Saturday, December 26, 2009

Dueling certainties

Reading Linda Lear's biography of Rachel Carson reminds me of a story I read in Time magazine:
Chemists have announced the discovery of an extraordinary substance that promises to eliminate many of humanity's woes.

Sprayed on a wall, the new chemical kills any fly that touches the wall for as long as three months afterward. A bed sprayed with the chemical remains deadly to bedbugs for 300 days. Clothing dusted with the chemical is safe from lice for a month, even after eight launderings. As a crop protector, it is deadlier and longer lasting than other substances, particularly against potato beetles, cabbage worms, fruit worms and corn borers. It is deadly to such common household pests as moths, roaches, termites and a dog's fleas.

So great is the potential of the discovery that seven US laboratories and hundreds of biochemists are working on it. Manufacturers are now turning out about 350,000 tons a month, and expecting to go higher.

A spokesperson for the US Surgeon General's office exclaimed that the substance "will be to preventive medicine what Lister's discovery of antiseptics was to surgery."
The story is from Time magazine, all right, from the issue of June 12, 1944, reissued in 1994 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the landings at Normandy.

And then the war was over and the chemical industry had such enormous stockpiles of DDT on hand that on August 31, 1945, without definitive tests to determine the chemical's toxicity, the Department of Agriculture, with the U. S. Army's concurrence, agreed to release it for civilian use. The war against the Axis powers would be replaced by a "war on insects," says Linda Lear. DDT would be the atomic bomb in our war against human pests.

It was, of course, a war against nature.

Can you imagine sleeping in DDT-dusted pajamas, on a DDT-sprayed bed, in a room with DDT painted on the walls, after a dinner of DDT-treated potatoes, cabbage, fruit and corn? No bedbugs or mosquitoes, but not the healthiest environment either. Never mind; manufacturers had been cranking out 350,000 tons of the stuff a month for the Army, and new markets were needed. In 1957 the U. S. Department of Agriculture sprayed 4.9 million acres with the poison, and soon the bluebirds of New England were gone; in 1968, six years after Silent Spring, the number of sprayed acres had dropped to zero, and the environmental movement had begun. Rachel Carson appeared on the scene not a moment too soon.

Today, the bluebirds are back in Massachusetts, but malaria remains as the world's biggest killer of children. With the withdrawal of DDT for malaria control in South Africa, for example, cases of the disease quadrupled. Some public health officials call for renewed use of DDT in certain malaria-ridden parts of the globe, at least until a vaccine or a genetically-engineered fix comes along.

Did Rachel Carson save songbirds (and humans) in Massachusetts and put babies at risk in Mozambique? Albert Schweitzer once said: "Man can hardly even recognize the devils of his own creation." We are not that good at recognizing the angels, either. Let's hope the current generation of young people has more success balancing the perils and blessings of technology than did those of us who lived through the dueling certainties of DDT and Silent Spring.