CHOP Professor: Silent Spring Author’s Mistake Killed Millions

In a recent opinion column, Dr. Paul Offit blames Rachel Carson for the spread of malaria.

Paul Offit / Silent Spring

Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia professor Paul Offit isn’t known to mince words. And so in his latest column for The Daily Beast, Offit hits a target you might not be expecting: Silent Spring author Rachel Carson.

“In her groundbreaking book, Silent Spring, Carson … made one critical mistake,” Offit writes, “and it cost millions of people their lives.”

In his essay, Offit says Carson exaggerated the possible side effects of DDT in her landmark work. That caused the once-popular insecticide to be pulled from the market — and led to a rise in malaria in many countries.

While he believes DDT should’ve been banned for agricultural use, Offit says DDT should never have been banned from public health use. The actual side effects of DDT, he writes, are nowhere near as bad as the effects of malaria.

Although DDT soon became synonymous with poison, the pesticide was an effective weapon in the fight against an infection that has killed — and continues to kill — more people than any other: malaria. By 1960, due largely to DDT, malaria had been eliminated from eleven countries, including the United States. […]

Since the mid 1970s, when DDT was eliminated from global eradication efforts, tens of millions of people have died from malaria unnecessarily: most have been children less than five years old. While it was reasonable to have banned DDT for agricultural use, it was unreasonable to have eliminated it from public health use.

Offit writes that Carson’s unfair demonization of DDT — it didn’t cause many of the cancers she attributed to it, and is in fact safer than many pesticides today — caused malaria outbreaks in India, Sri Lanka, and South Africa. The World Health Organization has since reinstated DDT use for public health reasons. Offit just wishes it happened earlier.

Jason Fagone profiled Offit in the May 2009 issue of Philadelphia magazine.