Annals of DDT: When they sprayed DDT from airplanes to stop polio

August 10, 2018

March of Dimes Foundation photo:

March of Dimes Foundation photo: “Nurses tended to polio patients in iron lung respirators at the Robert B. Green Memorial Hospital polio ward in San Antonio in 1950. It was a common scene throughout the polio crisis that swept Texas.” From the San Antonio Express-News article on the history of polio in the city.

It didn’t work.

In a desperate move to stop polio epidemics, after World War II but before the Salk polio vaccine was available, some American towns authorized aerial spraying of DDT over their cities.

Of course, DDT doesn’t stop viruses, and polio is a virus. Polio virus is not spread by a vector, an insect or other creature which might have been stopped by DDT, as mosquitoes spread malaria parasites and West Nile virus.

Aerial spraying of DDT against polio did not one thing.

A podcast from the Science History Institute discussed these misdirected events recently, and someone there did a sharp, short video to explain the issue.

YouTube explanation:

An animation drawn from episode 207 of Distillations podcast, DDT: The Britney Spears of Chemicals.

The podcast is a short 15 minutes, and fun, “Distillations.”

Americans have had a long, complicated relationship with the pesticide DDT, or dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, if you want to get fancy. First we loved it, then we hated it, then we realized it might not be as bad as we thought. But we’ll never restore it to its former glory. And couldn’t you say the same about America’s once-favorite pop star?

We had a hunch that the usual narrative about DDT’s rise and fall left a few things out, so we talked to historian and CHF fellow Elena Conis. She has been discovering little-known pieces of this story one dusty letter at a time.

But first our associate producer Rigoberto Hernandez checks out some of CHF’s own DDT cans—that’s right, we have a DDT collection—and talks to the retired exterminator who donated them.

I bring it up here because in recent weeks there’s been a little surge on Twitter, and probably on Facebook and other places, in people claiming DDT causes polio, or causes symptoms so close to polio that physicians could never tell the difference. A lot of anti-vaccine advocates pile on, claiming that this would prove that the polio vaccine doesn’t work.

That’s all quite hooey-licious, off course. Polio’s paralysis of muscles in almost no way resembles acute DDT poisoning, which causes muscle misfiring instead of paralysis. As with almost every other disease, acute DDT poisoning can cause nausea; but DDT poisoning either kills its victim rather quickly, or goes away after a couple of weeks.

Polio doesn’t do that.

In the podcast, you’ll hear the common story of kids running behind DDT fogging trucks, because people thought DDT was harmless. In the concentrations in the DDT fogs, it would be almost impossible to ingest the 4 ounces or so of DDT required to get acute poisoning.

In any case, it’s one more odd facet of a long story of human relations to DDT and diseases. It’s worth a listen for history’s sake. But in this case, it’s entertaining, too. You’ll hear stories of people who opposed government actions to spray DDT, and who thought the government was too lax in its regulation and use of DDT.

More:

San Antonio Express-News file photo.

San Antonio Express-News file photo. “A young boy gets polio vaccine in this undated photo.”

Tip of the old scrub brush to Science History Institute (@SciHistoryOrg on Twitter).

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Glorious thread on typewriters and their masters

November 22, 2017

From Dean Frey, posting on Twitter as “Deny Fear @dean_frey.”

Frey posted this wonderful picture of Rachel Carson, taken by Erich Hartmann in 1962 (after publication of Silent Spring?)

Rachel Carson and her typewriter, by Erich Hartmann, 1962.

Rachel Carson and her typewriter, by Erich Hartmann, 1962.

But hold your horses. Frey posted a raft of other artists with their machines. What a glorious little thread!

The entire glorious thread.

You have seen some of those photos, some of those artists, and some of those typewriters in other posts at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub. There are some sparkling photos there I had not seen before.

Thank you, Dean Frey.


110th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s birth, May 27, 2017

May 28, 2017

Rachel Carson at Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania. USFWS photo.

Rachel Carson at Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania. USFWS photo.

Rachel Carson’s birth anniversary in 2017 was remarkably free from attacks by DDT advocates or other people misinformed about her life and work.

Not that those attacks don’t continue on other days, still, but that the critics did not use the occasion of the anniversary of her birth to gang up on news media.

Some of the nice things said on Twitter:

Over the years, Maria Popova at Brainpickings (@brainpicker) collected and republished quite a bit of good biography on Rachel Carson.

https://twitter.com/i/web/status/868644265953558528

 

 

But:

And earlier:


No, Rachel Carson didn’t cause an increase in malaria; bonus film to WGBH American Experience “Rachel Carson”

February 7, 2017

Rachel Carson at a microscope, American Experience/RetroReport image. Did Carson's work cause an increase in malaria? Is she to blame for continued malaria deaths? No, answers a short film bonus to "Rachel Carson," the 2017 PBS film.

Rachel Carson at a microscope, American Experience/RetroReport image. Did Carson’s work cause an increase in malaria? Is she to blame for continued malaria deaths? No, answers a short film bonus to “Rachel Carson,” the 2017 PBS film.

A straight up, historic look at the question of Rachel Carson’s fault in stopping malaria.

Anti-environmentalists and corporate hoaxsters argue that Rachel Carson should be blamed for an imaginary increase in malaria deaths, after the U.S. banned DDT use on crops.

In conjunction with WGBH’s American Experience film on Carson released early in 2017, this short film focusing on malaria as a continuing plague puts to rest the idea that Carson should be blamed at all.

Soaking in the bathtub, we find the film not strident enough in defense of Carson; but for those strident nuts who claim Carson a murderer, it may have some good effect. And of course, you, intelligent dear reader, will be persuaded more gently.

Where malaria is the question, DDT is not the answer. Where malaria still exists, it’s not Rachel Carson’s fault.

More:


Spark ignited a fire that became an environmental alarm, Silent Spring

February 3, 2016

The letter to the editor of the late Boston Herald that sparked Rachel Carson to write Silent Spring.

Oddly, the Tweet from American Scientist doesn’t link to the letter at all. Instead it links to a timeline of events regarding the magazine’s changing treatment of DDT as a subject, since 1944. It’s a useful timeline, but it leaves us wondering about that 1958 letter to the editor.

I’d like to have an original image, but have not found one.  Instead, I found a retyped copy of the text of the letter, looking as though it came from a 1958 typewriter.

Text of letter to the editor by birdwatcher Olga Owens Huckins, published in the Boston Herald on January 30, 1958. The letter sparked naturalist and author Rachel Carson to open a file on pesticides, which she eventually turned into Silent Spring. Image from Weebly

Text of letter to the editor by birdwatcher Olga Owens Huckins, published in the Boston Herald on January 30, 1958. The letter sparked naturalist and author Rachel Carson to open a file on pesticides, which she eventually turned into Silent Spring. Image from Weebly

Do you know where we might find an image of the original letter as published — preferably on the internet?

It also occurs to me that this could be a key piece for a short lesson on the value of citizen involvement, for a class in civics and government, or in a class for Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts on one of the citizenship merit badges.

Mrs. Huckins’s letter is a fine example of the citizen acorns from which grow the oaks of political drives for better communities, and a better world.

More:


Throwing reason out the window: Scott Bailey’s book attacking science and environment protection

September 18, 2015

Photo of New York Times article in 1962. Chemical companies spent $500,000 to slam Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring, and Carson herself

Photo of New York Times article in 1962. Chemical companies spent $500,000 to slam Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, and Carson herself. A special panel of the nation’s top entomologists and biologists reported to President Kennedy in 1963 that Carson’s book was accurate, but that the problems she cited were more urgent than she said. Critics never give up. Image from Pop History Dig.

Very brief, glowing but not deep book review at PanAm Post on a new book by Scott Bailey, taking aim at environmental protection: “The apocalypse isn’t coming any time soon.”

Bailey’s book comes with a title determined to push lack of action: The End of Doom.

Such reviews bring small-but-building catastrophes much closer, alas.

Reviewer Nick Zaiac said:

The book is a great primer for someone new to environmental policy who would like to begin with a more sober look at the topic, rather than an over-dramatized introductory book like Rachel Carson’s famed Silent Spring — a book that Bailey takes pains to rebut.

What? Rachel Carson was right, in Silent Spring. Why would anyone “take pains” to refute good science?

I smell policy hoaxing here, another guy trying to sell us junk science.

I’ve not read the book. Frankly, I don’t really know much about Scott Bailey, either, other than he writes at Reason, a site for libertarians and skeptics that has, in the past decade, taken a puzzling turn against science and reason.

Anyone read the book?

At the review, I offered my alarm at the claim to have refuted Carson’s careful, and still valid science references.

Rachel Carson offered 53 pages of careful citations to science studies backing every point she made, in Silent Spring. since 1962, not a single peer-reviewed study has challenged any of that research she documented.  Quite to the contrary, more than 1,000 peer-reviewed papers have been published on the topic of DDT’s effects on birds alone — every one confirming what Carson cited, or providing evidence of new and greater dangers.

Carson was careful to note that hard studies of DDT’s carcinogenicity had not been done. But now they have been done, and it turns out DDT is carcinogenic to humans, though perhaps only mildly so to those exposed directly. Since DDT is an estrogen mimic, an endocrine disruptor, its greatest cancer effects may be in the children of those exposed.

In any case, DDT was not banned as a carcinogen to humans.  It was banned as a poison that bioaccumulates and so is uncontrollable in the wild, a poison that can take down entire ecosystems of non-target species.

So, what is Bailey “refuting?” I’ll wager his research is victimized by hoax claims that Rachel Carson got it wrong, when study after study has shown she went easy on DDT.

We got bailed out of “environmental apocalypse” in the 1970s by wise policies that paid attention to what people like Rachel Carson and Paul Ehrlich said.  We passed laws stopping pollution of air and water from many sources, by many different pollutants — but not all. And we got lucky. Norman Borlaug’s green revolution staved off catastrophic starvation crises.

Norman Borlaug is dead, and there is nothing like a new green revolution in the works. Bailey joins forces with anti-science crusaders to block further action to clean up pollution, especially air pollution.

Were we wise, we’d not be gambling with our future and our grandchildren’s future, with claims to have “refuted” past wisdom on environmental issues.

More:


Audubon Christmas Bird Count issue: Eagles did not prosper during the ‘time of DDT’

August 26, 2015

Still photo captured from the film,

Still photo captured from the film, “Christmas Bird Count,” by Chan Robbins; photo shows a group counting birds, probably in the 1940s or 1950s. Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count got its start in 1900.

In the notoriously wrong and misleading “100 things you should know about DDT” posted by pro-DDT, anti-wildlife Steven Milloy of “Competitive Enterprise Institute” and Fox News fame, based on the foggy rant of Dr. Gordon Edwards, we get these two misleading claims:

69. After 15 years of heavy and widespread usage of DDT, Audubon Society ornithologists counted 25 percent more eagles per observer in 1960 than during the pre-DDT 1941 bird census. [Marvin, PH. 1964 Birds on the rise. Bull Entomol Soc Amer 10(3):184-186; Wurster, CF. 1969 Congressional Record S4599, May 5, 1969; Anon. 1942. The 42nd Annual Christmas Bird Census. Audubon Magazine 44:1-75 (Jan/Feb 1942; Cruickshank, AD (Editor). 1961. The 61st Annual Christmas Bird Census. Audubon Field Notes 15(2):84-300; White-Stevens, R.. 1972. Statistical analyses of Audubon Christmas Bird censuses. Letter to New York Times, August 15, 1972]

99. The Audubon Society’s annual bird census in 1960 reported that at least 26 kinds of birds became more numerous during 1941 – 1960. [See Anon. 1942. The 42nd annual Christmas bird census.” Audubon Magazine 44;1-75 (Jan/Feb 1942), and Cruicjshank, AD (editor) 1961. The 61st annual Christmas bird census. Audubon Field Notes 15(2); 84-300]

100. Statistical analysis of the Audubon data bore out the perceived increases. [White-Stevens, R. 1972. Statistical analyses of Audubon Christmas bird censuses. Letter to New York Times, August 15, 1972]

Those claims are false with regard to bald eagles.

The careful citations offered by Milloy and Edwards simply do not exist; if the source exists, the source does not say what is claimed by these guys.  (Don’t take my word for it; go see for yourself.)

Audubon never suggested, in any forum, that their famous Christmas Bird Count had shown increases in eagles. Most other species showed no increases, either. I spent a couple of days at the library of Southern Methodist University reviewing every issue of Audubon Magazine from 1941 through 1974, and found not a single article suggesting anything other than declining eagle populations in the lower 48 states (Alaska eagles were not untouched by DDT, but were not so seriously affected; and as you will see below, the first counts of Alaska’s eagles did not occur until after 1950, so the addition of numbers from Alaska counts do not indicate an increase in U.S. population of eagles.)

I also reviewed each bird count, usually published in a separate booklet with the March issue of Audubon in that time. While raw numbers increased, that was clearly due to increases in people observing. At no point did any ornithologist or Audubon member suggest eagles were in recovery, from 1941 through 1972.

That’s a long explanation, unsuitable for quick discussion on blogs, and wholly too much for a 140-character Tweet. My experience with Milloy and his followers is that they will say my analysis somehow errs, though they cannot offer any real analysis from any other source that isn’t just a misreading of the raw bird count.

I wrote the Audubon Society, and asked them to respond to the claim. At first the press office thought the claims so bizarre that they didn’t think a reply necessary.  I sent them a half-dozen links to other documents that cited Milloy and Edwards.  Delta Willis at Audubon took the claims to officials of the bird count.

Geoff LeBaron, Director of Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count sent the following reply (posted without correction).

See also the footnote from Audubon Chief Scientist Gary Langham appended to the end of the e-mail.

LeBaron, Geoff
Sent: Friday, May 10, 2013 10:21 AM
To: Willis, Delta; Langham, Gary; Dale, Kathy
Subject: RE: DDT and effects on birds, and Audubon Christmas bird count

Hello Delta,

From the 1930s through 1970s there was a tremendous growth in the number of Christmas Bird Counts, from 203 total counts in the 30th CBC to 1320 counts in 80th CBC.  The number of observers on those counts rose from 679 in 30th to 32,322 in the 80th Count.  That is a tremendous increase in effort as well as geographic coverage, and more people in more areas are going to count more Bald Eagles, even if the populations are [were] declining.

A second major factor is that during that period many CBCs were started with the specific goal of censusing wintering Bald Eagles.  Thus we were targeting the areas where eagles were wintering, and thus tallying a much greater percentage of the total population.

Thirdly, there were only two individual CBCs conducted in Alaska prior to the late 1950s.  Bald Eagle populations never suffered dramatically in Alaska [from DDT?], and their numbers were always much higher there.  Since the late 1950s there has been a tremendous growth in the number of counts in Alaska—again, with some of these counts targeting areas where wintering eagles congregate even in the thousands.  These counts added in Alaska can contribute greatly to the total number of Bald Eagles in each season’s CBC.

Thus even while Bald Eagle populations were plummeting in the lower 48 states (outside of Florida) CBC [Citizen Science] efforts were greatly increasing, and in fact targeting monitoring Bald Eagles.  That is why both the raw number of eagles and the numbers when weighted for observer effort went up when you pull CBC data for Bald Eagle during the decades of heavy DDT use.

It’s still educational to look at raptor numbers in CBC data in the years following the banning of the use of DDT in the US.  Many species of raptors show a rapid rebound in numbers after the mid-1970s…and Bald Eagles also dramatically increased.

Per Dr. Gary Langham, Audubon Chief Scientist:   Audubon scientists are careful to include levels of participation and geographic coverage in all analyses. Fortunately, we have tracked both of these aspects since the CBC was started and so it is straightforward to adjust for their impacts.

Bird counts do not show that eagles were out of trouble during DDT years, roughly 1946 through 1972; especially they do not show that bald eagle populations increased.

More:

Explanation of the Christmas Bird Count in four minutes, by Chan Robbins.

Chandler Robbins, founder of the Audubon Christimas Bird Count, screen capture from Audubon film

Chandler Robbins, founder of the Audubon Christimas Bird Count, screen capture from Audubon film “Christmas Bird Count.”

Nota bene: Yes, this has sat in my “to be published” box for too long. It was scheduled for publication, but it appears I had not hit the “publish at scheduled time” button. My apologies to readers, and especially to Audubon’s scientists and press people.


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