Decline and fall of the Wall Street Journal — DDT poisoning to blame?

April 27, 2010

Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of the Wall Street Journal provoked groans in 2007, but especially among those of us who had dealt with the news teams of the paper over the previous couple of decades.

For good reason, we now know.  An opposite-editorial page article in the European edition shows why.

Wall Street Journal images - Gothamite New York image

Richard Tren and Donald Roberts, two anti-environmentalist, anti-science lobbyists, wrote a slam at scientists, environmentalists, malaria fighters and the UN, making false claims that these people somehow botched the handling of DDT and allowed a lot of children to die.  Tren, Roberts and the Wall Street Journal should be happy to know that their targeting essentially public figures, probably protects them from libel suits.

Most seriously, the article just gets the facts wrong.  Facts of science and history — easily checked — are simply stated erroneously.  Sometimes the statements are so greatly at odds with the facts, one might wonder if there was malignant intent to skew history and science.

This is journalistic and newspaper malpractice.  Any national journal, like the WSJ, should have fact checkers to check out at least the basic claims of op-ed writers.  Did Murdock fire them all?  How can anyone trust any opinion expressed at the Journal when these guys get away with a yahoo-worthy, fact-challenged piece like this one?

Tren and Roberts make astounding errors of time and place, attributing to DDT magical powers to cross space and time.  What are they thinking?  Here are some of the errors the Journals fact checkers should have caught — did Murdoch fire all the fact checkers?

  1. Beating malaria is not a question of having scientific know howCuring a disease in humans requires medical delivery systems that can diagnose and treat the disease.  DDT does nothing on those scores.  Beating malaria is a question of will and consistency, political will to create the human institutions to do the job.  DDT can’t help there.
  2. DDT wasn’t the tool used to eradicate malaria from the U.S.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control — an agency set up specifically to fight diseases like malaria — says malaria was effectively eradicated from the U.S. in 1939.  DDT’s pesticide capabilities were discovered in mid-1939, but DDT was not available to fight malaria, for civilians, for another seven years.  DDT does not time travel.
  3. DDT doesn’t have a great track record beating malaria, anywhere. Among nations that have beaten malaria, including the U.S., the chief tools used were other than pesticides.  Among nations where DDT is still used, malaria is endemic.  DDT helped, but there is no place on Earth that beat malaria solely by spraying to kill mosquitoes.  Any malaria fighter will tell you that more must be done, especially in improving medical care, and in creating barriers to keep mosquitoes from biting.
  4. Beating malaria in the U.S. involved draining breeding areas, screening windows to stop mosquitoes from entering homes, and boosting medical care and public health efforts. These methods are the only methods that have worked, over time, to defeat malaria.  Pesticides can help in a well-managed malaria eradication campaign, but no campaign based on spraying pesticides has ever done more than provide a temporary respite against malaria.
  5. DDT is not a magic bullet against malaria. Nations that have used DDT continuously and constantly since 1946, like Mexico, and almost like South Africa, have the same malaria problems other nations have.  Nations that have banned DDT have no malaria.
  6. DDT has never been banned across most of the planet.  Even under the pesticide treaty that specifically targets DDT-classes of pesticides for phase out, there is a special exception for DDT.  DDT was manufactured in the U.S. long after it was banned for agricultural use, and it is manufactured today in India and China.  It is freely available to any government who wishes to use it.
  7. People in malaria-prone areas are not stupid. Tren and Roberts expect you to believe that people in malaria-prone nations are too stupid to buy cheap DDT and use it to save their children, but instead require people like Tren and Roberts to tell them what to do.  That’s a pretty foul argument on its face.
  8. DDT is a dangerous poison, uncontrollable in the wild. Tren and Roberts suggest that DDT is relatively harmless, and that people were foolish to be concerned about it.  They ignore the two federal trials that established DDT was harmful, and the court orders under which EPA (dragging its feet) compiled a record of DDT’s destructive potential thousands of pages long.  They ignore the massive fishkills in Texas and Oklahoma, they ignore the astounding damage to reproduction of birds, and the bioaccumulation quality of the stuff, which means that all living things accumulate larger doses as DDT rises through the trophic levels of the food chain.  Predatory birds in American estuaries got doses of DDT multiplied millions of times over what was applied to be toxic to the smallest organisms.
    DDT was banned in the U.S. because it destroys entire ecosystems.  The U.S. ban prohibited its use on agriculture crops, but allowed use to fight malaria or other diseases, or for other emergencies.  Under these emergency rules, DDT was used to fight the tussock moth infestation in western U.S. forests in the 1970s.
  9. Again, DDT’s ban in the U.S. was not based on a threat to human health. DDT was banned because it destroys natural ecosystems. So any claim that human health effects are not large, misses the point.  However, we should not forget that DDT is a known carcinogen to mammals (humans are mammals).  DDT is listed as a “probable human carcinogen” by the American Cancer Society and every other cancer-fighting agency on Earth.  Why didn’t the Journal’s fact checkers bother to call their local cancer society?  DDT is implicated as a threat to human health, as a poison, as a carcinogen, and as an endocrine disruptor.  Continued research since 1972 has only confirmed that DDT poses unknown, but most likely significant threats to human health.  No study has ever been done that found DDT to be safe to humans.
  10. Use of DDT — or rather, overuse of DDT — frequently has led to more malaria. DDT forces rapid evolution of mosquitoes.  They evolve defenses to the stuff, so that future generations are resistant or even totally immune to DDT.  Increasing DDT use often leads to an increase in malaria.
  11. Slandering the World Health Organization (WHO), Rachel Carson, the thousands of physicians in Africa and Asia who fight malaria, or environmentalists who have exposed the dangers of DDT, does nothing to help save anyone from malaria.

Tren and Roberts have a new book out, a history of DDT.  I suspect that much of the good they have to say about DDT is true and accurate.  Their distortions of history, and their refusal to look at the mountain of science evidence that warns of DDT’s dangers is all the more puzzling.

No world class journal should allow such an ill-researched piece to appear, even as an opinion.  Somebody should have done some fact checking, and made those corrections before the piece hit publication.

Full text of the WSJ piece below the fold.

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