Hoaxing Congress: Claiming DDT as pixie dust

March 9, 2011

Tuesday morning, March 8,  the Republican-controlled House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce opened hearings on global warming, staging an assault on science with a series of witnesses, some of whom recently have made a career out of mau-mauing scientists.

Dr. Donald Roberts' testimony to the House Committee on Energy and Power, on March 8, 2011, presented a grand collection of Bogus History, coupled with Bogus Science.

Dr. Donald Roberts’ testimony to the House Committee on Energy and Power, on March 8, 2011, presented a grand collection of Bogus History, coupled with Bogus Science. Roberts has an unfortunate history of presenting doctored data and false claims to Congress.

One witness took after the EPA directly and Rachel Carson by implication, with a specious claim that DDT is harmless.  Donald Roberts is a former member of the uniformed public health service.  Since retiring, and perhaps for a while before, he started running with a bad crowd.  Of late he’s been working with the Merry Hoaxsters of the unrooted Astroturf organization Africa Fighting Malaria (AFM), a group dedicated to publishing editorials tearing down the reputation of Rachel Carson, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

(That would all be purple prose, were it not accurate in its description of people, organizations and their actions.)

Here’s a link to Roberts’ written testimony at the committee website.

(Here’s a link to all the other written stuff from the March 8 hearing.) [April 27, 2015: These two cites now link to the Democratic Minority record; GOP site was moved or taken down.]

Why was Roberts testifying at a hearing on global warming?  He’s carrying water for the anti-science, “please-do-nothing” corporate crowd.  It’s a tactic from the old tobacco lobbyist book:  Roberts claims that scientists got everything wrong about DDT, and that the ban on DDT done in error has wreaked havoc in the third world.  Therefore, he says, we should never trust scientists.  If scientists say “duck!” don’t bother, in other words.

Roberts is in error.  Scientists, especially Rachel Carson, were dead right about DDT.  Because corporate interests refused to listen to them, the overuse and abuse of DDT rendered it ineffective in the fight against malaria, and DDT use as part of a very ambitious campaign to eradicate malaria had to be abandoned in 1965.  The entire campaign had to be abandoned as a result, and more than 30 million kids have died since.

So don’t grant credence to Roberts now.  He’s covering up one of the greatest industrial screw-ups in history, a screw up that, by Roberts’ own count, has killed 30 million kids.  What in the world would motivate Roberts to get the story so wrong, to the detriment of so many kids?

Roberts said:

Putting issues of EPA budget aside, I want to introduce my technical comments with a quote from a recent Associated Press article with a lead statement “none of EPA’s actions is as controversial as its rules on global warming.”  In my opinion, this is wrong.

Dr. Donald Roberts testifying to the House Energy Committee, March 8, 2011. Screen capture from Committee video.

Dr. Donald Roberts testifying to the House Energy Committee, March 8, 2011. Screen capture from Committee video.

Roberts is correct here in his opinion.  It is simply wrong that EPA’s rules on global warming and controls of the pollutants that cause it should be controversial.  Among air pollution scientists the rules are not controversial.  Among climate scientists the rules are not controversial.  Roberts and his colleagues at the so-called Competitive Enterprise Institute, Africa Fighting Malaria (AFM), and American Enterprise Institute (AEI) work hard to manufacture controversy where the science does not support their case.

It is wrong.  Roberts should be ashamed.

Roberts said:

Almost forty years ago EPA banned DDT in the United States. Its action against DDT was extraordinarily controversial, and still is. As activists advanced fearful claims against DDT, the EPA was warned, over and over again, a ban would destroy critically important disease control programs and millions upon millions of poor people in developing countries would die as consequence. Leaders of the World Health and Pan American Health Organizations, and even the U.S. Surgeon General warned against the ban. The EPA banned DDT anyway, and the doomsday predictions of those public health leaders proved prescient.

Hmmm.  Roberts signed a “truth in testimony” statement — but that’s not the truth, even if no one paid him to fib.

EPA’s ban on DDT in the U.S. was limited to the United States.  Roberts doesn’t say it flat out, but he implies that the U.S. ban on spraying DDT on cotton fields in Texas and Arkansas — and cotton was about the only crop where DDT was still used — somehow caused a ban on DDT in Africa, or Asia, or South America, or other places where malaria still occurs.

Not so.

In fact, EPA Director William Ruckelshaus defied two federal courts who had ordered a complete ban on DDT use and manufacturing — and left U.S. manufacturing to continue for export markets.  This met all objections to the U.S. ban from all health officials.  DDT use could be allowed in the U.S. for health reasons, or for other emergencies (DDT was used in the Pacific Northwest against the tussock moth in 1974, after the “ban”).  Because U.S. DDT manufacturing was dedicated to export, the ban on domestic use of DDT effectively multiplied the stocks of DDT available to fight malaria, or river blindness, or any other insect vector disease.

I’m also not sure that health officials “pleaded” to stop the U.S. ban on any grounds, but certainly they did not plead with Ruckelshaus to keep spraying DDT on cotton.  Roberts is making stuff up in effect, if not in intent.

Probably more to the point, health officials had stopped significant use of DDT in Africa in 1965, seven years before EPA acted in the U.S., because overuse of DDT on crops in Africa had bred mosquitoes that were resistant and immune to the stuff. Since 1955, in close cooperation with the malaria-fighting experts from the Rockefeller Foundation including the great Fred Soper, WHO carried on a methodical, militant campaign to wipe out malaria.  The program required that public health care be beefed up to provide accurate malaria diagnoses, and complete treatment of human victims of the parasitic disease.  Then an army of house sprayers would move in, dosing the walls of houses and huts with insecticide.  Most malaria-carrying mosquitoes at the time would land on the walls of a home or hut after biting a human and getting a blood meal, pausing to squeeze out heavy, excess water to make flight easier.  If the wall were coated with an insecticide, the mosquito would die before being able to bite many more people, maybe before becoming capable of spreading malaria.

DDT was Soper’s insecticide of choice because it was long-lasting — six months or more — and astonishingly deadly to all small creatures it contacted.

But, as Malcolm Gladwell related in his 2001 paean to Soper in The New Yorker, Soper and his colleagues well understood they were racing against the day that mosquitoes became resistant enough to DDT that their program would not work.  They had hoped the day would not arrive until the late 1970s or so — but DDT is such an effective killer that it greatly speeds evolutionary processes.  In the mid-1960s, before an anti-malaria campaign could even be mounted in most of Subsaharan Africa, resistant and immune mosquitoes began to stultify the campaign.  By 1965, Soper’s crews worked hard to find a substitute, but had to switch from DDT.  By 1972 when the U.S. banned DDT use on cotton in the U.S., it was too late to stop the resistance genes from killing WHO’s anti-malaria program.  In 1969 WHO formally abandoned the goal of malaria eradication.  The fight against malaria switched to control.

Roberts claims, implicitly, that people like those who worked with Soper told EPA in 1971 that DDT was absolutely essential to their malaria-fighting efforts.  That could not be accurate.  In 1969 the committee that oversaw the work of the UN voted formally to end the malaria eradication project.  In effect, then, Roberts claims UN and other health officials lied to EPA in 1971.  It is notable that Soper is credited with eradicating malaria from Brazil by 1942, completely without DDT, since DDT was not then available.  Soper’s methods depended on discipline in medical care and pest control, and careful thought as to how to beat the disease — DDT was a help, but not necessary.

Interestingly, the only citation Roberts offers is to his own, nearly-self-published book, in which he indicts almost all serious malaria fighters as liars about DDT.

Can Roberts’ testimony be trusted on this point?  I don’t think we should trust him.

In fact, DDT and the eradication campaign had many good effects.  In 1959 and 1960, when DDT use was at its peak in the world, malaria deaths numbered about 4 million annually.  The eradication campaign ultimately was ended, but it and other malaria-fighting efforts, and general improvements in housing and sanitation, helped cut the annual death toll to 2 million a year by 1972.

After the U.S. stopped spraying DDT on cotton, mosquitoes did not migrate from Texas and Arkansas to Africa.  As noted earlier, the EPA order stopping agricultural use, left manufacturing untouched, to increase U.S. exports.  So the ban on DDT in the U.S. increased the amount of DDT available to fight malaria.

Malaria fighting, under Soper’s standards, required great discipline among the malaria fighters — the sort of discipline that governments in Subsaharan Africa could not provide.  Had WHO not slowed its use of DDT because of mosquito resistance to the stuff, WHO still would not have been able to mount eradication campaigns in nations where 80% of residences could not be sprayed regularly.

Advances in medical care, and better understanding of malaria and the vectors that spread it, helped continue the downward trend of malaria deaths.  There was a modest uptick in the 1980s when the parasites themselves developed resistance to the drugs commonly used to treat the disease.  With the advent of pharmaceuticals based on Chinese wormwood, or artemisinin-based drugs, therapy for humans has become more effective.  Today, the annual death toll to malaria has been cut to under a million, to about 900,000 per year — a 75% drop from DDT’s peak use, a 50% drop from the U.S. ban on farm use of DDT.

With the assistance of WHO, most nations who still suffer from malaria have adopted a strategy known as Integrated Vector Management, or IVM (known as integrated pest management or IPM in the U.S.).  Pesticides are used sparingly, and insect pests are monitored regularly and carefully to be sure they are not developing genetic-based resistance or immunity to the pesticides.  This is the method that Rachel Carson urged in 1962, in her book, Silent Spring.  Unfortunately, much of the malaria-suffering world didn’t come to these methods until after the turn of the century.

Progress against malaria has been good since 2001, using Rachel Carson’s methods.

Don Roberts’ blaming of science, EPA, WHO, and all other malaria fighters is not only misplaced, wrong in its history and wrong in its science, but it is also just nasty.  Is there any way Roberts could not know and understand the facts?

These are the facts Roberts works to hide from Congress:

  1. “Science” and scientists were right about DDT.  DDT is a dangerous substance, uncontrollable in the wild according to federal court findings and 40 years of subsequent research.  If we were to judge the accuracy of scientists about DDT, we would have to conclude that they were deadly accurate in their judgment that use of DDT should be stopped.
  2. If the ban on DDT was controversial in 1972, it should not be now.  All research indicates that the judgment of EPA and its director, William Ruckelshaus, was right.
  3. EPA was not warned that a ban on agricultural use of DDT would harm public health programs, in the U.S., nor anywhere else in the world.  In any case, EPA’s jurisdiction ends at U.S. borders — why would WHO say anything at all?
  4. DDT use to fight malaria had been curtailed in 1965, years before the U.S. ban on farm use, because overuse of DDT on crops had bred DDT-resistant and DDT-immune mosquitoes.  Consequently, there was not a huge nor vociferous lobby who warned that health would be put at risk if DDT were banned.  Claims that these warnings were made are either false or grossly misleading.
  5. Malaria death rates declined to less than 50% of what they were when DDT was banned from farm use in the U.S. — there was no “doomsday” because the U.S. stopped spraying DDT on cotton, and there never has been a serious shortage of DDT for use against malaria, anywhere in the world.

How much of the rest of the testimony against doing something about global warming, was complete hoax?


[Editor’s note:  My apologies.  I put this together on three different machines while conducting other activities.  On proofing, I find several paragraphs simply disappeared, and edits to make up for the time of composing and fix tenses, got lost.  It should be mostly okay, now, and I’ll add in the links that disappeared shortly . . . oh, the sorry work of the part-time blogger.]

Update, 2015: Video of the hearing, from YouTube:

%d bloggers like this: