Rachel Carson, DDT and the Fight Against Malaria

The author Rachel Carson’s strike against the pesticide DDT turned her into both an environmental hero and a foil for those who believe regulation has gone too far. That fight is more relevant than ever.

By Clyde Haberman
An image from RetroReport

The advent of the Trump administration brings a designated head of the Environmental Protection Agency whose commitment to the E and P of E.P.A. is widely suspect.

In Scott Pruitt, President Trump settled on a man who reflects his own skepticism about climate change, which has included assertions that global warming is a hoax. The fledgling administration seems intent on reining in an agency it believes has exceeded its mandate for too long.

It is hardly the first time that the agency has found itself in someone's cross hairs. Echoes of earlier assaults reverberate in a new offering from Retro Report, a series of video documentaries examining major news events of the past and their continued resonance.

Several interwoven threads shape this installment: the global battle against malaria; the nationwide ban on almost all uses of DDT that the E.P.A. imposed in 1972; and the work of Rachel Carson, who became a guiding spirit of the modern environmental movement with her groundbreaking 1962 best seller “Silent Spring.” This video was produced in collaboration with the history series “American Experience,” whose study of Carson's life will be broadcast on PBS stations Tuesday night.

Carson warned that pesticides like DDT — dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane — were being sprayed excessively and indiscriminately in attempts to control crop pests. Poisons washed into waterways and moved along the food chain, threatening delicate ecosystems for birds, fish and, ultimately, humans. Even America's national symbol, the bald eagle, suffered. DDT poisoned eagles that fed on tainted fish, leading to eggs with thin shells that routinely broke during incubation. The E.P.A., created in 1970 under an earlier Republican president, Richard M. Nixon, took heed of the warnings.

DDT was also used to kill mosquitoes that spread malaria. By the early 1950s, the disease had essentially been eradicated in the United States. But it still had other nations in its grip, especially in Africa, making a comeback after it seemed on the verge of eradication. Critics — generally, though not exclusively, on the political right — drew a direct line from Point A (“Silent Spring”) to Point B (the DDT ban) to Point C (more deaths), and accused Carson of perpetrating “junk science.” Some even labeled her one of history's great villains.

Their language could be, to put it mildly, superheated, including descriptions of her as a mass murderer. In “State of Fear,” a 2004 Michael Crichton novel in which the villains are eco-terrorists, a protagonist says that “banning DDT killed more people than Hitler.”

In 2014, Google honored Carson on the 50th anniversary of her death, prompting this commentary from Breitbart News: “Will Google be paying tribute to any of the other mass killers of the 20th century? Hitler? Stalin? Mao? Pol Pot? Probably not. But then, none of the others have had the benefit of having their images burnished by a thousand and one starry-eyed greenies.” Breitbart in 2014 was led by Stephen K. Bannon, now chief strategist and senior counselor in the Trump White House.

The reality is that the American ban on DDT did not extend to other nations, although some later enacted their own prohibitions. For that matter, the pesticide was not completely banished in the United States or elsewhere; the E.P.A. declared it acceptable if public health was at risk. And despite a decline in its effectiveness because of overuse, it remains a valued anti-malaria tool in many countries, principally for spraying indoors, where its potency is enhanced and its impact on nature is kept low.

Then, too, the notion that Carson advocated a ban on pest-killing chemicals is a fiction. It was not her contention, she said, that “chemical insecticides must never be used.”

“No responsible person contends that insect-borne disease should be ignored,” she wrote in “Silent Spring.” The trouble, in her view, was that DDT and other chemicals were employed so liberally that “the insect enemy” developed resistance to them in fairly short order and was thus “made actually stronger by our efforts.”

In their adaptability, mosquitoes can be quite clever creatures, Raymond John St. Leger, an entomologist at the University of Maryland, told Retro Report. “Some mosquito populations can actually recognize the silhouette of a door, and go for people when they come in and out of doorways,” he said. “That’s how sophisticated evolution can be in changing behavior.”

Insect resistance to DDT, many scientists say, was a major reason for a sharp decline in its use around the world: Why bother spraying if the bugs would just shrug it off? Experts also blamed reduced spending on anti-malaria projects by governments and international organizations — not Carson — for a resurgence of the disease after 1972.

But the tide may have turned. Mortality rates have dropped by about 50 percent over the last decade and a half, according to the World Health Organization. Where malaria once killed several million people a year, the organization’s estimated toll for 2015 was 429,000, the principal victims being children under 5 in sub-Saharan Africa.

Notwithstanding such gains, the battle is far from over. W.H.O. says that 3.2 billion people in 97 countries, nearly half of the world’s population, remain at risk. In Burkina Faso, a focus of the Retro Report video, roughly 40 percent of the people get malaria each year.

To keep the disease on the run, experts say new methods are needed. Some that are under study now go beyond blitzing insects with chemicals. Scientists have experimented with ways to manipulate the mosquito’s genome to make it resistant to malaria and perhaps other diseases as well, like dengue fever, yellow fever and the latest global scourge, the Zika virus. There have been successes in the laboratory. But spreading the desired traits among wild insect populations has thus far proved elusive (not to mention that concerns about genetic modification’s unintended consequences are ever lurking).

Dr. St. Leger has experimented with fungi that, when absorbed by a mosquito, will inject deadly spider venom directly into its blood. Still, he cautioned that a combination of approaches was necessary.

“The solution,” he said, “isn’t going to be relying on any single technology as the silver bullet.”

For now, the weapons of choice remain what they have been for a while: diligently covering beds with nets infused with pyrethroids, synthetic versions of organic pesticides; judiciously coating the interiors of houses with DDT and other chemicals; and carefully mopping up pools of stagnant water where mosquitoes breed. That last one requires arduous and often fruitless labor. But it is a challenge that ought to be familiar to the Trump administration. To borrow a phrase it has popularized, it means draining the swamp.

CLYDE HABERMAN, a regular contributor to Retro Report, has been a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for The New York Times, where he spent nearly 13 years based in Tokyo, Rome and Jerusalem. Subscribe to our newsletter here and follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.

This article first appeared in The New York Times.