What would Rachel write: The top 4 untold pesticide stories | Pesticide Action Network
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What would Rachel write: The top 4 untold pesticide stories

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Silent Spring turns 50 next week, giving occasion for all manner of reflection on Rachel Carson's legacy as the author who catalyzed the U.S. environmental movement. The small, but vocal rightwing fringe continues in its campaign to paint Carson as the devil "responsible for more deaths than Hitler." But most mainstream reflections thus far have sought to contemporize Carson by drawing links between the issues she outlined in Silent Spring and the concerns we still face today. 

Claiming no special insight other than working daily in Carson's wake, I speculate that she'd be reporting in her way on one of these still-untold and/or under-reported pesticide stories: 

1. Genetically engineered (GE) crops are the present-day growth engine of the global pesticide industry; and we know about as much about their health and environmental impacts as we did about DDT in 1962. Working title: "GMOs are DDT 2.0"

  • Fact: 99% of GE crops on the market are engineered either to contain an insecticide, or to withstand high application rates of particular herbicides. 
  • Fact: Of the "hundreds" of studies that industry claims have proven the safety of GE crops, not one has been repeated. 

2. We know very little about pesticide use patterns in the U.S. because, with the exception of California, use is not tracked. EPA has neither the funding nor the mandate to require applicators to report pesticide use, so what we are left with is spotty data aggregated at the national level and cut in such a way as to be nearly useless. Working title: "50 years later, still flying blind"

3. "Conditional registrations" are a regularly used loophole through which pesticide products are rushed to market without adequate safety testing where they remain in use for many years before being tested. Recent examples include Bayer's bee-toxic clothianidin, and DuPont's tree-killing ImprellisWorking title: some combination of "loop hole" and "Mack truck."

  • Fact: Of the 16,000 current product registrations, 11,000 (68%) have been brought to market through conditional registration (CR), and half (5,400) of those have been conditionally registered since 2000. 

4. Pesticide law and regulation in the U.S. is a case study in corporate capture. And always has been. The last 30 years of market consolidation in the seed and pesticide industry have not helped matters. Working title: "Chemical Cartel + Farm Lobby = 50 yrs of Pesticide Policy Paralyis."

  • Fact: From 1988 to 1995, more than 65 bills were introduced in Congress to tighten pesticide regulations. None of them passed. 
  • Fact: In the late 1990s, two separate investigations revealed that between 1/2 and 2/3 of all former top-level pesticide regulators at the U.S. EPA subsequently went to work for, or were paid by, pesticide and chemical industry interests actively involved in fighting EPA efforts to protect the public from pesticides. 

On this last issue, Christopher Bosso's Pesticides and Politics: The Lifecycle of a Public Issue (1987) remains the most comprehensive account of the political history of pesticide legislation and regulation. In it, he examines pesticides as a case study in special interest politics largely beholden to the farm lobby in Congress — all the way back to the 1947 formation of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). In political science, the term is "client politics." 

Were Rachel Carson alive today, I suspect she would pick up one of these threads and weave a characteristically lyrical and detailed account that would arrive in the end at a penetrating analysis. Just as she confronted the paternalism of postwar science, and questioned the paradigm of scientific progress and mastery that defined postwar America, I imagine Carson would today name the most disabling dynamic of our times: corporations running roughshod over democracy. 


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In 2004, popular author Michael Crichton summed up the situation with the following excerpt from his book entitled « State of Fear » ― « Arguably, the greatest tragedy of the Twentieth Century was the removal of DDT. DDT was the best insecticide for the control of mosquitoes. Despite views to the contrary, no other products were as efficient, or as safe. Since the removal of DDT, it has been estimated that thirty to fifty million people have died unnecessarily from the effects of malaria. SADLY, REMOVING DDT HAS KILLED MORE PEOPLE THAN HITLER. Before the removal of DDT, malaria had become almost a minor illness, with only fifty thousand deaths per year throughout the world. » It has been estimated that Rachel Carson and her « step-children followers » can be ranked among the GREATEST MASS KILLERS IN RECENT HISTORY. Since 1972, the Carson Anti-Pesticide Policies have led to deaths by malaria resulting from world-wide bans of DDT ( but not by democide ). Rachel Carson and the Removal of DDT Has Killed More People Than Hitler. WILLIAM H. GATHERCOLE AND NORAH G http://wp.me/P1jq40-2SN http://wp.me/P1jq40-1I5
Robert H's picture
Robert H /
That is a ridiculously simplistic summary of a highly complicated issue. Ever studied complex system dynamics? What about all the unintended consequences of toxic carcinogens and endocrine disruptors throughout the global ecosystem? How many people die of cancer due to the prevalence of untested, synthetic chemicals in the entire food chain? How many more people will die of starvation due to the collapse of bee populations? What is the value of all the species that are being wiped off the planet permanently due to our reckless introduction of thousands of chemical compunds that never existed before? etc. etc.
Carol Ashley's picture
Carol Ashley /
Very good points, Robert H. Furthermore, if we could fund research into non-chemical solutions that chemical companies won't do because they cannot make huge profits from them, we could find ways to keep people healthy and alive. We shouldn't have to choose between alive and healthy.
Karlin's picture
Karlin /
<p>Yes, I swear if the 21st. C human civilization dies out, it will be due to ignorance. Here is my take on DDT:</p> <p><br /> &nbsp;&nbsp; DDT was only ever banned for use as an AGRICULTURAL product - it's use for mosquito control never ended, and it is still being used today for that purpose ["vector control"]&nbsp;<br /> <br /> &nbsp; The myth is that it is not being used anymore - about 4000 tonnes of DDT are produced each year for mosquito [vector] control, mostly for use in India, Korea, and Africa - the main malaria prone areas of the world.<br /> <br /> &nbsp; However, due to mosquitos having built up RESISTANCE to DDT it has become ineffective wherever it is used consistently. The pill used to immunize people against malaria is also prone to resistance build-up.<br /> <br /> &nbsp;&nbsp; DDT causes cancer in humans, and it causes sexual disambiguation in children of mothers exposed to DDT during pregnancy. DDT decimates bird populations too, of course.<br /> <br /> &nbsp; Malaria is mostly a factor of poverty - a lack of clean drinking water and being malnourished are primary factors in malaria deaths. In more than a few cases, water bottling and soft drink corporations have taken control of drinking water in some of the most malaria prone areas of the world. Perhaps Coca Cola has killed more people than Hitler.<br /> <br /> &nbsp;&nbsp; "Malaria Tents" have been shown to reduce malaria by over 50%, each tent costing less than $10.<br /> <br /> &nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; Inexpensive solutions are commonly abandoned at the behest of chemical companies - so they can sell DDT. This makes the "DDT Myth" particularly distasteful, and it means that repeating the DDT Myth is an act of astonishing ignorance.<br /> <br /> &nbsp;&nbsp; Hint - do a Google, use search term: "DDT never banned in Africa or India"</p>