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DDT: Fifty years since silent spring
Northwest University, South Africa.
University of Pretoria, South Africa.
Wageningen University, The Netherlands.
Linköping University, The Tema Institute, Department of Water and Environmental Studies. Linköping University, Faculty of Arts and Sciences.ORCID iD: 0000-0002-5972-1852
2013 (English)In: Late lessons from early warnings: science, precaution, innovation, Copenhagen: European Environment Agency , 2013, , 291 p.272-291 p.Chapter in book (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

'There was a strange stillness. The birds for example — where had they gone? Many people spoke about them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund: they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices ... only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.'

The book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson is mainly about the impacts of chemicals (in particular in particular dichlorodiphenyltrichlorethane also known as DDT) on the environment and human health. Indeed, the close association between humans and birds remains very apt. Representing the only two warm-blooded groups of life on Earth, mammals and birds share the same environments and threats.

Carson's claim that she lived in 'an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged' still resonates strongly with the problems that societies face all over the world. One chapter heading, 'The obligation to endure', derived from the French biologist and philosopher Jean Rostand's famous observation that, 'the obligation to endure gives us the right to know'. United States President John F. Kennedy responded to the challenge posed by Carson by investigating DDT, leading to its complete ban in the US. The ban was followed by a range of institutions and regulations concerned with environmental issues in the US and elsewhere, driven by public demand for knowledge and protection.

DDT was the primary tool used in the first global malaria eradication programme during the 1950s and 1960s. The insecticide is sprayed on the inner walls and ceilings of houses. Malaria has been successfully eliminated from many regions but remains endemic in large parts of the world. DDT remains one of the 12 insecticides — and the only organochlorine compound — currently recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), and under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, countries may continue to use DDT. Global annual use of DDT for disease vector control is estimated at more than 5 000 tonnes.

It is clear that the social conscience awakened by Rachel Carson 50 years ago gave momentum to a groundswell of actions and interventions that are slowly but steadily making inroads at myriad levels. Chapter 17 of her book, 'The other road' reminds the reader of the opportunities that should have been seized much earlier. With more than 10 % of bird species worldwide now threatened in one way or another, it is clear that we missed early warnings or failed to act on them. Will we continue to miss signposts to 'other roads'? Are our obligations to endure met by our rights to know? As Carson said 50 years ago: 'The choice, after all, is ours to make.'

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Copenhagen: European Environment Agency , 2013. , 291 p.272-291 p.
, EEA Report, ISSN 1725-9177 ; 1
Keyword [en]
DDT; environmental health_; human health
National Category
Environmental Sciences Public Health, Global Health, Social Medicine and Epidemiology Environmental Health and Occupational Health
URN: urn:nbn:se:liu:diva-87858DOI: 10.2800/70069ISBN: 978-92-9213-349-8OAI: diva2:600577
Available from: 2013-01-25 Created: 2013-01-24 Last updated: 2015-01-14Bibliographically approved

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