Fisking “Junk Science’s” campaign for DDT: Point #6

August 9, 2007

Another in a continuing series, showing the errors in JunkScience.com’s list of “100 things you should know about DDT.” (No, these are not in order.)

Steven Milloy and the ghost of entomologist J. Gordon Edwards listed this as point six in their list of “100 things you should know about DDT “[did Edwards really have anything to do with the list before he died?]:

6. “To only a few chemicals does man owe as great a debt as to DDT… In little more than two decades, DDT has prevented 500 million human deaths, due to malaria, that otherwise would have been inevitable.”

[National Academy of Sciences, Committee on Research in the Life Sciences of the Committee on Science and Public Policy. 1970. The Life Sciences; Recent Progress and Application to Human Affairs; The World of Biological Research; Requirements for the Future.]

In contrast to their citation for the Sweeney hearing record, which leads one away from the actual hearing record, for this citation, the publication actually exists, though it is no longer available in print. It’s available on-line, in an easily searchable format. [I urge you to check these sources out for yourself; I won’t jive you, but you should see for yourself how the critics of Rachel Carson and WHO distort the data — I think you’ll be concerned, if not outraged.] The quote, though troubled by the tell-tale ellipses of the science liar, is accurately stated so far as it goes.

The problems? It’s only part of the story as told in that publication.  The National Academy of Science calls for DDT to be replaced in that book; NAS is NOT calling for a rollback of any ban, nor is NAS defending DDT against the claims of harm.  The book documents and agrees with the harms Rachel Carson wrote about eight years earlier.

Cover of the electronic version of Life Sciences, the 1970 book looking to future needs in biology and agriculture.

Cover of the electronic version of Life Sciences, the 1970 book looking to future needs in biology and agriculture.

Milloy (and Edwards, he claims), are trying to make a case that the National Academy of Sciences, one of the more reputable and authoritative groups of distinguished scientists in the world, thinks that DDT is just dandy, in contrast to the views of Rachel Carson and environmentalists (who are always cast as stupid and venal in Milloy’s accounts) who asked that DDT use be reduced to save eagles, robins and other songbirds, fish, and other wildlife, and to keep DDT useful against malaria.

First, there is no way that a ban on DDT could have been responsible for 500 million deaths due to malaria.  Calculate it yourself, the mathematics are simply impossible: At about 1 million deaths per year, if we assume DDT could have prevented all of the deaths (which is not so), and had we assumed usage started in 1939 instead of 1946 (a spot of 7 years and 7 million deaths), we would have 69 million deaths prevented by 2008. As best I can determine, the 500 million death figure is a misreading from an early WHO report that noted about 500 million people are annually exposed to malaria, I’m guessing a bit at that conclusion — that’s the nicest way to attribute it to simple error and not malicious lie. It was 500 million exposures to malaria, not 500 million deaths. It’s unfortunate that this erroneous figure found its way into a publication of the NAS — I suppose it’s the proof that anyone can err.

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