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.
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?
- Beating malaria is not a question of having scientific know how. Curing 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Here’s what they wrote:
- OPINION EUROPE
- APRIL 8, 2010, 4:24 P.M. ET
About Those Malaria Goals
Modern science, including insecticides, saves lives. Too bad environmentalists and regulators, from Washington to Brussels, are so eager to stop it.
World Marlaria Day is coming up later this month. So as public health groups gather to bring attention to the mosquito-borne disease that kills almost one million people annually, and inflicts fever and pain on some 500 million more, expect many calls for its eradication.
Unfortunately, thanks to activist campaigns and ill-considered European laws, things are likely to get worse before they get better.
The sad truth about malaria is that it persists even though we have had the scientific know-how to combat it since the 1940s. That was when researchers discovered that the chemical dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, or DDT, could stop epidemics of insect-borne diseases like typhus. The chemical soon surpassed all expectations in controlling malaria around the world, and went on to save millions of lives.
Thanks to DDT, malaria was eradicated as an endemic disease more than 50 years ago in Europe and the U.S. It is today a disease of the poor, afflicting 109 countries across Latin America, Asia, and Africa.
As environmental awareness took off in the 1960s and 1970s, activists became unduly concerned about the potentially harmful effects of DDT and other pesticides. Much of the worry was scientifically unfounded: DDT largely remains in the local area where it was sprayed, and no studies have been able to link environmental exposure to DDT as a specific cause of harm to human health.
Moreover, because of the unique ways in which DDT works to keep mosquitoes out of houses, there was (and is) no alternative that combats malaria with the same efficacy.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT for almost all uses in the 1970s, and the anti-insecticide movement went on to achieve global momentum. Even though DDT could legally still be used for malaria control, pressure from environmentalists led international aid donors and health organizations to abandon the chemical. In developing nations with poor medical infrastructure, malaria reemerged.
You would think that would have been enough to make anti-insecticide activists reconsider their stance. Instead, in 1997, even as poor countries were suffering from a global pandemic of dengue fever and resurgent malaria, the U.N. World Health Organization adopted a resolution calling on all countries to reduce the use of insecticides for disease control.
A decade later, Brussels took a giant step in its own anti-insecticide campaign. In January of 2009, the European Parliament approved new rules to ban certain chemicals used in common pesticides. The new regulations created a great deal of uncertainty, and the implications are still not fully clear. For example, the EU banned substances thought to be “endocrine disruptors,” but there is no agreed definition of what one is. Regulators appeared to base their decisions on whether a pesticide was proven hazardous in a lab setting—when they should have focused on the real world risks based on how pesticides are actually used.
Though the rules apply only to the EU, the global harm that could come out of this is very real. Haphazard rulemaking scares away producers, even before a ban goes into effect. With fewer manufacturers in the marketplace, prices go up, making the chemical harder and harder to obtain.
As a result of this process, over the past few years some 75% of the insecticides used in agriculture in Europe have come off the market. In other words, just when we need a greater variety of insecticides for public health applications, we are left with an ever-dwindling number of chemicals.
Bans also scare off exporters: Many developing countries have stopped using DDT to fight human diseases for fear that their agricultural exports will not be allowed into Europe if the tiniest residues happen to be found on produce.
If we really want to roll back malaria, regulators will have to start making decisions based on sound science. The decades-long drive to ban DDT and other pesticides has done just the opposite, advancing the unfounded belief that somehow all chemicals are harmful in any amount.
The truth is that nearly everything we consume contains potentially hazardous chemicals. Coffee and wine have carcinogens in them, and the icing on chocolate cake includes tannins, an acidic substance that can cause anemia if ingested in excessive quantities. Whether such chemicals harm us or not depends on the dose and circumstances. To eliminate chemicals from our lives simply because they are man-made would mean eliminating most of modern medicine and agricultural science.
Besides, a vast body of evidence shows that many natural substances are far more biologically active and potentially harmful than our man-made chemicals, which are heavily tested for harmful effects long before they appear as commercial products.
By all means we should have big goals for World Malaria Day. But before we can achieve them, we’ll have to start putting science first.
Mr. Tren is the director of Africa Fighting Malaria, and Mr. Roberts is a retired entomologist and professor of tropical public health at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. Their book “The Excellent Powder: DDT’s Political and Scientific History,” will be published later this month by Africa Fighting Malaria.
Can you tell me what Africa Fighting Malaria has ever done to actually fight malaria?