Impact of the Antiinsecticide Movement

The anti-insecticide movement was one destructive force that evolved in the 1960s. The movement got its start through Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring. Carson's book was published in 1962. In that book Carson described her imaginings of insidious DDT harm to wildlife. She claimed DDT was bringing the robin to the brink of extinction. This claim was false. Even in 1962 the robin was increasing in abundance, not declining at all.

Rachel Carson's book was a treatise on fear. She used such phrases as "evil spell"; "mysterious maladies"; "the cattle and sheep sickened and died"; "Everywhere was a shadow of death" to terrify and mobilize the public. Her book was devoid of scientific merit but it was, nevertheless, a publishing triumph. It changed the public's perception of DDT and other insecticides.

A fundamental premise of "Silent Spring" was the natural world had no experience or defense of DDT-like chemicals. At the time her book was written, information on natural chemicals, especially of organohalogens, was limited. Today, almost fifty years later, through the research of Gordon Gribble, Walter Vetter, and others, we know there is an abundance of natural organohalogens that are lipophilic, persistent, and accumulate in the food chain. One such chemical is Q1. It is a natural product with 7 chlorine atoms (DDT has only five). Q1 is abundant, widely distributed, accumulates in the food chain, and is even found in human breast milk.

Another example is a group of chemicals known as BC. The BCs are natual products. They contain 4 bromine atoms and are abundant, lipophilic, widely distributed, and accumulate in the food chain. Sponges produce BC compounds.

The wide distribution of natural products that are DDT-like is revealed by analysis of fat from common dolphins. One such analysis revealed the most abundant compound as BC-1, the second is Q1, the third is BC-2, the fourth is BC-3, and the fifth compound is p, p'-DDE. In this example DDE is much less abundant than the natural products, as are the PCBs.

Through decades of discovery that brought knowledge of a large world of natural and persistent chemicals, focus of the environmental movement remained largely on DDT. Ignored, but present all along, were the PCBs, dioxins, furans, a great diversity of natural chemical insecticides, repellent, irritants, anti-feedants, etc. Some of these chemicals are more toxic, persistent, accumulative and abundant than DDT.

Male euglossine bees, Eufreisa purpurata, harvest large quantities of DDT from sprayed house walls in the Amazon Basin. This behavior is another example of how the natural world uses and interacts with DDT and other DDT-like compounds. Remarkably, the bees are not harmed by high DDT concentrations. Specimens stored in the museum since 1980 were analyzed for presence of DDT and other chlorinated chemicals. In addition to DDT, the bees contained a group of three highly chlorinated compounds, among others. It is hypothetically possible that male bees harvest DDT in order to strip chlorines from DDT as building blocks for other compounds. How the male bees use these natural chemicals is unknown. The three new compounds found in bees contain 8 chlorine atoms and are the most highly chlorinated natural products yet discovered.

As stated above, a major premise of Carson's work is the natural world has no experience with manmade chemicals like DDT. As shown in preceding paragraphs, that fundamental premise is wrong. It is now obvious that life evolved by making, using and coping with DDT-like chemicals. Carson's attack on DDT and other insecticides was instrumental in eliminating disease control programs around the world. However, Rachel Carson's book is not singly responsible for growth in antiinsecticide activism or the demise of effective malaria control programs. Another 1960s book was written on an entirely different ideological basis and it too preached against the use of DDT in malaria control programs. The book was The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich.

In his book Ehrlich proposed that growth of human populations was endangering life on earth. Such thinking was not new as illustrated by the following quote from Garrett Hardin:

"Every life saved this year in a poor country diminishes the quality of life for subsequent generations."

It was just a small step from believing that population growth was endangering life on earth to believing that public health use of DDT was harmful because it improved conditions for growth of human populations. This belief came to maturity in Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb. His book sold almost two million copies. It, like Silent Spring, was a treatise on fear. He used scary predictions to mobilize public opinion against national programs to prevent diseases and save lives.

Ehrlich predicted in the prologue of his book that "In the 1970s and 1980s hundred of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon today. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in world death rate,..." He said there were only two solutions to our problems, either a death rate solution or a birth rate solution. Ehrlich blamed population growth on medical science, stating that ".. .medical science was the straw that broke the camel's back. While lowering death rates in the ODCs [overly developed countries] was due in part to other factors, there is no question that 'instant death control,' exported by the ODCs, has been responsible for the drastic lowering of death rates in the UDCs [under developed countries]." In these comments, Ehrlich was mostly referring to use of DDT in national malaria control programs. He referred to use of DDT as "exported death control." He illustrated this with many descriptions of how spraying houses with DDT reduced malaria infections and malarial deaths. He stated "The power of exported death control can best be seen by an examination of the classic case of Ceylon's assault on malaria after World War II." In his descriptions of population density in India, he stated that the ".. .problems of Delhi and Calcutta are our problems too. Americans have helped to create them; we help to prevent their solution." Taken in context, the solution would be to stop spraying houses and to allow increasing malaria and, as a consequence, increasing malarial deaths. In his descriptions of population problems in Colombia, he states that Colombia is an extremely poor country ".. .with a doubling time of 21 years. Death control did not reach Colombia until after World War II. Before it arrived, a woman could expect to have two or three children survive to reproductive age if she went through ten pregnancies. Now, in spite of malnutrition, medical technology keeps seven or eight alive." The primary technology that arrived after WWII was DDT. Ehrlich attacked WHO for its support of national malaria control programs, stating "The World Health Organization... refuses to give up DDT for malaria control, claiming that hundreds of millions are doomed without it." It would seem that for those who subscribe to his ideology, the doom of hundreds of millions was precisely the outcome they wanted.

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