Early history of EPA: Pesticides regulation and DDT

June 24, 2015

This is an excerpt from EPA’s official shorthand history, online since the 1990s.  I include this part here, dealing with the EPA’s famous regulation of the pesticide DDT, because I refer to it and link to it in several posts — and because over three different administrations, the URL has changed several times.  I fear it will one day go dark.  Here it is for history’s sake, found on June 24, 2015 at http://www2.epa.gov/aboutepa/guardian-epas-formative-years-1970-1973#pest.

Opening to the entire piece; links to subsections go to EPA’s site:

The Guardian: EPA’s Formative Years, 1970-1973

EPA 202-K-93-002
September 1993
by Dennis C. Williams

Table of Contents

The section on DDT hearings and regulation:

Pesticides and Public Health

Unlike the air controversy, which erupted after the agency’s establishment, EPA’s creation coincided with the culmination of the public debate over DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloro-ethane). A chlorinated hydrocarbon, DDT proved to be a highly effective, but extremely persistent organic pesticide. Since the 1940s, farmers, foresters, and public health officials sprayed it across the country to control pests such as Mexican boll weevils, gypsy moths, and pesky suburban mosquitoes. Widespread public opposition to DDT began with the publication of Rachel Carson’s influential Silent Spring. Reporting the effects of DDT on wildlife, Carson demonstrated that DDT not only infiltrated all areas of the ecological system, but was exponentially concentrated as it moved to higher levels in the food web. Through Carson, many citizens learned that humans faced DDT-induced risks. By 1968 several states had banned DDT use. The Environmental Defense Fund, which began as a group of concerned scientists, spearheaded a campaign to force federal suspension of DDT registration–banning its use in the United States. Inheriting Department of Agriculture (USDA) pesticide registration functions, under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) of 1964, EPA was born in the midst of the DDT storm.

In January 1971, a tribunal of the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia ordered Ruckelshaus to begin the process of suspending DDT’s registration, and to consider suspending its registration immediately. At the end of a sixty-day review process, the administrator reported that he had found no good reason to suspend DDT registration immediateIy. It and several other pesticides–including 2, 4, 5-T (Agent Orange), Dieldrin, Aldrin, and Mirex–did not appear to constitute imminent health threats. This action infuriated many environmentalists.

By 1971, the Environmental Defense Fund had mobilized effective public opposition to DDT. The furor created by Ruckelshaus’s refusal to stop DDT use prompted many to look for sinister political motivations. Some suggested that Mississippi Congressman Jamie Whitten had used his position as chairman of the agricultural appropriations subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee to make Ruckelshaus conform to the interests of the agrichemical lobby. While actually, Ruckelshaus took his cautious stance for less menacing reasons.

At its creation, EPA not only inherited the function of pesticide registration from USDA, but also the staff that served that function. The USDA economic entomologists who designed the pesticide registration process in the first place preached the advantages of effective pesticides and minimized discussion of debatable health risks. The same staff that had backed USDA Secretary Clifford Hardin’s earlier claim that DDT was not “an imminent hazard to human health or to fish and wildlife” 8 provided Ruckelshaus with the same counsel.

Rachel Carson's Silent Spring led to banning DDT and other pesticides.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring led to banning DDT and other pesticides.

Between March 1971 and June 1972, American newspapers reported both sides of the pesticide debate. Some articles recalled the glory days when pesticides saved thousands of lives in World War II; how they had increased agricultural productivity and allowed relatively few farmers to feed the world’s growing population; and how the most besieged insecticides, such as DDT and Mirex, had little human toxicity. Other journalists praised alternative approaches to pest management such as biological controls (predator introduction, sterile males, and pheromone traps), integrated controls (crop rotation and carefully delimited pesticide use), and refinement of other, less persistent chemicals. Some reported the near panic of Northwestern fruit growers facing beeless, and therefore fruitless, seasons. They attributed the lack of pollinating insects to pesticide use.

Throughout the spring of 1972, Ruckelshaus reviewed the evidence EPA had collected during the agency’s hearings on DDT cancellation and the reports prepared by two DDT study groups, the Hilton and Mrak Commissions. Both studies suggested that DDT be phased out due to the chemical’s persistent presence in ecosystems and noted studies suggesting that DDT posed a carcinogenic risk to humans. In June, he followed the route already taken by several states he banned DDT application in the United States. Though unpopular among certain segments of EPA’s constituency, his decision did serve to enhance the activist image he sought to create for the agency, and without prohibitive political cost.

The DDT decision was important to EPA for several reasons. While it did not stop the debate over what constituted appropriate pesticide use, DDT demonstrated the effect public pressure could have on EPA policy decisions. It also made very visible the tightrope act a regulatory agency performs when it attempts to balance the demands for protection of human and environmental health against legitimate economic demands. Furthermore, EPA’s decision set a precedent for regulatory decision-making. As an advocate of the environment, Ruckelshaus and the agency chose to risk erring on the side of protecting human health at the expense of economic considerations–a course that would bring the agency under heavy criticism before the end of its first decade.


Rachel Carson’s 108th birth anniversary

May 27, 2015

Rachel Carson, the great biologist and author, was born on May 27, 1907.

Last year, Google’s Doodle featured Ms. Carson, and the crazy, ill-informed, hoaxing and hoaxed right wing, came unglued.

Less flap this year, but I suspect it’s only because there’s been no great public recognition of the date.  Hoaxsters who insist DDT was always safe, or that banning DDT on cotton crops in Arkansas and Texas somehow caused malaria in Africa, or that Idi Amin became a great fan of Rachel Carson and stopped spraying DDT in Uganda to save American eagles, or other similarly silly-but-vicious things, or who just hate anything to do with protecting the environment, usually erupt on Earth Day, World Malaria Day, and Rachel Carson’s birthday.

Not much on her birthday this year (but stay tuned).

Meanwhile, our country’s sober liberal conscience, The Nation, looks back at their review of Silent Spring, and does a little cringing. Probably not necessary:

Rachel Carson, date unknown. (US Department of Agriculture) - via The Nation

Rachel Carson, date unknown. (US Department of Agriculture) – via The Nation

It is difficult not to cringe at the sight of the headline to the following review of Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book, Silent Spring—“Man and Other Pests”—given that it was a review of what was then probably the most influential intellectual contribution by an American woman to date.

Miss Carson is indignant about the unexpected effects of our thoughtless broadcasting of pesticides. She writes persuasively, for she has taken great pains to gather and check her facts. Parts of the book were published in The New Yorker magazine last summer, and immediately provoked wide interest, discussion and controversy. This reaction will undoubtedly intensify with the publication of the book. No one is in a better position than Miss Carson to arouse the indignation of the public and the conscience of the chemical industry, and it may well be that she has made a real contribution to our salvation.

[At The Nation, you can read the entire review quoted from above.]

Happy birthday, Ms. Carson.  You have become a hero to thinking people, conservationists, scientists and women everywhere.

You’ll be pleased to know the American symbol, the bald eagle, is back from extinction’s verge, along with the brown pelican, peregrine falcons and osprey.  You’d be surprised to know that, despite gross abuse of DDT in the 1950s and 1960s that caused mosquitoes all over the world to carry alleles resistance and immunity, DDT was saved from complete worthlessness by a reduction in use, and is still used in a few places today, indoors to protect wildlife, to fight malaria.  You were right about DDT.

You were right about fighting malaria, too.  You said in Silent Spring we should use integrated pest management to battle the mosquitoes that provide a site for part of the life cycle of the malaria parasites, and who then spread the disease.  When DDT failed the malaria eradication campaign in the 1960s, malaria fighters were left with little else. Malaria deaths have plunged, from the 4 million to 5 million per year you knew, to fewer than 500,000 per year now.  Worldwide, we’ve cut malaria deaths 45% just since 1999, when a group of non-governmental organizations and the World Health Organization formally adopted integrated pest management as the best way to fight the disease, and began distributing mosquito nets in a big way.

You were right, Rachel Carson. Humanity is a part of nature, and if we fight nature we end up fighting and killing ourselves.

More:

One of my favorites from Gus Arriola (also appearing at the DDT Chronicles):


Rachel Carson sketch

March 4, 2015

A Canadian artist posted a nice sketch of Rachel Carson on Twitter:

Rachel Carson sketch, by artist @moietymouse

Rachel Carson sketch, by artist @moietymouse

I’m often frustrated at how few good images of Ms. Carson exist on the internet, probably because I see them over and over again in working to stamp out the hoax claims about Carson, DDT and malaria, and environmental protection.

Maybe we can get @moietymouse to make some more? Check out her Twitter feed; maybe she’s got images for sale, and you can encourage her while improving the look of your walls.

Read the rest of this entry »


How is DDT used to fight malaria?

February 20, 2015

Can we dispel common misapprehensions about fighting malaria?

In fighting malaria, DDT is not used outdoors.  Spraying swamps with insecticide does little to combat malaria because malaria-carrying mosquitoes don’t usually breed or rest there, and collateral damage from DDT reduces mosquito predators.

USAID-paid workers conducting Indoor Residual Spraying (IRS) campaign. (Where? When?) USAID photo, via Stanford University, Human Biology 153

USAID-paid workers conducting Indoor Residual Spraying (IRS) campaign. (Where? When?) USAID photo, via Stanford University, Human Biology 153

DDT’s utility in fighting malaria comes from its persistence when used close by humans bitten by those species of mosquito that carry malaria. Malaria is a parasitic disease.  Malaria parasites complete their life cycle in a human host (victim), and any insect taking blood from an infected human gets some of those parasites.  The parasite completes another phase of its life cycle in certain species of mosquito — not flies nor other biting insects — and after about two weeks, mosquitoes can infect humans with newly-ready parasites.

Those species that carry malaria are usually active from about dusk until after midnight.  Consequently, they bite people usually as they sleep.  Because the “blood meal” is heavy, newly-fed mosquitoes usually fly to a nearby wall of the home to excrete water from the meal, so they fly with a lighter load.  If DDT, or some other pesticide, coats that wall, the mosquito will die before being able to pass new parasites on to new victims.

DDT is NOT used to spray outdoors, to fight malaria.  Among other things, outdoor spraying threatens domestic animals and any creature that preys on the malaria-carrying mosquito; as a pragmatic matter, outdoor use affects only a tiny percentage of malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Malaria-carriers tend to breed in small, temporary pools of water from rain; this transience makes outdoor fighting difficult.  Many people fail to understand this crucial point: DDT outdoors doesn’t help in the fight against malaria.  (Other outdoor campaigns can provide relief, such as elimination of old tires, filling potholes in roads, draining raingutters, and generally eliminating the mosquito breeding areas close to human homes, since mosquitoes rarely move more than about 50 yards in their lifetime.)

It’s important to realize that DDT in IRS allows a mosquito a free first bite.  The hope is that bite is from an uninfected mosquito, who will then land on the treated wall of the home and get a fatal dose of pesticide, so that spreading malaria it may have picked up from its victim, is stopped.  Bednets, which form a physical barrier, prevent even the first bite.  Bednets gain effectiveness from treatment with impregnated insecticides.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the lead agency in the campaign to eradicate malaria from the U.S. after World War II, explains this use of DDT in Indoor Residual Spraying, or IRS:

Indoor Residual Spraying

Many malaria vectors are considered “endophilic”; that is, the mosquito vectors rest inside houses after taking a blood meal. These mosquitoes are particularly susceptible to control through indoor residual spraying (IRS).

What Is Indoor Residual Spraying?

As its name implies, IRS involves coating the walls and other surfaces of a house with a residual insecticide. For several months, the insecticide will kill mosquitoes and other insects that come in contact with these surfaces. IRS does not directly prevent people from being bitten by mosquitoes. Rather, it usually kills mosquitoes after they have fed if they come to rest on the sprayed surface. IRS thus prevents transmission of infection to other persons. To be effective, IRS must be applied to a very high proportion of households in an area (usually >80%).

Health workers sparying insecticide on the walls of a wood and adobe dwelling.

Health worker spraying insecticide on the walls of a wood and adobe dwelling, in Indoor Residual Spraying (IRS). CDC image

History of IRS

IRS with DDT was the primary malaria control method used during the Global Malaria Eradication Campaign (1955-1969). The campaign did not achieve its stated objective but it did eliminate malaria from several areas and sharply reduced the burden of malaria disease in others.

Concern over the environmental impact of DDT led to the introduction of other, more expensive insecticides. As the eradication campaign wore on, the responsibility for maintaining it was shifted to endemic countries that were not able to shoulder the financial burden. The campaign collapsed and in many areas, malaria soon returned to pre-campaign levels.

As a result of the cost of IRS, the negative publicity due to the failure of the Malaria Eradication Campaign, and environmental concerns about residual insecticides, IRS programs were largely disbanded other than in a few countries with resources to continue them. However, the recent success of IRS in reducing malaria cases in South Africa by more than 80% has revived interest in this malaria prevention tool.

Rachel Carson understood this use of DDT, and she understood that outdoor use of DDT, such as crop spraying, or fighting insects affecting trees, could induce insects to evolve resistance and immunity to DDT.  In Silent Spring Carson warned that unless outdoor uses were greatly curtailed, DDT would be rendered ineffective to fight diseases.  Fred Soper, the super-mosquito killer from the Rockefeller Foundation who organized and led the UN’s malaria eradication effort, also understood the race against evolution of DDT resistance.  He had hoped resistance would not show up in tropical areas until the 1970s — malaria campaigns around the Mediterranean produced DDT resistance as early as 1948.  Sadly, resistance to DDT was already established in many mosquito populations in tropical Africa before Soper could take the UN’s program to them.  The UN had to abandon the campaign, as CDC’s explanation indicates.

Today, every mosquito on Earth carries some of the alleles of resistance to DDT, and many are immune to it.


Go read, “The Enduring Relevance of Rachel Carson”

September 3, 2014

Seriously, go read this whole essay — especially if you’re looking for some snarky way to complain about the ban on DDT.

It is tough for a single publication or its author to have an impact across nations, cultures, genres, and disciplines. It is tougher still for their appearance on the world stage to spark a social movement, rekindle human values and awareness, and create new mandates for action. And toughest of all is when the author is a woman, a scientist, who must overcome the prejudices of her time−of gender, of notions of progress, of the omnipotence of untrammelled industry−to articulate a clear-eyed, renewed vision of a better world, a cleaner environment, where people do not merely live, but flourish.

If I had to pick one exemplary work from the environmental canon that does this and does it well, it would be the one that burst on the scene on this day, 16 June, all of 52 years ago, in the United States of America and then swiftly encompassed, in its scope and sweep, the rest of the world. The book, Silent Spring, and its author, marine biologist Rachel Carson, are widely credited to be the sparks that lit the fire of the global environmental movement. Carson, whose 107th birth anniversary came and passed quietly on May 27, with little fanfare other than a commemorative Google Doodle, died fifty years ago after a battle with breast cancer. Why should we bother to remember Rachel Carson and Silent Spring? What could a woman, a book, from over five decades ago have to do with the enormously changed world we live in today? Yet, over the last few weeks, during fieldwork and travels in India’s northeast and the Western Ghats mountains, I thought frequently of Rachel Carson and her prescient words in Silent Spring.

Google Doodle on Rachel Carson's birthday, 27 May 2014 (Courtesy: Google)


Rachel Carson: Pen Against Poison (U.S. State Department bio)

August 4, 2014

Especially for international audiences, often distributed by U.S. Embassies in foreign nations, the U.S. State Department offers a wealth of information about the United States, our businesses and heritage, and our history and national heroes.

For several years State has made available a 20 page booklet on Rachel Carson, one of the great drivers of the modern conservation movement after 1960. It was created in 2007, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Carson’s birth.

Cover of the 20-page pamphlet, Rachel Carson: Pen Against Poison

Cover of the 20-page pamphlet, Rachel Carson: Pen Against Poison

It keeps moving.  Today I’m unable to find it at the site of the U.S. State Department, except through our Embassy to South Korea.  I fear the document may go away, and I frequently refer people to it.

I’m making it available here, as insurance against its going away from State Department sites.

If you haven’t read it, take a look.  If you’re a teacher of literature, or biology or science, or history, consider this as a resource for your students.

Three extended essays make up the substance of the book.  Phyllis McIntosh wrote, “A Quiet Woman Whose Book Spoke Loudly.”  Michael Jay Friedman discussed the effects of Carson’s work and writings, “A Book That Changed a Nation.”  And distinguished entomologist May Berenbaum contributed an essay on the actual controversies about the hard choices involved in dealing with pesticide safety, “A Persistent Controversy, A Still Valid Warning.”  There is a photo essay covering 50 years, and a series of links and other sources, good for students.

If you find those links no longer work, please comment below — and maybe send me an e-mail.

 

 


Quiggin: DDT hoax, a zombie myth

July 16, 2014

John Quiggin, co-author of the one of the best and biggest take downs of the DDT hoaxers, caught wind of that nasty piece at the misnomered “Greener Ideals,” and has taken on Mischa Popoff in a post at Crooked Timber.

Masthead at Crooked Timber

Masthead at Crooked Timber

John’s audience likes to leave comments; the discussion is robust in places (and off the rails in others, though that’s not Quiggin’s fault).


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