The DDT Scare Scam

(Via Aaron Oakley) Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring anti-DDT tract was a fraudulent beat-up, and millions of third world residents have died from malaria and other easily preventable insect-borne diseases as a result of its ill-advised banning in the early 1970s.

The author even suggests that the eventual re-emergence of these diseases in tropical and even temperate parts of the first world is inevitable unless the ban on DDT is reversed. Darwin being almost within spitting distance of parts of Indonesia (not to mention Timor Leste) where malaria remains a major problem, this is an issue of not inconsiderable personal relevance for this armadillo.

Here are some selected extracts from the article (but the whole thing is worth reading):

“The scientific literature does not contain even one peer-reviewed, independently replicated study linking DDT exposures to any adverse health outcome [in humans],” said Dr. Amir Attaran, who is with Harvard University’s Center for International Development and is a former WHO expert on malaria who used to support the environmentalists’ call for using alternatives to DDT. Attaran changed sides on the DDT debate after he witnessed what happened when South Africa. After intense U.N. and environmentalist pressure, South Africa stopped using DDT and switched to
the U.N. Environmental Program’s alternative pesticides as a way to control malaria. But the mosquitoes quickly developed resistance to the new pesticides and malaria rates increased 1,000 percent. And despite UN threats to cut off funding for South Africa’s public health programs, the nation started DDT again because its politicians could not stand idly by and allow millions of its citizens to become sickened and/or die from malaria. “They really tried to phase this stuff out, and had the budget to afford the alternatives,” Attaran said. “[But if] South Africa can’t get by without DDT, it’s pretty much as if to say that nobody can.”

In addition to Carson’s unfounded cancer claims, Silent Spring is also chock full of other “untruthful and misleading” statements that have absolutely no grounding in scientific reality whatsoever, said San Jose State University entomologist Dr. J. Gordon Edwards. Edwards is an environmentalist “with a desire to keep truth in science and environmentalism.” He has even has a book published by the Sierra Club.

Edwards at first supported Carson but quickly changed his mind once he began checking her sources. What he discovered was not only did Carson rely upon “very unscientific sources,” but she cited many of the same sources over and over again in order to make her book appear incontrovertible. Even more startling is that Edwards “found” many of Carson’s statements based upon sound, scientific sources were actually — his word — “false.”

“They did not support her contentions about the harm caused by pesticides,” Edwards said. “She was really playing loose with the facts, deliberately wording many sentences in such a way as to make them imply certain things without actually saying them, carefully omitting everything that failed to support her thesis that pesticides were bad, that industry was bad, and that any scientists who did not support her views were bad. It slowly dawned on me that Rachel Carson was not interested in the truth about those topics, and that I really was being duped, along with millions of other Americans.”

For example, Carson wrote that the Audubon Society’s annual bird census from 1940-1961 showed widespread declines in the bird population so since this was the same time period that DDT spraying began, DDT was to blame. However, Edwards noted that the Audubon census figures actually show the inverse — bird populations were increasing! In fact, some birds were benefiting so much from DDT, such as the blackbird and redwings, that they had become “pests.”

This slightly more balanced article neveretheless argues along similar lines:

Many of Carson’s claims were overblown. While DDT is highly toxic to insects and fish and can poison other animals in large enough doses, in moderate amounts it’s not especially harmful to birds and mammals, including humans. (Ironically, the EPA’s own judge agreed, but was overruled by its chief administrator.) No one has conclusively proved that DDT can give you cancer. The cause of eggshell thinning is likewise poorly understood.

On the other hand, DDT is demonstrably effective at controlling the mosquitoes and other insects that transmit malaria and typhus. Thanks principally to DDT, in the years after World War II malaria was eradicated in the U.S. and sharply curtailed in many tropical countries. Venezuela recorded eight million cases of malaria in 1943; by 1958 that number was down to eight hundred. The World Health Organization estimates that DDT saved 50 to 100 million lives during this period, and that’s just counting malaria prevention. In recent years, however, the disease has staged a comeback. Globally it quadrupled during the 1990s, and it’s even reappeared sporadically in the United States. The resurgence of malaria is due to a variety of factors, including changes in land use and possibly climate, and some experts say the phasing out of DDT is one of them.

I don’t mean to suggest that DDT is benign. On the contrary, it’s a potent contact toxin, and though it breaks down quickly in sunlight, it’s much more persistent in soil and water and accumulates in plants and fatty animal tissues with long-term exposure. But its drawbacks have to be weighed against its benefits. Malaria currently infects 300 to 500 million people annually, mostly in Africa, and causes as many as 2.7 million deaths. Alternative methods of mosquito control cost more and are less effective. Some 400 scientists and doctors have signed a petition opposing the inclusion of DDT among the 12 persistent organic pollutants (POPs) to be banned under a United Nations treaty now up for ratification, and a few public health experts are campaigning to bring DDT back. DDT isn’t a panacea; India, which still uses it, suffered nasty outbreaks of malaria in the 90s, and insects in many parts of that country have become resistant to the chemical. But it remains an important tool, and in a time of rising global pestilence we shun it at our peril.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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cs
cs
2021 years ago

Interesting post Ken. Although I’ve never in fact laid eyes on it, I understand that Carson’s book is a seminal work re the environment movement. Are the DDT claims central to the book’s message? This would be a good issue to get someone like Clive Hamilton to comment on.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2021 years ago

If you check out the always excellent “Junk science” http://www.junkscience.com/ddtfaq.htm, you’ll get more information than you ever thought possible on the DDT controversy.

There’s no doubt that “Silent Spring” made some valid points about the intersection of chemical insecticides and a myriad of life forms. There’s equally no doubt that Carson doom-loaded her scenario by a factor of 10.

Amazingly, the World Health Organisation actually expressed fears about third world overpopulation pressure resulting from the near-eradication of malaria by the late 1960’s. Thabo Mbeki and his “Health” Minister appear to have come up with the ideal solution to that….

Tim Lambert
2021 years ago

The junk science page is not “excellent”. The important criterion for Milloy is whether or not the results of a study are supportive of more government regulation, not the scientific merits. You can predict in advance what the junk science page’s position will be on any issue. DDT: good, Guns: good, Global Warming: not happening, etc etc.

The Skeptic’s Dictionary has more.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2021 years ago

‘Excellent’ as in interesting read, not necessarily empirically sound.

John Quiggin
John Quiggin
2021 years ago

“If you check out the always excellent “Junk science” http://www.junkscience.com/ddtfaq.htm, you’ll get more information than you ever thought possible”

“‘Excellent’ as in interesting read, not necessarily empirically sound. ”

And ‘information’ as in Republican talking points, not facts.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2021 years ago

Republican talking points!! Lordy, lordy, what dangerous, wrong-thinking fields have I been a-wanderin’?

aononymous
aononymous
2021 years ago

heheh u dumb losers are talking about DDT get a life

Ron Mead
Ron Mead
2021 years ago

I missed this thread when it was posted in early August and only picked it up after the stupid comment above featured in “The most recently commented posts” section this morning. Having now read both articles, and having seen this subject raised by Aaron a number of times, I’m amazed at the priorities of commenters who could only manage seven comments distinguished mainly by their irrelevance.

The articles contain truly horrifying commentaries about the values of environmentalists including the following which could be straight out of Mein Kampf:

“[Any known alternative to DDT] only kills farm workers, and most of them are Mexicans and Negroes. So what? People are the cause of all the problems. We have too many of them. We need to get rid of some of them and this is as good a way as any,” said Dr. Charles Wurster, chairman of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Scientific Advisory Council and a key promoter of the DDT ban.

Another anti-DDT Malthusian is Sierra Club director Michael McCloskey, who said that the “Sierra Club wants a ban on pesticides, even in countries where DDT has kept malaria under control…[because by] using DDT, we reduce mortality rates in underdeveloped countries without the consideration of how to support the increase in populations.”

Ken Miles
2021 years ago

Ron, there is very little evidence (only the word of a ex-employee) that Wurster made that statement. – http://info-pollution.com/unquote.htm

In all likelihood, the use of this “quote” is simply a smear attempt.

mo
mo
2021 years ago

As un-PC as it is, how do you respond to sky-rocketing populations in underdeveloped countries?
I agree completely with the critique of the junkscience page, and also recognize the scare tactics of Silent Spring, but both are necessary evils which make those of us wandering around in the middle really examine the issue.
When you interfere with the natural course of population control, you’re going to throw the whole chain out of wack, which includes the use of DDT. I’m not saying don’t use it, but we better come up with a good population control plan if we allow its use.

mo
mo
2021 years ago

As un-PC as it is, how do you respond to sky-rocketing populations in underdeveloped countries?
I agree completely with the critique of the junkscience page, and also recognize the scare tactics of Silent Spring, but both are necessary evils which make those of us wandering around in the middle really examine the issue.
When you interfere with the natural course of population control, you’re going to throw the whole chain out of wack, which includes the use of DDT. I’m not saying don’t use it, but we better come up with a good population control plan if we allow its use.

Ron Mead
Ron Mead
2021 years ago

“those of us wandering around in the middle”

Please exclude me out of your “middle”, mo.

trackback
2021 years ago

DDT

Ken Parish gives an uncritical link to a piece of junk science claiming that bans on DDT inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring have caused the deaths of millions of third world residents. He also gives a link to a…

trackback
2021 years ago

DDT

Ken Parish gives an uncritical link to a piece of junk science claiming that bans on DDT inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring have caused the deaths of millions of third world residents. He also gives a link to a…