Burt Folsom’s blog distorts history of DDT

October 13, 2011

I hadn’t thought Burt Folsom, author of FDR Goes to War, much of an ideologue, but a post at his blog makes me wonder about whether he is so grossly inaccurate on other things, too.

The post, written by Anita Folsom, said:

Fast-forward to the post-World War II period. In 1962, Rachel Carson published her best-selling text, Silent Spring, in which she protested the effects of pesticides on the environment.  Ten years later, DDT was banned.

Thomas Sowell points out that such bans, while passed with the best of intentions, have unleashed growth in the numbers of mosquitoes and a huge recurrence of malaria in parts of the world where it had been under control. The same is true of modern pesticides in the U.S. today.  One reason for the rise in the incidence of bedbugs, which bite humans and  spread disease, is that the federal government has banned the use of chemicals that were effective against such insects.

The issue is one of balance.  While it is every citizen’s responsibility to take an interest in a clean environment, it is also a responsibility to avoid over-zealous regulators who cause harm by banning useful chemicals.  Perhaps what is needed is a substance that will cause bureaucrats to leave citizens alone, both immediately and in the future.

Perhaps the trouble comes from relying on Thomas Sowell as a source here — on DDT and Rachel Carson, Sowell appears to be  just making up false stuff.

Thomas Sowell has come unstuck in history, at least with regard to DDT and malaria.

Thomas Sowell has come unstuck in history, at least with regard to DDT and malaria.

First, the “DDT ban” mentioned here was by U.S. EPA.  Consequently, it applies ONLY to the U.S., and not to any nation where malaria is a problem.

Second, the order banning DDT in the U.S. restricted the ban to agricultural use on agricultural crops, almost solely cotton at the time.  DDT use to fight malaria would still be legal in the U.S.

Third, the order banning DDT use in the U.S. specifically exempted manufacture of DDT — so in effect, the order more than doubled the amount of DDT available to fight malaria mosquitoes because all U.S. production was dedicated to export, specifically to allow DDT to be used to fight malaria.

Fourth, and probably most critically, it is simply false that malaria resurged when DDT was banned.  By 1972, malaria infections were about 500 million annually, worldwide.  Malaria deaths were about 2 million.  Even without U.S. spraying DDT on cotton crops in Texas and Arkansas, and to be honest, without a lot of DDT use except in indoor residual spraying as promoted by the World Health Organization (WHO), malaria infections have been reduced by 50%, to about 250 million annually — and malaria deaths were reduced by more than 50%, to fewer than 900,000 annually, worldwide.  WHO estimates more than 700,000 African children were saved from malaria deaths in the decade from 2001 through 2010.

Malaria deaths and malaria infections decreased after DDT was banned in the U.S., and continue to decline.

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Burt and Anita Folsom should have checked Sowell’s claims on DDT, rather than accepting them as gospel.

Fifth, while it is true that reports generally claim that DDT limited bedbug infestations in the 1960s, the truth is that bedbugs became immune to DDT in the 1950s, and DDT is perfectly useless against almost all populations of the beasties today, and since 1960, 51 years ago.  Also, the evolution to be immune to DDT primed bedbugs to evolve resistance to other pesticides very quickly.  DDT didn’t stop bedbugs, and lack of DDT didn’t contribute to bedbug infestations after 1960.

(Maybe worst, and odder, 111 people have been injured by pesticides used to control bedbugs, one fatally, in the past ten years.  Which is worse?)

Sixth, bedbugs do not spread disease, at least not so far as is known to medical and entomological science.

Sowell’s claims endorsed by Folsom are exactly wrong, 180-degrees different from the truth.  Sowell and Folsom are victims of the DDT Good/Rachel Carson Bad Hoaxes.

Since malaria has been so dramatically reduced since the U.S. banned the use of DDT, perhaps Rachel Carson should be given full credit for every life saved.  It’s important to remember that Carson herself did not suggest that DDT be banned, but instead warned that unless DDT use were restricted, mosquitoes and bedbugs would evolve resistance and immunity to it.  DDT use was not restricted enough, soon enough, and both of those pests developed resistance and immunity to DDT.

Ms. Folsom urges restraint in regulation, she says, because over-enthusiastic banning of DDT brought harm.  Since her premise is exactly wrong, would she like to correct the piece to urge more regulation of the reasonable kind that EPA demonstrated?  That would be just.

Good sources of information on malaria, DDT, and Rachel Carson and EPA:

Africa had a surplus of DDT from 1970s through 1990s, creating a massive toxic cleanup problem for today. This FAO photograph shows

Africa had a surplus of DDT from 1970s through 1990s, creating a massive toxic cleanup problem for today. This FAO photograph shows “TN before: 40 tonnes of 50 year old DDT were found in Menzel Bourguiba Hospital, TN.” DDT was not used because it was largely ineffective; but had any nation wished to use it, there was plenty to use.

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