Anti-science and anti-environment protection advocates appear to be ramping up their campaign to poison Africa with DDT. Whether it’s related to U.S. President George Bush’s last-gasp trip to Africa or something else, is difficult to determine.
The vicious campaign is popping up everywhere. Is there too much vitriol against sanity to be more than coincidence?
Religionist Neil Simpson’s poke in the eye of reason got me going this time. In “Dangerous environmentalism” he hits just about every false claim against environmentalists and every false claim for DDT in just a few paragraphs — he got it from Steve Forbes and repeated it without bothering to consider whether Forbes was engaging in ill-informed rant.
The rant hits so many of the favorite punching bags of the modern angry white male bigot: Intellectuals (those scientists and environmentalists with their college degrees), women and women’s rights (Rachel Carson didn’t marry, and fought her way to prominence in fields men dominated), history (they wish it weren’t so, and if they repeat what they want history to have been, maybe Santayana’s Ghost will leave them alone — not that they are ever bothered by repeating historical error), race (never miss a chance to accuse scientists, environmentalists, intellectuals and other “liberals” with race bigotry), foreign aid (see, we can just poison Africa back to health — if you’d just stop sending them money for bed nets and good medical care, DDT is all they need).
This is the money line from Forbes:
Yet in one of history’s more murderously myopic ongoing actions, most advanced countries and international agencies discourage its use. Why? Blame Rachel Carson’s seismically influential–and now largely discredited–book, Silent Spring, first published in 1962. In it she blames DDT for imperiling birds and people, portraying it as a blight of almost biblical proportions. It ain’t so. As Dr. Elizabeth Whelan of the American Council on Science & Health once put it, there “has never been a documented case of human illness or death in the U.S. as a result of the standard and accepted use of pesticides.” The British medical journal The Lancet similarly notes that after 40 years of research no significant health threat from DDT has been found.
Count the errors:
- The treaty that regulates the phase out of long-lasting, environmentally-damaging and human-killing poisons has a carve-out provision that specifically allows the use of DDT for limited indoor use (see Annex B); this treaty was negotiated at the end of the 20th century, eight years ago [1999 taking effect in 2001]. It represents the official position of “advanced countries and international agencies.” The treaty position is exactly the opposite of Forbes’ claim. How many years behind is Forbes in his reading? one might wonder.
- No one has ever discredited any significant part of Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring. Exactly contrary to Forbes’ claim, the book was found to be scientifically solid by a specially-appointed group of science advisors to President Kennedy, in 1963 [full text of “Use of Pesticides,” here]; it was found solid by later research by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Discover Magazine recently noted that there are more than 1,000 follow-up references since 1962 that verify Carson’s work.*
- Carson’s book accurately noted the damage to birds — not a single incident she recounts has ever been seriously questioned. The stories have been distorted and wild claims made against the distortions — but there is not a single study anywhere which contradicts Carson’s claims about damage to birds. Carson worried about human health effects, but stopped far short of saying DDT kills humans. Subsequent research has won DDT a listing as a probable human carcinogen by all of the world’s most respected and conservative health agencies, every single one.
- Elizabeth Whelan’s career is built on slamming scientists and science. But apart from the dubious provenance of the source, look at what Forbes quotes her as saying. Never a death in the U.S. as a result of using DDT in the limited way it’s now used in the U.S. There have been deaths outside the U.S. (and my recollection is at least one in the U.S.); and the methods that have prevented deaths are the banning of DDT for broadcast use, and extremely limited use at any time. She’s right: No deaths can be attributed to the non-use of DDT. She doesn’t say DDT isn’t a poison, or that it is not carcinogenic. She doesn’t account for deaths outside the U.S. She doesn’t get close to accounting for damage to wildlife and African food supplies from DDT. Half-truth to whole lie.
(It is often useful to remind critics that DDT was not banned because of dangers to human health, but instead because of its damage to beneficial animals outdoors. It’s also good to remind them that DDT was specifically reinserted into disease fighting by the EPA order in 1972 that banned DDT use on crops, only in the U.S.)
Then, with no sense for the irony, Simpson extols the virtues of mosquito netting.
The Nothing But Net drive faces implicit opposition chiefly from interests who claim poisoning with DDT is a better idea.
One wishes critics of Rachel Carson would show a bit of Christian charity, calling for bed nets, but avoiding unjustified and misinformed calumny against Carson and environmentalists, who have labored intensively for 40 years to fight malaria.
One gets the idea it’s not malaria these pundits worry about.
A few words about totalitarianism below the fold.
Update, February 16, 2008: Creationists like to claim that evolution theory leads to evil-doing, generally claiming that both Stalin and Hitler were inspired by Darwin’s theory. History is quite contrary to such claims — Stalin persecuted and murdered teachers and researchers of Darwin’s ideas, Hitler rejected Darwin completely, officially choosing the Biblical “heritage in the blood” theory, and refusing to allow the establishment of life-saving blood banks as a result.
So creationists actually share their distaste of Darwin with both of the evil-doers they name.
Creationists also share a preference for totalitarian control of media and ideas. 4 Simpsons author Neil Simpson complained about my frequent corrections of his errors a year ago, and banned me from commenting on his blog. I had hoped that after a year he’d have repented, and come around to a Christian view of listening to counter opinions.
So I posted this on his blog last night:
Railing at environmentalists saves no lives. Especially with the results over the past two years from the Gates Foundation projects, it’s clear that medical care and bed nets are much better solutions than DDT.
DDT is, after all a deadly poison. Rachel Carson was absolutely correct. More than 1,000 follow-up studies verified her findings, and not a single serious study contradicted anything she claimed.
Dr. Whelan’s comments are peculiar. We know what the fatal doses of DDT are from human deaths. The deaths were not in the U.S.? How lucky for us. How dishonest to make that limited claim.
Whelan has been claiming environmentalists were wrong for 30 years. 30 million kids died while she did nothing to help them.
And then she has the gall to blame Rachel Carson?
You won’t allow this comment to stand long, I know, Neil — but it’s the truth. Shame on Whelan, shame on her allies, and shame on all who fiddle while children die, blaming environmentalists who were correct in their assessment.
Rachel Carson warned that if the abuse of DDT were not ended quickly, it would harm humans. The abuse continued, mosquitoes became immune to DDT — and then Carson gets the blame.
If you really care for the kids, Neil, you’ll get the facts. The facts are that Carson was right.
And, by the way, it was Rachel Carson who advocated “use of tiny amounts [of DDT] inside a house or hut” as has been approved all along. Such use is not only legal, but common in Africa. It’s not enough. DDT is no panacea.
We can’t use DDT to poison away our failure to act to save the children.
Today? Simpson still bans ideas contrary to his own. He has struck down my comments.
Not just willfully ignorant of the facts, but forcibly and belligerently so.
Neil Simpson’s blog behavior makes P. Z. Myers’ in-your-face atheism look graceful in contrast. Check the fruit: It shows whether the tree is good or not.
* From Discover, November 2007:
In fact, Carson may have underestimated the impact of DDT on birds, says Michael Fry, an avian toxicologist and director of the American Bird Conservancy’s pesticides and birds program. She was not aware that DDT—or rather its metabolite, DDE—causes eggshell thinning because the data were not published until the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was eggshell thinning that devastated fish-eating birds and birds of prey, says Fry, and this effect is well documented in a report (pdf) on DDT published in 2002 by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). The report, which cites over 1,000 references, also describes how DDT and its breakdown products accumulate in the tissues of animals high up on terrestrial and aquatic food chains—a process that induced reproductive and neurological defects in birds and fish.