Ever notice how hysteric people claim they are normal, and everyone around them is hysterical? Case in point: Michael Crichton promoting DDT to students while taking leave of his science sense, at Cleveland High School in Reseda, California, in 2005:
Crichton surely knows better.
1. DDT is a known carcinogen for animals. Denialists’ wishes to the contrary, serious cancer fighters list DDT as a suspected human carcinogen.
2. Rachel Carson’s citations are solid, and stand up well today. Nothing Crichton publishes in his novels is so carefully footnoted. Carson offered more than 50 pages of references to the scientific publications that provided the evidence for what she wrote. President Kennedy appointed a panel of top scientists to investigate her claims, the President’s Science Advisory Committee. The headline in The Christian Science Monitor for their report, in May 1963, was “Rachel Carson vindicated.” The panel recommended limiting the use of DDT, much as it is limited today. It’s completely unacceptable for Crichton to claim against all the evidence that Carson’s science was bad. Repeated studies and new studies since 1962 confirm her science firmly. [Update for World Malaria Day 2015: That State Department document has gone missing; see press reports of the PSAC Committee here, and the full text of the report, “Use of Pesticides,” here. A version of MIchael J. Friedman’s article on Rachel Carson, referred to in the first link in this paragraph, can be found here.]
3. Every “ban” on DDT, since the first in 1970 in Europe, has included an out clause to allow use to fight malaria. Crichton seems to have missed out on the facts: DDT ceased to be effective due to the rise of immunity and resistance in targeted mosquito populations, and DDT was never implemented against mosquitoes in other places, due to political reasons unrelated to any environmental concern.
4. DDT was never the panacea against malaria, since it does nothing to cure the disease in humans and it does nothing to fight the parasites themselves. DDT can’t make up for poverty that prevents people from building suitable homes or putting screens in windows, or buying mosquito netting for their children. DDT can’t work if people don’t drain mosquito breeding places around their homes.
5. Eggshell thinning studies were repeated dozens hundreds of times, and DDT and its daughter products are clearly implicated as the culprits in the fatal thinning of eggshells. It is telling that eggshell thicknesses have increased as DDT levels in residual form in tissues of birds has decreased. Crichton also omits more damning evidence: Studies showed that DDT affected the viability of eggs wholly apart from the eggshell problems. DDT kills chicks in the egg.
6. Malaria did not “explode” as a result of the discontinuation of DDT. Over more than a decade, malaria rates rose because the campaign to eradicate malaria aimed for an impossible goal, and overspraying of DDT and political instability hampered efforts to fight malaria. Moreover, DDT was never banned for use against malaria. In many nations where malaria exploded, DDT was the weapon of choice to fight it. DDT often doesn’t work. In Mexico, for example, DDT use was never stopped — DDT use has been constant since 1946. And yet, Mexico has been fighting an increase in malaria for over a decade. Only when Mexico adopted Rachel Carson’s recommendations did they begin to roll back the disease.
7. Crichton gets it right when he notes that the EPA “ban” on DDT included a waiver for use against malaria. But why does he forget that in every other paragraph?
8. Crichton mischaracterizes the Persistant Organic Pollutants (POPs) Treaty, saying that it bans DDT worldwide in the face of knowledge that such a ban was wrong. The treaty specifically allows continued production and use of DDT to fight disease. (Newer links to the POPs Treaty, also known as the Stockholm Convention, here.)
9. 30 million people may have died of malaria in a period Crichton doesn’t define, but it is incorrect to say they died as a result of DDT bans. DDT was still used in the countries where many of those people died (DDT has been in constant use in Mexico since 1946, for example, and malaria has come roaring back there as in other places). DDT was never used in several African nations where governmental instability prevented the creation of programs to fight disease. DDT can’t change governments. The global effort to “eradicate” malaria smashed into the parasites’ development of immunity to several drugs used to treat it in humans. DDT has never been effective in those cases. Crichton misattributes the deaths. (It’s nice he doesn’t cite the more absurd 500 million deaths figure that some people point to.)
10. Crichton’s claim that a lot of Americans “just don’t care” about malaria in Africa, because it harms people of color, is an interesting claim, but his implication that those people are environmentalists, and not the Bush administration which held up funding for malaria fighting, makes his concerns smell hypocritical.
While indicting hysteria against DDT, Crichton invokes hysteria in favor of the chemical. One wishes his science views were not so clouded by his politics.