John Stossel: Wrong again, on DDT


John Stossel’s new book makes a detour to rail against the regulation of DDT and against Rachel Carson and her book, Silent Spring.

I’ve not read the book, but from what I’ve read about it, he’s got it dead wrong.  If the example offered by Grokmedia is their own, and not Stossel’s, shame on them.  (Stossel’s complained about DDT before, though, and gotten the facts as wrong as Grokmedia has them.)  The claims are unbelievable:

Consider the chemical DDT. I’m sure, if you’ve heard anything at all about DDT, it’s that it’s a horrible, deadly chemical, that must be banned to preserve the public’s safety. The truth is, the only thing DDT affects are mosquitos. Not humans. In fact, I’m old enough to remember trucks pulling through our neighborhood and spraying the stuff into the air, like gigantic clouds, bringing death – to the mosquito population. These clouds of DDT harmed no one. There were no great increases in any kind of cancer or other fatal diseases – and certainly none that could be associated with DDT. Enter the book, Silent Spring.

A woman by the name of Rachel Carson wrote a book that vilified DDT, and blamed our love of chemical solutions for her own cancer. (She died of breast cancer two years after the publication of her book.) Silent Spring is almost single-handedly credited with triggering a worldwide ban on DDT. The result of this ban has been, paradoxically enough, millions of deaths in countries like Ethiopia, where malaria kills due to mosquito infestations. U.S. aid policy bans sending money to any country that chooses to spray with DDT.

How did Silent Spring cause this wave of destruction? Marketing. The book was marketed by it’s publishers. The marketing efforts attracted the attention of a mainstream media hungry for stories that scare the populace to death. The unwashed masses Demanded That Something Be Done. Politicians, eager to grandstand (and free of conciences that might give them pause to think about the Law of Unintended Consequences) passed laws, and that was that.

Here’s what I wrote in comments to the post at Grokmedia, which appears to have gone into their own hell for any post that disagrees with their views:

Stossel said that about DDT?  Once again, he’s gone off the rails.

Do you seriously think that a book publisher with its meager PR budget could derail a multi-billion-dollar pesticide manufacturing industry that was led by several of America’s top 100 corporations?  Do you think corporations are really that incompetent at the public relations game?

The truth is that DDT was banned because of its harm to the environment, not due to its dangers to human health (though, to be perfectly accurate we should note that every cancer-fighting agency on Earth says DDT is a probably human carcinogen, and recent research has strengthened the links between cancer in people exposed to DDT in their mother’s breast milk and in utero, and that DDT is now known to be a rather nasty endocrine disruptor in all animals).  More than a thousand studies confirmed the dangers of DDT to birds and other predators higher up in food chains, especially in estuarine waters.

No one passed a law banning DDT.  If the action was popular, that was beside the point.  In 1962, in response to the half-million-dollar slander campaign against Carson by the pesticide manufacturers (don’t take my word for it — look it up), President Kennedy asked his Science Advisory Council to scrutinize the book.  In May 1963 they reported back that Carson was correct on all counts but one — they said Carson went too easy on the dangers of DDT, and that action needed to be taken right away to stop its use.  Kennedy dallied, however, and did little before he died.

The “ban” on DDT came nearly a decade later, in 1972.  It was not due to any “junk science” law (an interesting claim since it is based on junk science itself).  Two federal courts had ordered EPA to speed up its analysis of the registration of the pesticide, in lieu of simply ordering the stuff off the market after two entirely different lawsuits.  Pesticide manufacturers had been defendants in both lawsuits, and they put up a more than vigorous fight — but they lost on the science.

EPA dragged its feet, but finally acted against DDT in 1972, effectively banning the broadcast spraying of DDT on crops, but leaving it available for things like malaria control.  Of course the ruling was challenged in court, since under U.S. law, had the ruling been only popular, and not based on considerable evidence, the courts would have been obligated to nullify the ruling.  In two separate challenges, the courts ruled that EPA’s action was solidly based on the scientific evidence, and therefore would stand.

That’s quite a bit different from the picture Stossel paints, I gather.  Is this, perhaps, his first foray into fiction?

And, did you catch the contradictions?  The author claims mosquito abatement in Ethiopia is hampered by a lack of U.S. aid, as a result of Rachel Carson’s book in 1962.  Do they know that George Bush is president?  Do they really think Bush and Cheney are tools of Rachel Carson?  Do they know that bed nets have cut malaria rates by half where they were used in Ethiopia?

Looks like another example of DDT poisoning to me.

4 Responses to John Stossel: Wrong again, on DDT

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Hey, Brad? You never did let my comments out of moderation. See that paragraph down there where you talk about full disclosure, and mob rule, and other stuff related at least tangentially to information freedom?

    Grokmedia = media fail.

    Rachel Carson is still right. John Stossel is still wrong. Hiding that information is still a shill job for a corporate interests with poison to sell.

    You said:

    Full disclosure is a great idea, and protects the public far better than a witch hunt. With full disclosure, everybody can make up their own minds. When you ban something in response to a media campaign started by some special interest group, are you serving the public interest, or the special interest group’s goals?

    But, you were kidding. Drat.

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  2. […] This is what “scare tactics” actually do it kills people!!I could post article after article on this subject. Yet you have probably never heard of it! Because of this  millions yes millions […]

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  3. Ed Darrell says:

    Having worked with the National Cancer Institute closely for about a decade, especially in tracking cancers from radiation, but also in cancers from chemicals, and having worked with the National Science Foundation and National Academies of Science, I can say that you can’t tell whether anyone you know died of a DDT-induced cancer or not. DDT is, in fact, a rather weak human carcinogen, but with cancer, there is no threshhold level below which any exposure is safe. Cancer is like pregnancy — you can get it the first time.

    But of course, carcinogenicity was not the reason DDT’s registraiton was removed for broadcast spraying. DDT was found to decimate natural ecosystems. It’s deadly to almost everything below a human in size, and none to helpful to cows, pigs and sheep.

    Worse, when sprayed broadcast style to get mosquitoes, it kills the predators of the mosquitoes much more efficiently and permanently than it kills mosquitoes. So use of DDT spreads malaria-causing mosquitoes in areas where malaria is endemic. It’s counterproductive. It won’t kill you directly, but it will greatly increase your chances of getting malaria.

    Human toxicity wasn’t the reason it was banned from agriculture.

    Gordon Edwards, after he went around the bend, used to take a teaspoon of DDT before every lecture he gave on the stuff. He died of what looked like acute DDT poisoning, but there was no autopsy — he was 84, after all. So people continue to say it’s safe for humans because of this stupid publicity stunt. Edwards’ research against DDT was never replicated by anyone else. He couldn’t get it published, and ultimately joined Lyndon Larouche’s oddball political band to rail against controls on DDT. You can read Edwards’ crank claims at the oddly, appropriately titled site, “Junk Science.” While claiming to be opposed to junk science, that site promotes junk science in a grand way.

    A worse authority on DDT than Edwards would be difficult to find. Well, Joe Stalin and Mao ze Dong may have endorsed DDT, but no one cares about them. They would be worse authorities.

    I remember the Alar stuff very well. I was present at some of the Senate hearings, and my friends in my old office kept me apprised (I’d moved on to the executive branch). The manufacturers could not document any of their claims for health. Apple prices have dropped as best I can tell, and organic apples, with the occasional brown spot, now make up a significant portion of the apple market in the U.S. Japan will now accept U.S. apples on occasion, but they still complain that the U.S. didn’t act fast enough against Alar. Alar was used to control the growth of apple flower buds, and the maturation of the fruit — it acts as an endocrine controller, or disruptor. Such chemicals are often found to be carcinogens, since they act on parts of cells that are involved in cancers. And, if I recall correctly, it was the manufacturers who decided to stop using the stuff. Free market and all that stuff — it really works.

    I believe EPA had listed alar as a probable human carcinogen, and only by taking the stuff off the market could Union Carbide keep the damaging studies from being published. This is not one of the issues I track, though now noting the involvement of crank scientist extraordinaire Elizabeth Whelan, who argues alar is perfectly safe, I suppose I should put it on the hoax watch.

    My point is that the alar “scare” was not damaging, while perhaps not fully justified.

    So the Alar incident doesn’t carry any water with me as to making a case for DDT. It was another case of chemical manufacturers pushing way too much use of a chemical whose effects were little known, and then stonewalling the public when damaging information finally emerged.

    Ethiopians are not much happy with DDT. Ironically, businessmen in Africa are suing to stop the very limited use of the stuff now. They claim it damages their crops, and makes them unsalable. So if you’re going to claim someone is using DDT as a whipping boy, you need to point that gun at the business interests who are doing that, and not at scientists or environmentalists, who are not complaining about very limited use of DDT.

    As to bednets, the research is quite clear that bednets are cheaper than DDT, much safer (even when impregnated with DDT!), and they last much longer. In the long run, the nets offer a golden opportunity to recapture the initiative against malaria. Nets will work without DDT. Scientists who invest their lives trying to beat malaria say that DDT spraying is problematic (it drives mosquitoes to evolve resistance to the poison, which makes the bugs much more powerful), and not a panacea by any stretch. Nets can work without DDT. DDT without all the other malaria-fighting tools, is counterproductive, and expensive.

    I object to the demonizing of science, scientists, government workers and health workers who fight malaria. DDT has never been banned for use against malaria. DDT use in Africa was stopped in the mid-1960s because it had ceased to be effective against the vector mosquitoes. The ban in the U.S., on broadcast spraying, came years later. This demonizing is wholly unjustified in the case of DDT — the stuff is much more dangerous, we now know, than we thought it was in 1972. (DDT is an endocrine disruptor, which messes with the reproductive organs of fish, lizards, insects, birds and mammals — including humans. You won’t get cancer, but it will shrink your son’s testes and turn him hermaphroditic. Cancer might seem a better alternative in the long run.)

    Stossel’s case against DDT is mostly fiction, poorly researched, and demonizes good people exactly the way you say you object to.

    Companies who made DDT were sued when the science said it was bad — the first reports against DDT started coming in the mid-1940s, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service had large dossiers of the harms of the stuff by 1960. EPA’s action to suspend the registration was taken only after two separate federal courts ordered the agency to carry out the procedures outlined in law, because in open court the evidence against DDT was so powerful that it required government action.

    After EPA suspended registration for agricultural use, DDT manufacturers sued. Under U.S. law, agencies may not pass bans without substantial scientific evidence to back their actions. Two appellate courts gave summary judgment for EPA, the case against DDT was so strong. I have detailed this material in several different posts on this blog, and you can find more at Deltoid and at http://www.someareboojums.org/blog/index.php?s=DDT, and at Bug Girl.

    Malaria came roaring back because the pharmaceuticals used to treat the disease in humans became ineffective — the malaria parasites also evolved resistance. DDT was never useful in that realm, and increasing DDT use now will have absolutely no effect on drug invention, production, distribution and delivery, all of which are key problem areas right now. Yelling for DDT’s return, as Stossel does, only fogs up the real needs, and detracts from the fight against malaria, ultimately.

    Surely Stossel knows that. He has access to the best research, the best sources — why does he continue his campaign that aids the spread of malaria? I can’t figure it out.

    The knee-jerk reaction I think you should worry about is the knee-jerk reaction to claim environmentalists and scientists were wrong, when they were right, simply because it’s fun to ridicule science nerds. Science isn’t really that difficult to understand. If it were, the campaign against science, especially in the case of the junk science DDT advocates, would be less malicious.

    We’re not talking an area where the science is fuzzy. DDT’s harms are well known, and have been amply documented over 60 years. There are literally thousands of good, peer-reviewed studies done on the harms of DDT. Gordon Edwards was a great guy, but a crank on this issue — and neither he nor anyone else has ever published any study that calls into question any part of the great body of literature that makes the powerful case for controlling DDT.

    If you’re worried about demonizing, stop demonizing DDT and the good people who are saving your kids from premature menses and shrunken testes — and cancer. Recent studies show a rather strong link to cancer that had not been considered earlier. DDT exposure of the mother also exposes the fetus and the baby — and it is the daughters of these women who get breast cancer. Breast cancer rates are rising wherever DDT is used. It’s rather shocking that anyone would urge the use of a known animal carcinogen whose use is known to be counterproductive in controlling disease, and whose use is demonstrated to harm so many other non-target species, including humans.

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  4. Brad Kozak says:

    Dear Ed:

    Thanks for reading my blog, and thanks for posting. Your reply was not lost – I moderate my posts, not to keep out opinions that differ from my own, but because most of the comments I receive are marketing spam. Moderating posts seems to be the only way I can keep offers for Viagra, mortgage refinancing, and other Really Important Offers out of my blog. I check my blog comments log about once a day. Yours has been approved. I’ve recently installed Disqus, in an attempt to bring my blog to a wider audience – and frankly, I’m not sure if that’s jacking with my comments or not – at least not yet. But hey – feel free to comment again…especially if you disagree with me. I take on all comers, and I’d rather have an honest debate than a bunch of “ditto” comments any day.

    And now to the meat and potatoes of your comments…

    I’ve read Stossel’s book (evidently you haven’t). I’ve not read Silent Spring, however, I have read a lot of data about DDT. Being raised in the Deep South, I have an up close and personal experience with mosquitoes. (As a kid growing up in Shreveport, we grew ’em bigger than horse flies.) I remember trucks going down our street, dusting with DDT. Apparently, with DDT, a little dab’ll do ya, but I can testify that nobody I know has contracted any kind of cancer associated with any effects from exposure to DDT.

    I wish I could find the source, but I recall reading an interview with one scientist who actually ate a spoonful of DDT to prove that it will not cause harm to the human body. (I know, I know…ingesting it and breathing it – or absorbing it through the skin are different things.) The point is, if used in moderation, DDT can do a lot more good than harm. That’s not my opinion. It’s the opinion of a lot of articles I’ve read that were backed up with published research. It’s great that the U.S. is giving away mosquito nets to the Ethiopians. But if DDT would kill the mosquitoes (and not the Ethiopians) if used properly, wouldn’t that be a better solution?

    The problem here is that DDT has become the whipping boy for the “science/chemicals are evil” crowd. This is not an isolated occurrence either. Remember the Alar scare? That noted scientist Meryl Streep appeared before a Congressional committee, and cried that rallying cry of those who value symbolism over substance, “for the children.” Look. I’m a proud father of a beautiful, talented 10 year old daughter, and I’d sooner cut off my arm than to see her hurt (or allow her to be hurt). She loves apples. I love for her to eat them. I want her to have safe food. But was Alar really dangerous? Apparently not, but the special interest groups wouldn’t hear of it.No matter…it’s no longer on the market, thanks to those special interest groups that hit the panic button. As a result, apples cost more, but are no safer than they were before. The net-net is that lot of poor people can’t afford apples, because the costs went up as yields went down.

    Good job, Meryl.

    What I object to is the demonizing of a product, via mob rule. If something is dangerous, let’s weigh it’s relative advantages against it’s dangers. Full disclosure is a great idea, and protects the public far better than a witch hunt. With full disclosure, everybody can make up their own minds. When you ban something in response to a media campaign started by some special interest group, are you serving the public interest, or the special interest group’s goals?

    Note that I make an exception for products that harm people when their manufacturers KNOW they are dangerous AND HIDE THE EVIDENCE OF THAT DANGER FROM THE PUBLIC. That’s criminal. But when companies are sued because they made and sold a product well before it’s dangers were discovered, those that sue are opportunistic vultures. In life, bad things happen. Sometimes they happen to good people. That doesn’t mean somebody who is blameless should have to shoulder the blame, especially after the fact.

    I’m not a scientist, nor do I play one on TV. (Neither does Stossel, for that matter.) I’m interested in the topic of DDT, largely because I believe that, too often, the Chicken Littles of the world are exerting an undue influence over our government – and the court of public opinion. That’s the point I was trying to make in my blog – that our country needs to stop our knee-jerk reactions to things. As marketers (remember, my blog is about marketing), I recommended that companies – and marketers – make sure their marketing claims are accurate and true. Marketing is all about compelling and convincing prospects to buy your product or service. I foresee a time where the ambulance chasers and special interest groups will target those that craft marketing campaigns in addition to companies that make what they believe are bad products. That’s a scary thought for someone in my business, but I believe that those of us that insist on ethics in marketing will prevail. After all, the truth will (eventually) set us free…won’t it?

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