June 12, 2002

RACHEL CARSON DISS-A-THON: Ron Bailey joins the growing group of Carson skeptics.

Carson was also an effective popularizer of the idea that children were especially vulnerable to the carcinogenic effects of synthetic chemicals. “The situation with respect to children is even more deeply disturbing,” she wrote. “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 [her emphasis].” In support of this claim, Carson reported that “twelve per cent of all deaths in children between the ages of one and fourteen are caused by cancer.”

Although it sounds alarming, Carson’s statistic is essentially meaningless unless it’s given some context, which she failed to supply. It turns out that the percentage of children dying of cancer was rising because other causes of death, such as infectious diseases, were drastically declining.

In fact, cancer rates in children have not increased, as they would have if Carson had been right that children were especially susceptible to the alleged health effects of modern chemicals. Just one rough comparison illustrates this point: In 1938 cancer killed 939 children under 14 years old out of a U.S. population of 130 million. In 1998, according to the National Cancer Institute, about 1,700 children died of cancer, out of a population of more than 280 million. In 1999 the NCI noted that “over the past 20 years, there has been relatively little change in the incidence of children diagnosed with all forms of cancer; from 13 cases per 100,000 children in 1974 to 13.2 per 100,000 children in 1995.”

As I mentioned in the September 3 post I reference below, I enjoy seeing the blue herons, bald eagles, and other birds that have come back as a result of the DDT ban — but I feel kind of guilty that my enjoyment is purchased at the cost of millions of third-world deaths from DDT-preventable disease.

It’s a surprise that more people don’t feel bad about that.

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