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).


Annals of DDT: Rachel Carson was right, DDT hurts birds

April 6, 2014

Coming up on World Malaria Day 2014, and U.S. Congressional elections, we’ll start seeing repeated false attacks on Rachel Carson as the right’s most-favored representative of environmentalism, and those attacks will include calls to “end the ban” on DDT to roll back the “increase in malaria caused by the ban. ” Facts are that DDT was never banned in Asia nor Africa (not even under a 2001 anti-pollution treaty); Rachel Carson called for no ban on DDT, but instead urged use of “integrated pest management” (IPM)  to combat disease vectors, and IPM used broadly since 1999 has slashed malaria death totals and infections even more; and malaria deaths and infections started a downward trend in the 1960s that continues today, mostly without DDT.
This is one in an occasional series of posts to correct these hoax claims, with citations to information that readers may check for themselves. Much of this post appeared here earlier, in much longer form.

Rachel Carson was very careful in her 1962 book Silent Spring.  She offered more than 50 pages of citations to science papers and hard research to support what she wrote — a “don’t take my word for it, check it out for yourself” kind of honesty.

Still, today, there is an organized effort with broad success on the internet to smear Rachel Carson and hide the science she wrote about.  Standard from adherents to this insurgent anti-science movement include are claims that Carson’s book was wrong.  The title comes from a prologue of the book in which Carson described a spring in some future year, a spring which was unheralded by the songs and chatterings of birds.  Carson argued that, if humans do not stop to think about secondary effects of chemicals used, especially as pesticides, whole regions might be devoid of birds, dead from DDT poisoning.

Carson cited research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about just how deadly DDT could be to entire ecosystems.  She was particularly alarmed by research done at Midwestern universities, where DDT sprayed to save American elm trees from Dutch elm blight, quickly killed off most birds who came in contact with the stuff.  Dutch elm blight is spread by beetles, the targets of DDT in those sprayings.

In the 1950s, ornithologists, wildlife managers and bird watchers documented the pending demise of entire species of birds, especially raptors at the top of local food chains.  Audubon bird watchers throughout the eastern U.S. noted that migrations consisted of older birds only, with young and maturing birds appearing to have disappeared. Older birds mated, built nests, and laid eggs. Usually the eggs did not hatch, with chicks dying before the end of gestation.  In the few cases where young hatched, they generally died before they could migrate even one year.

Especially for the American bald eagle, this was a great disappointment. Eagles had been plentiful when European colonists migrated to North America, starting after Columbus’s voyages, 1492-1494.  By 1900, however, eagles had been hunted almost to extinction — well, they were extinct in some states.  Colonists, then farmers and ranchers, saw eagles as pests.  They ate fish the colonists wanted to catch for themselves.  Eagles would sometimes take a farmer’s chicken.  Cases of eagles taking larger prey are sparse to non-existent prior to the latter 20th century — but farmers claimed they did.  And so the birds were hunted mercilessly, simply to shoot them.

In 1911 the federal government tried to solve a many-states-wide problem, with a law protecting eagles from hunting.  It did little good.  In 1941 Congress passed a new law, with criminal penalties for people who poached eagles.  The decline of adult numbers slowed dramatically.  But that problem with hatching fledges stopped the recovery, at least so far as young birds who could replace those who died of old age or accidents.

Carson’s critics argue that eagles were never really in decline.  Steven Milloy and Gordon Edwards invented a fantastic tale that the Audubon Society annual Christmas Bird Count actually recorded an increase in eagle numbers, a false claim that Audubon certainly never made, based on a twisted misapplication of bird count methods.  USFWS and others noted the decline of eagles speeding up through the 1950s and 1960s.

Carson’s critics then will say that what plagued eagles was hunting and poaching, and not DDT.  While that was true prior to 1941, that was not the case after World War II when the laws were enforced well.

When studies indicated that DDT would stop birds from successfully breeding, Carson cited them. Her critics claim those studies were in error.

Double-crested cormorant chicks, dead in their nest from DDT-DDE poisoning; nest in the Columbia River estuary, in Oregon. US Fish and Wildlife photo.

Double-crested cormorant chicks, dead in their nest from DDT-DDE poisoning; nest in the Columbia River estuary, in Oregon. U.S. Fish and Wildlife photo. 1999 report.

But they were not.  In fact, not a single study cited by Carson in Silent Spring has ever been refuted by later peer-reviewed research, nor pulled back for any reason.  A decade after Carson’s death, researchers discovered that residual DDT in birds, especially eagles and other raptors, prevented the females from forming competent shells on the eggs they laid.  Even when the DDT doses were not high enough to kill the chicks outright, the shells could not survive the mother’s sitting on them.  The shells broke, and the chicks inside died.

DDT was a scourge to the American bald eagle, the brown pelican, the peregrine falcon, and osprey — and probably many other birds.

Pelican eggs: Healthy pelican egg on left, egg affected by DDT in its laying mother on right.

Pelican eggs: Healthy pelican egg on left, egg affected by DDT in its laying mother on right. Image from VCE Environmental Science.

Discover magazine carried an article about DDT and Carson’s book in November 2007Discover said that, since 1962 when Carson’s book was published, more than 1,000 peer-reviewed publications support Carson’s conclusions, a record remarkable in any branch of science.

In fact, Carson may have underestimated the impact of DDT on birds, says Michael Fry, an avian toxicologist and director of the American Bird Conservancy’s pesticides and birds program. She was not aware that DDT—or rather its metabolite, DDE—causes eggshell thinning because the data were not published until the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was eggshell thinning that devastated fish-eating birds and birds of prey, says Fry, and this effect is well documented in a report (pdf) on DDT published in 2002 by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). The report, which cites over 1,000 references, also describes how DDT and its breakdown products accumulate in the tissues of animals high up on terrestrial and aquatic food chains—a process that induced reproductive and neurological defects in birds and fish.

History also supports the scientists.  President John F. Kennedy tasked the President’s Science Advisory Council to check out Carson’s book, to see whether it was accurate, and whether the government should start down the path of careful study and careful regulation of pesticides as she suggested.  In May 1963 the PSAC reported back that Carson was dead right on every issue, except, maybe for one.  PSAC said Carson wasn’t alarmist enough, that immediate action against pesticides was justified, rather than waiting for later studies or delaying for any other reason. (The full text of the report may be obtained here.)

Rachel Carson was right.  DDT kills birds.  DDT threatened several species with extinction.

Carson’s science citations were verified by a select panel of the nation’s top biologists including entomologists, certified as scientifically accurate.   Since she published, more than 1,000 peer-reviewed studies have been performed that verify her findings on DDT’s harms to birds.

I have never found a contrary study published in any peer-review science journal, based on research.


Typewriters of the moment: Mitford and Carson, two environmental journalists

September 24, 2013

The great editorial cartoonist Bill Mauldin of the Chicago Sun-Times illustrates the gender dimension of the controversy over Carson and Silent Spring. In this 27 October 1963 cartoon he pairs her with Jessica Mitford, author of The American Way of Death, a scathing indictment of the funeral home industry. Men from both industries have been flattened under the platens of the women’s typewriters.  All rights reserved © 1963 by Bill Mauldin. Courtesy of Bill Mauldin Estate LLC

The great editorial cartoonist Bill Mauldin of the Chicago Sun-Times illustrates the gender dimension of the controversy over Carson and Silent Spring. In this 27 October 1963 cartoon he pairs her with Jessica Mitford, author of The American Way of Death, a scathing indictment of the funeral home industry. Men from both industries have been flattened under the platens of the women’s typewriters. All rights reserved © 1963 by Bill Mauldin. Courtesy of Bill Mauldin Estate LLC

Captured from Mark Stoll’s “Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a book that changed the world,” at the Environment and Society Portal.

A well-fitting image in the few days before the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) opens its 2013 convention in Chattanooga, Tennessee (October 2-4).  It was the power of the typewriter in 1963; the power of the word processor in 2013, more likely.  In either case, it’s the hard work of environmental journalists, who are out to make the world a better place by showing us what it is, what shape it’s in, and how we might conserve it.

More:


Quote of the moment: Rachel Carson, on why her nature writing sounds so much like poetry

June 14, 2013

Rachel Carson said:

“If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.”

Cover of The Gentle Subversive, by Mark Hamilton Lytle, for Oxford University Press.

Cover of The Gentle Subversive, by Mark Hamilton Lytle, for Oxford University Press.

Bug Girl wrote a fine review last year of an often over-looked book on Carson, The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement  (Mark Hamilton Lytle, 2007. Oxford Univ. Press.)  It’s worth your click over there to read a nice piece on Carson, on women in science, and on nature writing.

Bug Girl spends the necessary time and space answering critics of Carson, of Silent Spring, and those few odd but incredibly active and loud advocates who claim we can conquer disease if we can only spread enough DDT poison around the Earth.  Go see.

I find it impossible to stand in a place like Yosemite and not hear John Muir‘s voice — and it’s probably that John Muir found that, too.  Or stand on the shores of Waldon Pond and not hear Henry David Thoreau, or stand on sandy soil in Wisconsin and not hear Aldo Leopold, or sit on a redrock outcropping in southern Utah and not hear Ed Abbey.  They probably heard similar voices.  But they had the presence of mind to write down what they heard.

Writing wonderful prose, or poetry, must be easier when the subject sings of itself in your ears, and paints itself in glory for your eyes.

If Carson’s prose borders on poetry, does that add to, or subtract from its science value?

More:

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (left) and n...

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (left) and nature preservationist John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club , on Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park. In the background: Upper and lower Yosemite Falls. Wikipedia image


Rachel Carson/DDT hoaxing from the Ayn Rand Institute

April 21, 2013

Welcome, refugees and truth-seekers from WUWT:  If this site seems a little unusual to you, you should know that at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub we try to stick to science, and we don’t censor opposing opinions.  Genuinely interested in the DDT/Malaria issue?  See this collection.

______________

A couple of physicists get together in a podcast from the Ayn Rand Institute, Poke in Your Eye to Eye, and demonstrate that they don’t know biology well, they know less about history, but they don’t hesitate to tell whoppers about Rachel Carson and the value of DDT“Silent Spring 50 Years Later [a special Earth Day podcast].

English: An image of the main entrance of Rach...

A better indication of the legacy of Rachel Carson: Schools across America named after the woman, to inspire children to explore science, and to read and write. Here, the main entrance of Rachel Carson Middle School in Herndon, Virginia. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Earth Day must be coming up.  The usual suspects trot out their usual disinformation and hoax campaigns — and it will continue through Earth Day on April 22, International Malaria Day on April 25, through Rachel Carson’s birthday, and probably all summer.

Mencken warned us that hoaxes, once out of the bottle, can’t be put back.  Twain (and others) remind us that whopping falsehoods travel around the world “while truth is getting its boots on.”  Amanda Maxham, who is listed as an astrophysicist at the Rand site, interviewed physicist Keith Lockitch — and they repeat almost all the hoary old false fables invented by Gordon Edwards and Steven Milloy about malaria, DDT, and Rachel Carson.

A few of the errors committed by the polemicists at the Ayn Rand Institute:

  • ‘DDT doesn’t breed mosquitoes more resistant to the stuff, but instead weakens the population through reducing diversity.’  Absolutely wrong.  Turns out the new alleles mosquitoes pick up that makes them resistant and immune to DDT, are ALSO the alleles that make mosquitoes resistant to the whole class of chemicals, and thereby foul up efforts to develop new pesticides.

    Tanzania - Removing DDT

    Cleaning up DDT in Africa: 40 tons of 50 year old DDT were found in Menzel Bourguiba Hospital, Tanzania – FAO photo

  • ‘Rachel Carson didn’t account for the value of DDT in eradicating malaria.’  They start out claiming DDT ended malaria in the U.S. (it didn’t; CDC had won the fight will just mop up operations left, by 1939; DDT wasn’t even available for another seven years), and run through the false claim that DDT alone had almost eradicated malaria from Sri Lanka, but listening to Rachel Carson, the nation stopped spraying and malaria roared back (the nation stopped ALL of its malaria fighting efforts due to costs and civil war; when the fight was taken up again, DDT was not useful; largely without DDT, Sri Lanka has once again nearly wiped out malaria).
  • ‘Because of a lack of DDT use, malaria continues to ravage the world killing a million people a year.’  Actually, malaria is at the lowest level in human history, killing less than a million a year, with great progress being made against the disease using the methods Rachel Carson urged in 1962.  Had we listened to Carson earlier, we could have saved a few million more lives, and perhaps have eradicated malaria already.  Also, it’s important to remember that DDT was never banned in Africa nor Asia; the ban on use of DDT on cotton crops in the U.S. did not cause any increase in malaria anywhere; since the ban on DDT use in the U.S. malaria has constantly declined in incidence and deaths.
  • ‘DDT is very effective because it’s ALSO repellent to mosquitoes, after it ceases to kill them.’  So in the end, they urge the use of a poisonous-to-wildlife, mildly carcinogenic substance, because it repels mosquitoes?  Bednets are more effective, cheaper, not-poisonous to wildlife, and they aren’t even suspected of causing cancer.

Rachel Carson’s life is a model for budding scientists, aspiring journalists, and teachers of ethics.  That so many people spend so much time making up false claims against her, in favor of a deadly toxin, and against science, tells us much more about the subrosa intentions of the claim fakers than about Rachel Carson.

Want the facts about Rachel Carson?  Try William Souder’s marvelous biography from last year, On a Farther Shore.  Want facts on DDT?  Try EPA’s official DDT history online (or look at some of the posts here at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub). Want the facts about malaria?  Check with the world’s longest running, most ambitious malaria fighting campaign operated by the good people at the World Health Organization, Roll Back Malaria,  or see Sonia Shah’s underappreciated history, The FeverHow malaria has ruled mankind for 500,000 years.

More:

Roll Back Malaria, World Malaria Day logo for 2013

Roll Back Malaria, World Malaria Day logo for 2013

Wall of Shame (hoax spreaders to watch out for this week):


Passing the 200 post mark on Rachel Carson, DDT and Malaria

January 13, 2013

I’m running behind in listing some of the articles, but since Utah Rep. Rob Bishop first alerted me to the stupidity raging on Rachel Carson‘s reputation, DDT‘s dangers and malaria, Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub hosted more than 200 articles on the topics.

Palau's stamp honoring Rachel Carson

Postage stamp honoring Rachel Carson, part of the “20th century environmental heroes” set from the South Pacific nation of Palau, PlanetPatriot image

Overwhelmingly, the evidence is that Rachel Carson was right, DDT is still dangerous and needs to be banned, but malaria still declines, even with declining DDT use.

You can look at the list of 200 articles, in reverse chronological order, here.

More:


Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring at 50: Catalog of tributes

December 11, 2012

Over the year so many tributes, commentaries, and wild-hare critiques keep pushing Rachel Carson‘s Silent Spring back into our memories, and relevance.  Too many to list and comment on, but I’ll make a list of those I found most informative or useful, and of a couple I found most repugnant.

I’ll update this list from time to time.  I’m using this as a file for my writing as well, but some of this stuff needs to be shared more broadly — and of course, I appreciate corrections and pointers to other good sources.

English: An image of the main entrance of Rach...

Main entrance of Rachel Carson Middle School, Falls Church Public Schools, Herndon, Virginia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A collection:

Good stuff on Carson and Silent Spring:

Informative:

People who don’t get it, are blinded by bias, or never had their mouths washed out with soap:

General news:

More, not categorized:


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