Wall Street Journal’s DDT-fueled war on science


I don’t subscribe to the Wall Street Journal — their discounts to educators are lousy.

So I missed this editorial when it ran on April 24, 2010 (page A12), “DDT and population control – malaria still kills one million every year.”

Nominally, that should be good news.  At the peak of DDT use in the early 1960s, malaria killed about 3 million people annually.  By the time we banned DDT use on cotton crops in the U.S., the death toll was still about 2 million people annually.  From the heyday of DDT, we’ve decreased malaria’s death toll, to less than half what it was.

Editorial writers at the Journal don’t let facts get in their way when they go off on a misdirected political jihad or crusade.  Gross error Number 1:  They mislead readers about the facts.

They are claiming that a million is too many (it is), but they claim that the total would be significantly less if only Americans would attack Africa with poison.  We have trouble enough with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it seems to me.  There is no indication that we could reduce malaria rates with a lot of extra poison.  Malaria is a parasite in human blood.  To defeat the disease we have to defeat the infections in humans.  Mosquitoes just spread the disease from one human to another.  DDT does not cure malaria in humans; it is one preventive device of limited effectiveness.

What are they on about?

The Journal’s editorial writers said:

Environmental activists this week marked the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, which happened to fall three days before World Malaria Day. Insofar as Earth Day politics have contributed to today’s malaria epidemic, the two events are related.

You could see this one coming.  The reactionaries at the editorial seek out opportunities to criticize environmentalists, whose cause they see as anti-business.   The Journal’s editorial page usually carries an op-ed piece by Hoover Institute maven Henry I. Miller about once a year (see here, for example), claiming we need DDT to fight West Nile virus.  We don’t, of course.  West Nile virus-carrying mosquitoes are best fought with other pesticides, when pesticides are used.  They need to be hit before adulthood, while they are still larva, in the water.  DDT is exactly wrong for such applications.  But Miller’s piece comes around almost every year, as soon as the first West Nile virus infections in humans are noted.

So, since they so soundly disregard science on that diatribe, why not here, too?  DDT offers a great target for Tea Baggers, Know-Nothings, and truth bashers.  Most of the history of DDT was written before the internet, so it’s easier to spread falsehoods without contradiction.

Disinformation.  Propaganda.  Shame on the Wall Street Journal.

Earth Day and World Malaria Day are related in this way:  Environmentalists warned us that doing the wrong stuff in the environment would make it harder to fight malaria, and they were right.  People who resist clean air and clean water legislation also resist legislation to stop poisoning our planet.  Those people rarely do anything to fight malaria, either.  Human comfort, human health, human survival, is not what they are concerned about.

Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, was a leading opponent of the insecticide DDT, which remains the cheapest and most effective way to combat malarial mosquitoes.

Gaylord Nelson, the father of Earth Day, was governor of Wisconsin when the University of Wisconsin did the first studies showing that songbirds and raptors in Wisconsin were being wiped out by DDT. We should expect him to be an opponent of indiscriminate use of the stuff.  His state was on the road to ruin, and long before the federal government acted against DDT, Wisconsin had laws and regulations to limit its use.  Wisconsin’s wild populations recovered a bit more quickly because Wisconsin had acted.

Gaylord Nelson at the Apostle Islands, Photograph by Frank Wallick, 1967.

Gaylord Nelson at the Apostle Islands, Photograph by Frank Wallick, 1967.

Nelson also knew that, in the U.S., malaria was conquered by 1939 (according to the Centers for Disease Control).  DDT came along in 1946, seven years later.  While DDT was used to control mosquitoes in the U.S., it was for no disease control reasons — that was why so many people opposed the rather pointless use of the stuff.  And I suspect Nelson was savvy enough to know that DDT has not been the cheapest means of controlling mosquitoes for several years.  One application of DDT in Africa costs about $12.00, for the professional who must apply it, and the testing to determine whether DDT will even work.  One application lasts about six months.  So, for a year’s protection, DDT costs about $24.00 per house, per year.

Bednets cost about $10.00, and last about five years.  That works out to $2.00 year.  For $24.00, you could provide a dozen different nets in a home, though most homes would use them only to protect children.

Moreover, recent test runs in Africa show DDT about 25% to 50% effective in reducing malaria incidence, while bednets are about 50% to 85% effective.  Nets are cheaper and more effective.

Doesn’t the Wall Street Journal have fact checkers?  Or do they just not care about the facts?

Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” misleadingly linked pesticides to cancer and is generally credited with popularizing environmental awareness.

Wrong on three fronts.  Carson noted that the family of chemicals from which DDT comes might have links to cancer, but she did not make the claim that DDT is carcinogenic.  DDT was banned because it’s a long-term, deadly poison that destroys ecosystems.  Cancer in humans was not a part of the equation.

However, DDT is now known to be a weak human carcinogen.  Every cancer-fighting agency on Earth lists it as a “probable human carcinogen” (it is confirmed to cause cancer in other mammals).  Can’t the Wall Street Journal find the phone number of the American Cancer Society?

DDT earned its ban because of 20 years of research data by 1972, showing that DDT kills virtually everything it comes in contact with that is smaller than a large man, and it destroys ecosystems.  Talking about DDT’s carcinogenicity is a red herring.  Carson didn’t claim DDT was a significant cause of cancer, nor was DDT banned from agricultural use because anyone thought it was a significant cause of cancer.  Yes, DDT is a weak human carcinogen, contrary to the Journal’s implication; but no, that’s not why it was banned.

Carson’s book certainly ignited concerns about human activities affecting environment other than land development.  But “environmental awareness” is as old as our nation, at least.  A hundred years prior to Rachel Carson’s book, the U.S. set aside the world’s first National Park, Yellowstone.  60 years earlier, Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot led the drive to conserve the nation’s forests.  The Soil Conservation Service, a New Deal program, worked to save soil on farms and unimproved areas, a good 30 years before Carson’s book.  Environmental awareness is an almost-congenital trait in Americans.  Rachel Carson sounded alarms about new reactive chemical combinations.  Americans were already alert to the need to save soil, water, air and wild spaces.

We banned DDT to save our crops and to save our wildlife.  Those are good reasons to keep the ban today.

But other leading greens of the period, including Nelson, biologist Paul Ehrlich and ecologist Garrett Hardin, were also animated by a belief that growth in human populations was harming the environment.

Nelson thought the U.S. needed to slow immigration (see more below).  Ehrlich feared a massive round of starvation, which was staved off only with the Green Revolution and billions of dollars of foreign aid money, the good luck of our having Norman Borlaug and the Rockefeller Foundation, and major economic change in nation’s like India and China.  Hardin pointed out that even the best intentioned people needed a structure to encourage them to conserve, else conservation would not take place.

They all recognized that while any human could minimize her impact on the natural world, no one person could ameliorate all the effects of billions of people.

“The same powerful forces which create the crisis of air pollution also are threatening our freshwater resources, our woods, our wildlife,” said Nelson. “These forces are the rapid increase in population, industrialization, urbanization and scientific technology.”

Notice, please, that Sen. Nelson did not suggest humans should do anything to cause or encourage massive human death (nor did the Journal do the courtesy of noting where they quoted him from).  He merely notes that air pollution and water pollution, and a lack of freshwater, are created by human populations, industry, urban sprawl and technology.  All of these things threaten human health.  Nelson is concerned that we not add to human illness and misery.  That’s not what the Journal’s editorial wants you to think, however.  It will suggest instead that Nelson urged more human suffering and death.

How craven must an editorial board be to accuse good people, falsely, of such sins?

In his book “The Population Bomb,” Mr. Ehrlich criticized DDT for being too effective in reducing death rates and thus contributing to “overpopulation.”

I doubt it.  I can’t find anything quite to that description in my copy of the book.  It’s a common internet legend (one level dumber than urban legend) — but shouldn’t the Wall Street Journal have higher standards than to use for documentation, “my cousin Clem heard a story about a person his aunt once knew?”

Hardin opposed spraying pesticides in the Third World because “every life saved this year in a poor country diminishes the quality of life for subsequent generations.”

Now the Journal is making things up.  In the essay from which the Journal quotes him, Hardin wrote about the dangers of uncontrolled immigration and population growth — almost sounding like an angry Arizona Tea Partier at times — but never did he get close to suggesting that we should not suppress malaria, for any reason.  (Wise readers may wish to see what Hardin actually said, where he really went awry if he did, and how his words resonate today, at his essay, “Living on a Lifeboat.”  Writers at the Journal should be ashamed of savaging the reputation of a guy who is so much in tune with what they usually write.  Notice Hardin does not mention DDT, use of pesticides in foreign nations, malaria, nor any other disease.  He rails at starvation, however.)  When the Wall Street Journal engages in fiction, shouldn’t they let us know?

For these activists, malaria was nature’s way of controlling population growth, and DDT got in the way.

Gee, in context, that’s all fiction. Never did Sen. Gaylord Nelson claim malaria was a good population control tactic, nor that we should stop using DDT to allow more people to die. Those are whole cloth lies. Never did Garrett Hardin say either of those things. Never did Paul Ehrlich say those things.

Cover of 2003 Science Magazine special on Garrett Hardin's essay

Cover of 2003 Science Magazine special on Garrett Hardin's essay, "Tragedyof the Commons"

For anti-science activists, like the writers at the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, falsehoods have become coin of the realm, and DDT is just one more sciency thing to try to use as whip against political opponents. The serious question is, why is the Wall Street Journal opposed to clean air and clean water?  Why are they trying to politicize things at all?

The writers at the Journal continue:

Today, malaria still claims about one million lives every year—mostly women and children in sub-Saharan Africa. There’s no evidence that spraying the chemical inside homes in the amounts needed to combat the disease harms humans, animals or the environment. Yet DDT remains severely underutilized in the fight against malaria because the intellectual descendants of Senator Nelson continue to hold sway at the World Health Organization and other United Nations agencies.

Full disclosure would be good here.  Malaria death rates are at the lowest point in history, at least since 1900.  Yes, too many die — but it’s not the fault of “not enough DDT.”  No nation that uses DDT has ever succeeded in eradicating malaria with pesticides alone.  Only those nations that assaulted malaria from the  human side, treating malaria in human victims, have been successful in eradicating the disease.  DDT use was essentially suspended in Africa by the World Health Organization in about 1965, because overuse of DDT in agriculture had bred mosquitoes that are resistant and immune to the stuff.  No amount of DDT spraying, anywhere, can reverse that.  Spraying DDT where mosquitoes are unaffected by it, is stupid.

Plus, studies indicate a correlation between DDT use, even in those small amounts, and premature deaths to children in the households sprayed.  DDT is not harmless.  DDT is not benign.

DDT has never been banned in Africa, and even under the 2001 Persistent Organic Pesticides Treaty (POPs) DDT has a special carve out to keep it available to fight malaria, despite its being a destroyer of worlds.  So implicit in the Journal’s screed here is that Africans are too stupid or lazy to use a substance that would save their children and themselves from malaria, though it’s available relatively cheaply.

Is DDT “underutilized?”  Again we should ask, why would anyone use DDT where it is not effective? Then we should ask, who would use DDT in fighting disease in Africa, and do they use it?  It turns out that DDT is not completely superfluous to all mosquito populations.  But testing is required to be sure DDT will work — were an organization to use ineffective pesticides, thousands could die, and the testing is therefore a preservation of human life.  And, because of past incidents in Africa, for example when DDT killed off the fish local populations depend on for their food, DDT use is extremely limited, to indoor applications only, and only by trained professionals who limit its spread.

WHO has been using DDT in Africa for indoor residual spraying (IRS) since the 1950s.  Use was slowed when DDT’s effectiveness was compromised.  In recent years WHO held a press conference on DDT to encourage locals who fear DDT poisoning to go along, and since 2005 DDT’s effectiveness appears to be dropping.  But DDT is available for use wherever it is needed to fight malaria in Africa.

Is the Wall Street Journal calling for mass poisoning of Africa?  What else could they be talking about?  Why would they call for such a thing?

The Journal claims WHO and other UN agencies are “under the sway” of Sen. Nelson, and that’s bad?  Let’s be clear:  Nelson didn’t oppose use of DDT in Africa to fight malaria.  UN’s WHO is the leading continent-wide advocate of proper use of DDT to fight malaria.  If the Journal claims that current, appropriate use of DDT is too little, what is the Journal advocating?

The good news is that the Obama Administration has continued the Bush policy of supporting DDT spraying in Zambia, Mozambique and other countries where the locals want it used. “Groups like the Pesticide Action Network have lobbied the U.S. Agency for International Development to stop spraying DDT, and Obama is ignoring them so far,” says Richard Tren of Africa Fighting Malaria, an advocacy group. “They’re prioritizing what makes sense from a science and public health point of view.”

Let’s be clear:  The Bush administration refused to allow U.S. money to be used to purchase DDT, or to use DDT, until about 2005.  Environmental Defense, the organization that first sued to stop DDT use in the U.S., argued for years that DDT should be allowed in the limited use WHO proposed, but Bush’s people stood firmly opposed, though never explaining why.  In any African nation where local people want DDT, it’s freely available with other money, of course.  So U.S. opposition, bizarre as it was, was not and is not a barrier to DDT use.

Most environmental groups favor beating malaria, and if a bit of DDT carefully controlled will help do the trick, so much the better.  While business lobbyists have falsely impugned environmentalists for years on this point, actual opposition to DDT use has come, in Uganda for example, from business groups.  Tobacco growers claim they fear some DDT will somehow get on tobacco leaves, and that will make the stuff unsaleable in the European Union.  Cotton growers fear any faint traces of DDT will ruin sales of organic cotton to the EU.  These business groups sued to stop DDT use against malaria in Uganda.

But environmental organizations, like ED, the Sierra Club, and others, have been fighting malaria for 40 years.

Which is more than we can say for Richard Tren.  Tren is one of two or three of the leading false propagandists for poisoning Africa in the world.  He tells false tales about Rachel Carson, false tales about DDT’s harms and effectiveness, and as best I can tell he has never lifted one finger or written one check to fight malaria himself, while taking tens of thousands of dollars to spread his false tales.

There are dozens of noble malaria fighters out there whose opinions we should seek — Socrates Litsios, the late Fred Soper, to mention two.  Why does the formerly august Wall Street Journal use Richard Tren as a source, when there are authoritative people handy to talk?

DDT helped to eradicate malaria in the U.S. and Europe after World War II, and the U.S. is right to take the lead in reforming public health insecticide policy and putting the lives of the world’s poor above green ideology.

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A12

According to the history of malaria at the CDC, malaria was essentially wiped out in the U.S. by 1939.  DDT was not available for use for another seven years.  Malaria was gone from northern Europe by World War II.  DDT was a tool in the final eradication of the disease in Italy and Greece.  But the main campaign against malaria was in curing the disease in humans, before the mosquito populations could rise up.

Among the nasty facts of science the Journal either does not know, or refuses to say, DDT can’t eradicate mosquitoes.  In anti-malaria campaigns, DDT is used to knock down the mosquito populations temporarily, so that the disease can be cured in humans.  Mosquito populations will quickly rise again, and in even greater numbers — but if there is no human reservoir of malaria parasites for mosquitoes to draw from, they cannot spread the disease.  Malaria parasites must spend part of their life cycle in humans, and part in mosquitoes.

Curing malaria in humans is the tough part.  It requires money to improve medical care, for accurate and speedy diagnoses, and for prompt and complete treatment of the disease in each patient.  Preventing malaria is aided greatly by better-built homes with screens on windows, the sort of stuff that requires people to have more than subsistence incomes.  So beating malaria generally requires economic development, too.

How much easier is it to bash environmentalists than to confront the real causes of malaria.  Bashing environmentalists won’t do anything to relieve human suffering nor eliminate the disease, so we can bash environmentalists again next World Malaria Day, and next Earth Day — all at no cost to us, safe in our Wall Street Journal offices in Manhattan, New York, U.S.A.  The Journal has fallen victim to bold purveyors of junk and voodoo science, and bogus and voodoo history.  Shame on the Journal.

Curing the disease in humans means the mosquitoes are mere nuisances, and no longer vectors of disease.  Killing the mosquitoes with poison means the disease will be back with a vengeance in a few weeks or months.  Curing humans is more difficult, and more costly — but it saves lives and can save Africa.  We cannot poison Africa to health.

It’s curious, though:  How did they get so poisoned by DDT, up in that office building?

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One Response to Wall Street Journal’s DDT-fueled war on science

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sophia R. Matheson. Sophia R. Matheson said: Wall Street Journal's DDT-fueled war on science « Millard …: But testing is required to be sure DDT will work — … http://bit.ly/dxGMhn [...]

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