people. Or that the same governments foment disagreement and violence in their spheres as a way of drawing attention from their own brutalities and failures.

    I suspect this is less about Rachel Carson than about Al Gore, Michael Moore, and other worthy sillies who cannot formulate intelligent domestic and international policies which care for the needy of the world. It says that protesting is a sparsely needed means, not an annual end in itself. It says that the world is a tightly integrated, but extremely huge system and that random legal intervention needs to be weighed carefully for second order effects.

    And it says that environmental extremists hurt their own cause. Many of us find it completely reasonable that we burn too much stuff and put out too much pollution. Yet the extremists make us want to ignore them. I know too much about computer modeling and too much about scientists and Hollywood actors and newspaper writers to put much faith in this year’s doomsday scenarios. Yet I’d be fine for gradual policy and technology adjustments. Instead, I find myself, like the 53, wanting to slap these sillies.


  15. Bug Girl says:

    You’re overstating the case about mosquitoes thriving on DDT, Ed.
    Having said that–

    OMG. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. This is such BS–DDT is STILL regularly used in the third world for mosquito control! This assumes that the US banning DDT affects what any other country does. In fact, several US companies still manufacture DDT for use in Africa.
    (Granted, it doesn’t work as well as it used to, but it is still used.)

    The case against DDT/malaria is just total BS.


Please play nice in the Bathtub -- splash no soap in anyone's eyes. While your e-mail will not show with comments, note that it is our policy not to allow false e-mail addresses. Comments with non-working e-mail addresses may be deleted.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

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

%d bloggers like this: