Tuesday, April 22, 2008

more Earth Day fun.

More great reading for Earth Day - below is a great excerpt from a book talking about the politics of fear from the Post a few days ago. The passage is on Rachel Carson, and while it's lengthy, you really ought to give it a read.

Carson has a special place in my heart, and it's not a good place. You see, Carson and her sloppy attempt at science were largely responsible for the worldwide ban of DDT that has allowed malaria to continue to be such a huge problem for people in third-world nations. Of course I'm happy we've stopped using DDT in such large quantities that it was killing or mutating plants and animals, but the amount needed to deter mosquitoes has no such effect.

Malaria was once prevalent in North America. We used chemicals like DDT and drained swamps to fight it off, eliminate it and become successful. In large part thanks to Rachel Carson, though, we've never given millions of the poorest people in the world the chance to be free from this devastating and easily preventable disease.

For more information on why you, too, should remember Rachel Carson in infamy, visit Rachel Was Wrong, brought to you by the fantastic folks at CEI, where I'm ecstatic to say I'll be interning for Bureaucrash this summer.

Here's the article:

Thanks largely to Rachel Carson, the spectre of cancer has sown an irrational fear of chemicals
We really don’t like chemicals. We don’t even like the word. In surveys of the American public conducted by psychologist Paul Slovic, past president of the Society For Risk Analysis, people were asked to say what comes to mind when they hear the word chemical. The results were “dominated by negative imagery,” he says. “Death.” “Toxic.” “Dangerous.” In Canadian surveys carried out by Daniel Krewski, an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa, people were asked what thought pops into their minds when they hear the word risk. One common answer was “chemical.”

Water is a chemical, and so is mother’s milk. But that’s not how people use the word today. Chemicals are invented in laboratories and manufactured in giant industrial plants. And they are inherently dangerous, something to be avoided whenever possible. It is this cultural re-definition of “chemical” that has transformed organic produce from a niche market into a booming, multi-billion-dollar industry, and why the word natural has become the preferred adjective of corporate marketers, no matter what they’re selling. “The tobacco in most cigarettes contains additives drawn from a list of 409 chemicals,” reads an ad that appeared in American magazines in 2006. “Natural American Spirit is the only brand that features both cigarettes made with 100% organic tobacco as well as cigarettes made with 100% additive-free natural tobacco.”

This is new. Prior to the 1960s, “chemical” was associated with the bounty of science. It meant progress and prosperity, an image the DuPont corporation sought to capitalize on in 1935 with the help of a new slogan: “Better things for better living … through chemistry.” New products came to market with little or no testing and were used in massive quantities with scarcely a thought for safety. It was an era in which children caught in the mist of a crop duster had their faces washed by mothers who had no idea it would take more than a damp facecloth to make their children clean again.

The end of that era came in 1962, when Rachel Carson, a marine biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, published a book called Silent Spring. “For the first time in the history of the world,” Carson wrote, “every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death.”

Carson’s primary concern in Silent Spring was the damage being inflicted on the natural world by the indiscriminate use of synthetic chemicals, particularly DDT, a pesticide she believed was annihilating bird populations and threatening to usher in a springtime made silent by the absence of birdsong. But the book likely would not have come to much if it had stopped at that. Carson further argued that the chemical stew that was crippling the natural world was also doing terrible harm to Homo sapiens.

In a chapter entitled “One in Every Four,” Carson noted that the proliferation of synthetic chemicals that started in the late 19th century was paralleled by a rise in cancer. In the United States, Carson wrote, cancer “accounted for 15% of the deaths in 1958 compared with only 4% in 1900.” The lifetime risk of getting cancer would soon be a terrifying one in four and “the situation with respect to children is even more deeply disturbing. A quarter century ago, cancer in children was considered a medical rarity. Today, more American school children die of cancer than from any other disease … 12% of all deaths in children between the ages of one and 14 are caused by cancer.”

It would be difficult to exaggerate the impact of Silent Spring. The book influenced a whole generation of policymakers and thoughtful citizens, including U.S. Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas and President John F. Kennedy. The chemical industry launched a campaign of nasty attacks on Carson — that “hysterical woman” — but that only raised the book’s profile and damaged the industry’s image. Commissions were launched to investigate Carson’s claims, and citizens’ groups formed to press for a ban on DDT and other chemicals. It was the beginning of the modern environmental movement.

In 1970, the first Earth Day was celebrated. In 1972, DDT was banned in the United States. In 1982, DuPont dropped the “through chemistry” part of its famous slogan. At the end of the century, Silent Spring routinely appeared on lists of the most influential books of all time, and Time magazine named Carson one of the “100 People of the Century.”

Carson didn’t live to see her words change the world. She died in 1964 — killed by breast cancer.

Cancer is the key to understanding why Silent Spring set off the explosion it did. It wasn’t just any disease Carson warned of. The very word cancer is “unclean,” wrote a survivor in a 1959 memoir. “It is a crab-like scavenger reaching its greedy tentacles into the life of the soul as well as the body. It destroys the will as it gnaws away the flesh.” Cancer has a unique image in modern culture. It is not merely a disease — it’s a creeping killer and we fear it like no other. Paul Slovic’s surveys show cancer is the only major disease whose death toll is actually overestimated by the public. It also has a presence in the media even bigger than its substantial toll.

And yet, despite its enormous presence in our culture, cancer wasn’t always the stuff of nightmares. “In 1896,” writes Joanna Bourke in Fear: A Cultural History, “the American Journal of Psychology reported that when people were asked which diseases they feared, only 5% named cancer, while between a quarter and a third drew attention to the scary nature of each of the following ailments: smallpox, lockjaw, consumption and hydrophobia [rabies]. In the fear-stakes, being crushed in a rail accident or during an earthquake, drowning, being burned alive, hit by lightning, or contracting diphtheria, leprosy or pneumonia all ranked higher than cancer.”

That changed after the Second World War. By 1957, cancer was such a terror that an oncologist quoted by Bourke complained that the disease had been transformed into “a devil” and the fear of cancer — “cancerophobia,” as he called it — had become a plague in its own right. “It is possible that today cancerophobia causes more suffering than cancer itself,” he wrote. With Silent Spring, Carson told people that this new spectre wasn’t just in their nightmares. It was all around them, in the air they breathe, the soil they walk on and the food they eat. It was even in their blood. Small wonder people paid attention.

Carson’s numbers suggested fear of cancer was rising rapidly simply because cancer was rising rapidly. But her numbers were misleading.

Carson’s statement that cancer “accounted for 15% of the deaths in 1958 compared with only 4% in 1900” makes the common mistake of simply assuming that the disease’s larger share of the total is the result of rising rates of the disease. But according to U.S. Census Bureau data, cancer was the number seven killer in the period of 1900-04. Number one was tuberculosis. Number four was diarrhea and enteritis. Number 10 was typhoid fever followed by diphtheria at number 11. Scarlet fever, whooping cough and measles ranked lower but still took a significant toll. By the time Carson was writing in the late-1950s, vaccines, antibiotics and public sanitation had dramatically reduced or even eliminated every one of these causes of death. (In 1958, tuberculosis had fallen from the number one spot to number 15. Enteritis was number 19. Deaths due to diphtheria, scarlet fever and the rest had all but vanished.) With the toll of other causes dropping rapidly, cancer’s share of all deaths would have grown greatly even if the rate of cancer deaths hadn’t changed in the slightest.

The same facts take the sting out of the statement Carson thought was so important she put it in italics in her book: “Today, more American school children die of cancer than from any other disease.” By 1962, traditional child killers such as diphtheria had been wiped out. More children were dying of cancer than any other disease not because huge numbers of children were dying of cancer but because huge numbers of children were not dying of other diseases.

As for the title of Carson’s chapter on cancer — “One in every four” — it comes from a 1955 report by the American Cancer Society (ACS) predicting that the then-current estimate of cancer striking one person in five would rise to one in four. But as age is the primary risk factor for cancer, the fact that far more people were surviving childhood and living to old age would inevitably mean more people would get cancer — mostly when they were old — and so the “lifetime risk” would rise.

However, the ACS noted that wasn’t the whole story. Data on cancer were still sketchy in that era but in the previous two decades there was an apparent 200% rise in the incidence of cancer among women and a 600% rise among men, which was mostly the result of a rise in only one type of cancer. Lung cancer “is the only form of cancer which shows so definite a tendency,” the report noted.

Lung cancer started to soar in the 1920s, 20 years after the habit of smoking cigarettes took off among men in the United States and other Western countries. Women didn’t start smoking in large numbers until the 1920s and 1930s — and 20 years after that, cancer among women took off as well. When smoking rates started to decline in the 1960s and 1970s — again, first among men — so did many cancers 20 years later. This pattern mainly involves lung cancer, but other forms of cancer are also promoted by smoking: cancers of the larynx, pancreas, kidney, cervix, bladder, mouth and esophagus.

But Carson didn’t write a word about smoking in Silent Spring. In fact, the only mention of tobacco is a reference (again, italicized for emphasis) to arsenic-bearing insecticides sprayed on tobacco crops: “The arsenic content of cigarettes made from American-grown tobacco increased more than 300% between the years 1932 and 1952.” Carson was nodding toward a popular theory of the day. It isn’t inhaling tobacco smoke that kills. Tobacco is natural and safe. It’s the chemicals added to tobacco that kill. This theory was fiercely advocated by Wilhelm Hueper of the National Cancer Institute, who was a major influence on Carson’s views and is repeatedly quoted in Silent Spring.

At the time, that hypothesis was not unreasonable. The research linking smoking to cancer was fairly new and very little was known about synthetic chemicals and human health. And while the rise in cancer may not have been as enormous as Carson made it out to be, it was real, and the possibility that all these new wonder chemicals were the source was truly scary. From Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear by Dan Gardner. In stores now. Published by McClelland & Stewart Ltd. Reprinted by permission.


BBS said...

I'm guessing exams are over? :)

Janet said...

Ha! Almost, but not yet! I had three packed into the past few days and now I have a whole day and a half off before the next two, so I'm de-stressing for a few hours before the studying resumes. :)