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.

First, the “DDT ban” mentioned here was by U.S. EPA.  Consquently, 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.

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:

Sowell wrong about DDT and Rachel Carson

May 16, 2011

Thomas Sowell bolloxed it up at National Review Online:

Who blames Rachel Carson, an environmentalist icon, because her crusading writings against DDT led to the ban of this insecticide in countries around the world — followed by a resurgence of malaria that killed, and continues to kill, millions of people in tropical Third World countries?

To which I responded:

Rachel Carson Homestead painting of Ms. Carson: Rachel Carson, a child of the Allegheny Valley, was a writer and an ecologist. There have been great writers whose descriptions of natural history and stories of the natural world charm and delight readers; and there have been scientists whose work excites the public attention. Rachel Carson rises to a heroic stature because her conscience called for action, not only words. (Painting by Minette Bickel)

Rachel Carson Homestead painting of Ms. Carson: “Rachel Carson, a child of the Allegheny Valley, was a writer and an ecologist. There have been great writers whose descriptions of natural history and stories of the natural world charm and delight readers; and there have been scientists whose work excites the public attention. Rachel Carson rises to a heroic stature because her conscience called for action, not only words.” (Painting by Minette Bickel)

Who blames Rachel Carson?

Only someone ignorant of malaria and DDT, or someone with a real political axe to grind.

Malaria did not “resurge” when DDT was banned on cotton crops in the U.S.  The U.S. ban did not extend to Africa, and DDT has never been banned in Africa nor most of Asia.

Malaria deaths have declined steadily over the past 50 years, generally as DDT use was reduced.  In 1959 and 1960, the peak years of DDT use, 4 million people died from malaria, worldwide.  WHO cut back on DDT use in 1965 when mosquitoes began showing serious resistance and immunity to the stuff, but by 1972, when the U.S. banned agricultural use of DDT (but continued exports), about 2 million people died annually from malaria.

Today, largely without DDT, malaria deaths are down to under 900,000 — a 75% reduction in deaths from peak DDT use.

Instead, since 2000 we’ve been using integrated vector management (IVM) to hold mosquito populations down, and we’ve been using improved medical care to treat humans who have malaria.  IVM and beefed up medical care was what Rachel Carson recommended in her book, Silent Spring, in 1962.

So, there is no cause-effect relationship between Ms. Carson and the U.S. ban on DDT, nor between that ban and malaria deaths.  In fact, there are fewer malaria deaths now than when DDT was used irresponsibly.

Carson was right.  It’s a good thing wise people listened to her.

More information?  See Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub:

Who knows what comments see the light of day over there?

How many times will conservative commentators of all stripes abuse the DDT/Rachel Carson story before they start getting it right?  How much does that skew their views from the accurate and wise view?


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