Think back. How many catastrophes can you remember that environmentalists predicted or identified and how many of them were eventually found to be real? I’m 65 years old and I can’t think of very many.
Oh, there certainly were a few. Even a blind pig finds some acorns and as I indicated in my first post, when the environmental movement first got started, there certainly were some egregious examples of environmental problems. To everyone’s credit those were relatively quickly cleaned up without a lot of dissention. Along the way, however, a much larger number of “problems” were generated out of whole cloth and, though it never received the same level of scrutiny from the press, were later proved to be misinterpreted at best and outright fabrications at worst.
Perhaps the initial national level broadside in the environmental movement was the DDT scare of 1962 brought on by the release of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. Carson had worked for years at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and eventually became the head of their publications department. By the end of the nineteen fifties, she had become a successful author in her own right after publishing two books: The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Sea. The success of these books allowed her to leave government service and go out on her own as an author.
In the decades just prior to her literary success, the world saw the creation of a number of synthetic pesticides that were to lead to an explosion of farm production and the virtual elimination of a number of the diseases that had plagued mankind for centuries.
“In 1952 insects, weeds, and disease cost farmers $13 billion in crops annually. Since gross annual agricultural output at that time totaled $31 billion, it was estimated that preventing damage by using pesticides would boost food and fiber production by 42%.”
DDT’s efficacy on insects was discovered in the 1930’s and it was used extensively by the U.S. Army in its push through Europe during WWII (many probably remember the pictures of civilian populations lining up to be “fogged” by soldiers manning large hoses leading from tanks of the chemical) to prevent insect-borne diseases like typhus and malaria.
“In 1943 DDT famously stopped a typhus epidemic in Naples in its tracks shortly after the Allies invaded.”
After the war and after testing by the Food and Drug Administration found no serious problems in human toxicity, DDT was approved for general use, replacing the existing arsenic-based insecticides (such as Paris Green) in general use. In short order, malaria was virtually eliminated from the United States.
For all the good they do however, the problem with pesticides is that, used improperly, they can harm beneficial as well as harmful organisms and Carson made this connection in her book in a way that was assured to gain public support for her thesis. “She painted a scenario in which birds had all been poisoned by insecticides, resulting in a ‘silent spring’ in which ‘no birds sing.’”
Along about this same period, Congress passed the Delaney Clause which “forbade the addition of any amount of chemicals suspected of causing cancer to food.” Feeding on this legislation, Wilhelm Hueper, chief of environmental cancer research at the National Cancer Institute, had become convinced that exposures to synthetic chemicals were a major cause of cancer in humans. His work became a major source for Carson in the research for her book.
The juxtaposition of an obscure federal law and the legitimizing cover of a leading researcher at a leading institute allowed Carson to make the connection between DDT as a danger to human life and a potential avenue to eliminate its use (Where many of the public may not be moved by the death of birds, everyone was concerned about themselves and their children)
The book was a bombshell. President Kennedy, who read the book, asked for testing of the chemicals she called to task in the book and the EPA, in 1970, undertook a 3 year review of DDT which in 1972 led to its ban after seven months of hearings. William Ruckelshaus, head of the EPA at this time, signed the ban but had never attended any of the hearings, did not read the transcripts and refused to release the materials he used to make his decision. He was later shown to have been a member of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) at this time and used the ban to personally appeal for donations to the group. EDF, by the way, was a group of Long Island lawyers financed by the Ford Foundation and the Rachel Carson Memorial Fund of the National Audubon Society to file suits that led to bans on DDT and the establishment of precedents in environmental law. Supporters of DDT, of course, appealed the ban but were unsuccessful because Ruckelshaus had appointed himself as appeal judge.
For all her passion Carson was wrong in nearly all the particulars in her book. A trained biologist, she willingly used the research available incorrectly and based her writing on unsupported and one-sided information.
“…Silent Spring is also chock full of other "untruthful and misleading" statements that have absolutely no grounding in scientific reality whatsoever, said San Jose State University entomologist Dr. J. Gordon Edwards. Edwards is an environmentalist "with a desire to keep truth in science and environmentalism." He has even has a book published by the Sierra Club.
Edwards at first supported Carson but quickly changed his mind once he began checking her sources. What he discovered was not only did Carson rely upon "very unscientific sources," but she cited many of the same sources over and over again in order to make her book appear incontrovertible. Even more startling is that Edwards "found" many of Carson's statements based upon sound, scientific sources were actually -- his word -- "false."
"They did not support her contentions about the harm caused by pesticides," Edwards said. "She was really playing loose with the facts, deliberately wording many sentences in such a way as to make them imply certain things without actually saying them, 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..."
Perhaps the main contention of Carson’s that has lasted over the years is that of the alleged thinning of raptor eggs caused by exposure to DDT and its persistence in the food chain. This, too, was eventually discounted as poor science rather than poor regulation.
“…the evidence regarding the effect of DDT on eggshell thinning among wild birds is contradictory at best. The environmentalist literature claims that the birds threatened directly by the insecticide were laying eggs with thin shells. These shells, say the environmentalists, would eventually become so fragile that the eggs would break, causing a decline in bird populations, particularly among raptors (birds of prey).
In 1968 two researchers, Drs. Joseph J. Hickey and Daniel W. Anderson, reported that high concentrations of DDT were found in the eggs of wild raptor populations. The two concluded that increased eggshell fragility in peregrine falcons, bald eagles, and ospreys was due to DDT exposure.9 Dr. Joel Bitman and associates at the U.S. Department of Agriculture likewise determined that Japanese quail fed DDT produced eggs with thinner shells and lower calcium content.
In actuality, however, declines in bird populations either had occurred before DDT was present or had occurred years after DDT’s use. A comparison of the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Counts between 1941 (pre-DDT) and 1960 (after DDT’s use had waned) reveals that at least 26 different kinds of birds became more numerous during those decades, the period of greatest DDT usage…
In 1942 Dr. Joseph Hickey—who in 1968 would blame DDT for bird population decline—reported that 70 per-cent of the eastern osprey population had been killed by pole traps around fish hatcheries.14 That same year, before DDT came into use, Hickey noted a decline in the population of peregrine falcons”.15
“Other observers also documented that the great peregrine decline in the eastern United States occurred long before any DDT was present in the environment.16,17 In Canada peregrines were observed to be “reproducing normally” in the 1960s even though their tissues contained 30 times more DDT than did the tissues of the Midwestern peregrines allegedly being extirpated by the chemical.18 And in Great Britain, in 1969, a three-year government study noted that the decline of peregrine falcons in Britain had ended in 1966 even though DDT levels were as abundant as ever. 19…”
“In addition, later research refuted the original studies that had pointed to DDT as a cause for eggshell thinning. After reassessing their findings using more modern methodology, Drs. Hickey and Anderson admitted that the egg extracts they had studied contained little or no DDT and said they were now pursuing PCBs, chemicals used as capacitor insulators, as the culprit.
When carefully reviewed, Dr. Bitman’s study revealed that the quail in the study were fed a diet with a calcium content of only 0.56 percent (a normal quail diet consists of 2.7 percent calcium). Calcium deficiency is a known cause of thin eggshells. After much criticism, Bitman repeated the test, this time with sufficient calcium levels. The birds produced eggs without thinned shells.
In terms of human lethality, I find that a lethal dose of DDT for me is 3.4 pounds. I don’t know how it tastes, but I’m reasonably sure I couldn’t finish that serving in one sitting, or even the 2 oz. that would be required to produce symptoms such as headache, nausea, confusion and tremors. It's difficult to see how a human could get a lethal or harmful dose of the stuff. But, what of the initial line of Carson’s attack concerning DDT’s influence on cancer in humans? That, too, seems to be at best an exaggeration, and at worst outright dishonesty.
“…A 1978 National Cancer Institute report concluded—after two years of testing on several different strains of cancer-prone mice and rats—that DDT was not carcinogenic
In addition, Dr. Robert Golden of Environmental Risk Studies in Washington, DC, reviewed the research of numerous scientists and concluded that DDT and DDE (a breakdown product of DDT) have no significant estrogenic activity. A recent article in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives suggested that the ratio of natural to synthetic estrogens may be as much as 40,000,000 to 1.
The 1996 book Our Stolen Future speculated on a link between DDT and breast cancer, noting that DDE has been found in some breast tumors. Breast cancer…may be a risk factor for elevated DDE, rather than DDE’s being a risk factor for breast cancer.
In a 1994 study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, researchers concluded that their data did not support an association between DDT and breast cancer. ..the data also indicated that the higher levels could be accounted for by nonenvironmental factors among women living in these regions—factors such as higher socioeconomic status and deferral or avoidance of pregnancy, both of which increase the risks of breast cancer by up to twofold.
In October 1997 the New England Journal of Medicine published a large, well-designed study that found no evidence that exposure to DDT and DDE increases the risk of breast cancer.
Regardless of all this, the battle against DDT continues.
Rachel Carson Set the bar for all of the environmental movement to come after her. Those that followed learned their lessons well. It’s not the actual information that’s important, but the value that any information has to achieve political ends. With a few large successes to provide their bona fides and, we were to find, their cover, the movement moved on.
Ronald Bailey, 6/12/2002, WWW.Reason Magazine.com/34823
 Lisa Makson - FrontPageMagazine.com Thursday, July 31, 2003
 Extract from the American Council on Science and Health publication "Facts Versus Fears" - Edition 3, June 1998. © American Council on Science and Health