Thursday, May 17, 2012


"The sedge is wither'd from the lake, And no birds sing."
-John Keats, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"

Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring is widely regarded as the beginning of the modern environmental movement. Instead of being a small concern a few people held, now suddenly ecology and caring for the environment became an international topic and a core of left-leaning political concern.

Carson's book came out in 1962 after being serialized in The New Yorker. Written about pesticides in general and DDT in specific, Carson expressed concern that DDT spraying was resulting in dead birds on her property. Some scientists at the time claimed that DDT caused bird eggs to be extra fragile, resulting in no offspring and eventual death of birds in an area.

Recently, Discover magazine named Silent Spring one of their top 25 best science books of all time. Due to Rachel Carson's book, the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency under Richard Nixon banned use of the pesticide in the US and worked to prevent its use worldwide through the International Monetary Fund and international treaties.

Chemical companies such as Monsanto and DOW worked hard to fight this, but in the end, their efforts failed, and the chemical was all but banned worldwide by the 1970s.

Rachel Carson's concerns were largely valid. In her book, she didn't call for the total ban of all pesticides, only the cautious, minimal use of them.
No responsible person contends that insect-borne disease should be ignored. The question that has now urgently presented itself is whether it is either wise or responsible to attack the problem by methods that are rapidly making it worse. The world has heard much of the triumphant war against disease through the control of insect vectors of infection, but it has heard little of the other side of the story—the defeats, the short-lived triumphs that now strongly support the alarming view that the insect enemy has been made actually stronger by our efforts.

Practical advice should be "Spray as little as you possibly can" rather than "Spray to the limit of your capacity"
Which is a valid approach. The problem is, environmentalists used this book to push a vision of death and disease which has resulted in far worse conditions than Carson warned of. In all, Silent Spring has contributed to the death of an estimated 90 million people since the bans went into effect, and an additional 2.7 million per year (the World Health organization estimates closer to 900,000 people) due to uncontrolled malaria borne by mosquitoes.

Which is why Reason Magazine gave the book a dishonorable mention in their "Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries" (I recommend looking over the list, including the extras, they're all very pernicious and destructive books).

The truth is, DDT never was as bad as it has been portrayed, and its ability to fight malaria has been greatly missed over the decades since the book came out. Rachel Carson only set out to express concern over what she perceived as excessive use of chemicals, something that definitely was taking place in the early 60s, but the legacy of the book is a stack of skulls bigger than her house.

Technically, DDT isn't banned worldwide. The Stockholm Treaty on various chemical pesticides in 2001 did not even completely ban the use of DDT, it was permitted limited use until a viable alternative was developed. The problem is that the World Bank, run largely by the United States, to this day still has an official policy of refusing loans to any nation that does not ban the use of DDT in its borders. And since it is exactly these third world nations most desperately in need of loans where malaria is the biggest problem, that means effectively, the use of DDT is banned nearly everywhere.

Isn't DDT bad for you? Well, it is a poison, and yes, if you take a spoonful, it will be very bad for you. DDT can theoretically kill a human being, if they ingested enough. Just about anything will, for that matter. The truth is as pesticides go, DDT isn't particularly harmful. According to a study published in Lancet (Lancet 366 (9487), pp 763-73):
In humans, DDT use is generally safe; large populations have been exposed to the compound for 60 years with little acute toxicity apart from a few reports of poisoning. Doses as high as 285 mg/kg taken accidentally did not cause death, but such large doses did lead to prompt vomiting. One dose of 10 mg/kg can result in illness in some people. Subclinical and subtle functional changes have not been meticulously sought until the past few decades.
According to the UN's World Health Organization (WHO), DDT can be sprayed directly on clothing or used in soap with no ill effects to human beings, and although some studies have suggested a correspondence link between exposure to DDT with breast cancer, a direct study of the topic does not support this conclusion.

But doesn't DDT cause bird eggs to become fragile? This is where Rachel Carson didn't get her facts straight. Junk Science explains:
DeWitt’s 1956 article (in Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry) actually yielded a very different conclusion. Quail were fed 200 parts per million of DDT in all of their food throughout the breeding season. DeWitt reports that 80% of their eggs hatched, compared with the “control” birds which hatched 83.9% of their eggs. Carson also omitted mention of DeWitt’s report that “control” pheasants hatched only 57 percent of their eggs, while those that were fed high levels of DDT in all of their food for an entire year hatched more than 80% of their eggs.
In other words, the study was inconclusive and needed significantly more time and research to actually produce any valid data. A variation of under 4% is not significant enough to take action on, let alone ban the use of a chemical, even if it weren't for the year-long data. Some claim the widespread use of DDT was causing populations of eagles and pelicans to reduce, but

Even testimony before the EPA expressed the valid use and relative safety of DDT:
EPA Administrative Law Judge Edmund Sweeney stated that “DDT is not a carcinogenic hazard to man. ... The uses of DDT under the regulations involved here do not have a deleterious effect on freshwater fish, estuarine organisms, wild birds, or other wildlife. ... The evidence in this proceeding supports the conclusion that there is a present need for the essential uses of DDT.”
Yet the EPA head William Ruckelshaus (and Environmental Defense Fund member/fundraiser) still declared the chemical banned, declaring it a "potential human carcinogen" despite it having been demonstrated less so than ordinary coffee. Ruckleshaus didn't even attend a single day's session of the seven months of hearings. He even admitted he'd never read the transcript. The facts didn't matter to him, he had his position and it was just evil drug companies lying that disagreed with this stance.

As the chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund pointed out in the Seattle Times in 1969 “If the environmentalists win on DDT, they will achieve a level of authority they have never had before.. In a sense, much more is at stake than DDT.” Some overpopulation advocates blamed DDT for the problem; why if those kids would just die in Africa we could help control the population.
As an official of the Agency for International Development stated, “Rather dead than alive and riotously reproducing.” [Desowitz, RS. 1992. Malaria Capers, W.W. Norton & Company]
This wasn't about the truth or science, it was about power, money, and an agenda. This should sound familiar to more recent quasi-science alarmist causes.

And while mosquitos can develop a resistance to the chemical due to overuse in an area, it still functions because even the resistant mosquitos will tend to avoid an area that has been treated. The truth is, even if the worst fears of the environmentalists were true, careful use of DDT would still have saved many times more lives than it could possibly have cost, and likely would not have cost a single life.

There's a reason Dr. Paul Müller won a Nobel Prize for the production of DDT as a pesticide in 1939. Many malaria eradication programs used successfully in places like Europe (getting rid of stagnant water around the neighborhood, for example) simply were of no use in the primary danger zones for malaria, such as Africa and Southeast Asia. DDT began to greatly reduce the deaths and sickness in these areas and was widely praised as a result.

The tide is turning. In 2006 the World Health Organization announced that its opposition to the use of DDT had ended. And they are not alone:
Last month, the WHO announced that it supports indoor spraying of DDT and other insecticides "not only in epidemic areas but also in areas with constant and high malaria transmission, including throughout Africa."

"The scientific and programmatic evidence clearly supports this reassessment," said Dr. Anarfi Asamoa-Baah, WHO assistant director-general for HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria. "DDT presents no health risk when used properly."

WHO now calls DDT the "most effective" pesticide for indoor use. Some environmental groups have also changed their anti-DDT tune, including Greenpeace, Environmental Defense and the Sierra Club. Last year, Greenpeace spokesman Rick Hind told the New York Times, "If there's nothing else and it's going to save lives, we're all for it. Nobody's dogmatic about it."
Well some still are. The frustrating thing is that this hasn't come about due to a sudden new development in research. All relevant information about DDT has been around since before the EPA ban. Everything people had to know to understand the pesticide's safe use and proper function has been available for decades.

What has changed is that malaria became a boutique cause, and the push to end deaths from this preventable disease has grown. So it became trendy to support DDT rather than oppose it.

I'm all for replacing DDT with an even safer, more effective mechanism. There is some work being done on chemicals that interfere with the ability of pests to breed which shows some promise, as it has virtually no effect on humans. But for now, this is our best weapon against malaria, yellow fever, and many other diseases. And, more importantly for developing nations, it's pretty cheap.

At this point, Rachel Carson's book is looking like what it was criticized as being back when it came out: an amateur's look at a complex problem without scientific merit. Alarmist at best, destructive and lethal at worst, Silent Spring was the catalyst for a tremendous evil, all done in the name of doing good.

This is part of the Common Knowledge series: things we know that ain't so.

No comments: