On Silent Spring

by F.

Having grown up in the Granola Belt, and having been tutored by the ragged remains of the 60s who’d dropped out by getting jobs as public schoolteachers (“The three best benefits of this job are June, July, and August” one of my teachers told me), I heard my share of completely bogus environmental horrer stories. Worse still, I believed them. The most frightening stories I heard concerned DDT. As an animal lover, the thought that man-made chemicals were killing bunny rabbits and thinning the shells of robins’ eggs horrified me.

Unfortunately, the prophet of the nascent environmental movement, Rachel Carson, was more polemicist that scientist, as John Tierney describes today in that most right-wing of revisionist organs The New York Times:

Ms. Carson used dubious statistics and anecdotes (like the improbable story of a woman who instantly developed cancer after spraying her basement with DDT) to warn of a cancer epidemic that never came to pass. She rightly noted threats to some birds, like eagles and other raptors, but she wildly imagined a mass “biocide.” She warned that one of the most common American birds, the robin, was “on the verge of extinction” — an especially odd claim given the large numbers of robins recorded in Audubon bird counts before her book….

She cited scary figures showing a recent rise in deaths from cancer, but she didn’t consider one of the chief causes: fewer people were dying at young ages from other diseases (including the malaria that persisted in the American South until DDT). When that longevity factor as well as the impact of smoking are removed, the cancer death rate was falling in the decade before “Silent Spring,” and it kept falling in the rest of the century.

Why weren’t all of the new poisons killing people? An important clue emerged in the 1980s when the biochemist Bruce Ames tested thousands of chemicals and found that natural compounds were as likely to be carcinogenic as synthetic ones. Dr. Ames found that 99.99 percent of the carcinogens in our diet were natural, which doesn’t mean that we are being poisoned by the natural pesticides in spinach and lettuce. We ingest most carcinogens, natural or synthetic, in such small quantities that they don’t hurt us. Dosage matters, not whether a chemical is natural, just as Dr. Baldwin realized.