The myth that Rachel Carson, author of "Silent Spring," was responsible for the deaths of millions of people in Africa because her denunciations of DDT led to a "ban" on the use of the insecticide in developing countries has never held up under close scrutiny. Salon published a good piece on the topic last June.
But I did not know until reading John Quiggin and Tim Lambert's enlightening story in the British Prospect (thanks to The New Republic's Energy and Environment blog for the tip) how exactly the assault on Carson ever got started.
By 1990, it seemed that the public health issues surrounding DDT had been largely resolved. In developed countries, DDT had been replaced by less environmentally damaging alternatives. But soon the situation changed radically. The tobacco industry, faced with the prospect of bans on smoking in public places, sought to cast doubt on the science behind the mooted ban. But a campaign focused on tobacco alone was doomed to failure. So the industry tried a different tack, an across-the-board attack on what it called "junk science." Its primary vehicle was the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), a body set up by PR firm APCO in the early 1990s and secretly funded by Philip Morris.
TASSC, led by an activist named Steve Milloy, attacked the environmental movement on everything from food safety to the risks of asbestos. One of the issues Milloy took up with vigor was DDT, where he teamed up with the entomologist J. Gordon Edwards. With the aid of Milloy's advocacy, Edwards's attacks on Rachel Carson moved from the political fringes to become part of the orthodoxy of mainstream US Republicanism.
Steve Milloy -- the man deserves a statue, on which we could inscribe the words: "No one man labored harder or more successfully to propagate misinformation about global warming, tobacco's health effects, and DDT."
As for the "orthodoxy of mainstream U.S. Republicanism" -- judging by the recent Democratic pickups of purportedly "safe" Republican Congressional seats in three consecutive special elections, it seems to have fallen a bit out of favor with the mainstream U.S. general public. Could it be that the ill effects of embracing charlatans like Steve Milloy are finally taking their toll? Just as overuse of DDT for agricultural purposes led to the development of resistant mosquitos, overuse of Steve Milloy may be leading to resistant voters.