Why do some people continue to hold Rachel Carson responsible for millions of malaria deaths?by John Quiggin / May 24, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
Click here to read a reply from Roger Bate of Africa Fighting Malaria
Rachel Carson launched the modern environmental movement. She was posthumously awarded the US presidential medal of freedom, and has conservation areas, prizes and associations named in her honour.
Yet Carson has also been accused of killing more people than Hitler. Her detractors hold her responsible for a “ban” on the use of the insecticide DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), which, they claim, halted a campaign that was on the verge of eradicating malaria in the 1960s.
Some mainstream journalists have accepted this story, which in turn has led to pressure on the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other bodies to change policies and personnel. Yet perhaps the most striking feature of the claim against Carson is the ease with which it can be refuted. It takes only a few minutes with Google to discover that DDT has never been banned for anti-malarial uses, and that it is in use in at least 11 countries.
It takes only a little more time to discover that the postwar attempt to eradicate malaria by the spraying of DDT was a failure, largely because Carson’s warnings that overuse of insecticides would lead to the development of resistance in mosquito populations were ignored. Modern uses of insecticides are far closer to the methods advocated by Carson than to the practices she criticised.
How, then, did the idea that Carson was responsible for millions of deaths gain currency? Any good myth requires a few grains of truth, and the DDT malaria story has a couple. First, the 2001 Stockholm convention on persistent organic pollutants prohibits the use of DDT except for disease control, and calls for all DDT use to be phased out. The phase-out commitment is often loosely referred to as a “ban.”
Second, by virtue of its massive misuse in the 1960s and 1970s, DDT gained a bad reputation that was hard to shake. As a result, says WHO’s Allan Schapira, donors have sometimes insisted on the use of an insecticide other than DDT, even in “countries where the government wished to use DDT, and there was evidence that it was the best option for malaria-vector control.”