Spreading the DDT hoax

Two more lazy and ignorant pundits have been spotted spreading the hoax about a non-existant DDT ban. In the New York Times Nicholas Kristof writes

Environmentalists were right about DDT’s threat to bald eagles, for example, but blocking all spraying in the third world has led to hundreds of thousands of malaria deaths.

There is no ban on the the use of DDT against malaria. It is still used for that purpose. This fact is not a secret. Kristof just hasn’t bothered to find out the truth.

Writing in London’s Daily Telegraph, Dick Taverne perpetrates this howler:

DDT is another good example of a chemical that saved millions of lives by eliminating malarial mosquitoes yet was banned after environmentalists – including Rachel Carson, author of The Silent Spring – accused it of causing cancers. Yet not a single study shows that exposure to DDT damages the health of human beings. In Sri Lanka alone, the reported number of malaria cases rose from just 17 in 1963 to more than a million in 1968 after DDT was banned.

DDT was not banned in Sri Lanka in 1963. Nor did malaria increase to more than a million cases there in 1968. Some studies have found links between DDT and cancer (though more studies have found no link). The title “Silent Spring” does not refer to cancer, but the possibility that song birds could be wiped out by DDT.

Kristof at least has the excuse that he has to bang out a column a week and doesn’t have the time to properly research them. Taverne does not have that excuse since since his column is an extract from what would seem to be a rather poorly researched book.

Comments

  1. #1 dsquared
    March 14, 2005

    Oh god please make it stop … this is worse than the tide of Lancet denialists. At least there were statistical questions wrt the Lancet study which were in principle difficult to understand. This is just a matter of “Sri Lanka banned DDT. Did they? Oh no they didn’t, lucky I checked that fact or I’d have looked a right mug”. Why oh why oh why etc.

    I’ve sent an email to the NYT asking for a correction, with heavy heart.

  2. #2 Bob
    March 14, 2005

    Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” is 297 pages in length. How much of the book id dedicated to the link betweeen cancer and DDT? One paragraph. She writes, “In laboratory tests on animal subjects, DDT has produced suspicious liver tumors. Scientists of the Food and Drug Administration who reported the discovery of these tumors were uncertain how to classify them, but felt there was some ‘justification for considering them low grade hepatic cell carcinomas.’ Dr. Heuper now gives DDT the definite rating of a ‘chemical carcinogen’.” (p. 225) The Dr. Hueper to which Carson refers is Dr. W.C. Hueper then of the National Cancer Institute. Carson never directly makes the connection between DDT and cancer, deferring instead to the FDA and a researcher at NCI.

  3. #3 Ros
    March 16, 2005

    If there was not an increase to 1 million is the following false also. Use of DDT in Sri Lanka cut malaria rates here from 3m cases a year in the 1940s to fewer than 50 in 1963.
    Is it correct that WHO spent the vast majority of its $980,000 Sri Lankan tsunami-related resources on bed nets (about $780,000), and about $100,000 on organophosphate insecticide spray, Malathion.
    I ask because my understanding was that the who and aid agencies refuse funding on DDT use and thus effectively ban it.
    Are these stories myths too. I also understood that greenppeace actively campaigns against its use for malaria reduction?

  4. #4 Tim Lambert
    March 16, 2005

    Ros, DDT is no longer used in Sri Lanka because the mosquitoes are resistant to it. For the true story of DDT and malaria in Sri Lanka read this.

  5. #5 Carleton Wu
    March 16, 2005

    Ros,
    Im confused- the Sri Lankan GDP is in the 1000s of millions of rupees. So even if foreign agencies refused to spend their resources on DDT for ideological reasons (which is IMO clearly not the case, as Tim points out), how would that constitute an effective ban? One of the biggest selling points of DDT is that it’s cheap enough for developing nations to purchase on their own.

    As for the WHO’s actual stance on DDT:
    DDT still has an important role to play in saving lives and reducing the burden of malaria in some of the world’s poorest countries, states the World Health Organisation (WHO)…. For many malaria-affected countries, responsible DDT use is a vital strategy for preventing malaria transmission and controlling epidemics.
    http://www.who.int/inf-pr-2000/en/note2000-15.html

    So, yes, it looks like those stories are myths. Except for the first one- DDT was very effective in the 40s and 50s, until overuse led to resistance.

  6. #6 Josh
    March 16, 2005

    Tim,

    Jonah Goldberg joins the group!

    “Whether DDT was as bad for birds as Carson and her heirs claim is still the subject of great controversy. What is not controversial is that the bans and regulations Carson’s work implemented came with real costs. In the Third World, malaria continues to kill millions because Carson-induced DDT phobia. The bias against pesticides produces lower food yields with no proven benefits for human health.”

    http://www.nationalreview.com/goldberg/goldberg200503160743.asp

  7. #7 Scott
    March 16, 2005

    Thanks for the link Josh. One paragraph of Goldberg’s column jumped out at me

    As the name suggests, the thesis of Silent Spring was that the birds were dying from the ravages of DDT and other pesticides. The chemical was found to thin the eggshells of some species of birds, most notably eagles and falcons – which, a pedant might add, are not particularly known for their contributions to melodious springs.

    As I pondered that bit about eagles and falcons, I looked out my window and noticed that the pole on which my American flag flies is capped with a plastic model of … an eagle, specifically, a bald one. Puzzeld and hungry, I checked to see how much cash I had in my wallet. It was then I noticed that my currency likewise contained the image of a bald eagle. Several in fact. Hmm, we Americans seem to have strange fixation on the bald eagle and seem to have banned DDT to protect it. Anybody have any idea why?

  8. #8 Rob
    March 17, 2005

    I think it was banned as a job works program so that even 30 years later hacks can use it as fodder when they have no real ideas of what to write about.

  9. #9 Bryan
    March 17, 2005

    I just came across your (excellent) series of blog entries just as I’d got to frustration point with my understanding of all this in the context of Crichton’s book (see my
    blog).

    I’m glad I’m not alone in being stunned by all this …

  10. #10 Kristjan Wager
    March 17, 2005

    Was that irony? Or was it polutionary ranting? I have a hard time telling the difference these days.

    Keep spreading the word Tim, maybe someone will actually do some reasearch before writing at some stage.

  11. #11 Matt McIrvin
    March 17, 2005

    Commenter “robotslave” on The Poor Man linked to this 2001 New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell, and I’m wondering if this might not be the seed of the DDT hoax. Notice: as far as I can tell, nothing in it is false, and it doesn’t actually support the DDT hoax.

    But it’s structured in such a way (touting the man behind the DDT-based anti-malaria campaign as an unsung hero whose legacy has been unfortunately besmirched in the popular mind by DDT’s bad reputation– probably a fair assessment) that, read with the right preconceptions and half-remembered after an interval of a few years, one could easily end up misunderstanding it in such a manner as to believe in the DDT hoax.

    I’m fascinated by how these legends get started, and I wonder if we haven’t come across a reasonable origin hypothesis.

  12. #12 Tim Lambert
    March 17, 2005

    Kristjan, I think that Scratchings was being ironic.

    Matt, the story dates back at least to Whelan’s 1985 book “Toxic Terror”.

  13. #13 tc
    March 18, 2005

    It’s true that Sri Lanka did not ban DDT because of environmentalists. But it’s also true that major donor funds will not pay for DDT spraying. And there are countries out there that are poorer than Sri Lanka, for whom this makes an enormous difference.

    DDT use has sharply declined all over the world (there are only a few remaining factories in India and China that produce it), and that DDT was almost banned for real in 2000, even though DDT is the most cost-effective insecticide in existence, can be used safely for anti-malarial purposes with insignifcant risk to people or animals. DDT use should be _more_ widespread, but is not because of environmental concerns: and that’s no hoax.

  14. #14 Alec Rawls
    March 22, 2005

    By your own quote, Kristoff didn’t say that DDT has been banned. He said it has been blocked, which is exactly right. If the accusation of hoaxing about a ban wasn’t patently false, it would be scurrilous. I think I see why you get into so many pissing contests.

  15. #15 Tim Lambert
    March 22, 2005

    All spraying of DDT in the third world has not been blocked. It is still used in quite a few countries. And the reason why it is not used as much as it used to be is that mosquitoes have developed resistance in many places (like Sri Lanka) and insecticide treated netting works better in many other places.

    So saying that all spraying has been blocked is exactly wrong.

  16. #16 Tim Lambert
    March 22, 2005

    I clicked on Alec’s name and discovered a post on his blog where offers this super-duper argument against my position on DDT — he calls me a “moonbat”. Clearly, this is unanswerable.

  17. #17 likwidshoe
    March 22, 2005

    Nicholas Kristof said that environmentalists were “blocking” DDT use, not “banning” it. Environmentalists have been blocking DDT use all around the world. Do you deny this reality? Perhaps you owe Kristof an apology for your dishonest charge of “hoax”.

    I’ll second the above commentator. I think I see why you get into so many pissing contests.

  18. #18 Tim Lambert
    March 22, 2005

    What Kristol wrote was untrue. All spraying has not been blocked, and hundreds of thousands of deaths have not occured as a result. Funny how you won’t admit this.

  19. #19 DK
    March 25, 2005

    I wanted to raise a few additional points regarding the claims that DDT restrictions are the cause of millions of deaths.

    First, DDT bioaccumulates up the food chain. Thus, in addition to being a broad-spectrum killer when first applied, the chemical can continue to cause damage to the ecosystems in which it is applied. In the developing world, there is quite often a very close reliance on these ecosystem services for people to survive. I would expect that the damages that DDT can cause to the ecosystems — independent of any human carcinogenic effects from exposure to it — would offset at least a portion of the gains from malarial reduction. Has anybody looked at this factor?

    Second, these residues will follow any food exported from malarial regions, entering our food chains and our bodies. If the quantities of DDT applied in malarial regions went up dramatically, this factor could become a concern.

    Third, as noted by other posters, mosquitoes do become resistant to DDT. Has anybody checked to see if the projections of lives lost due to not using DDT in the articles cited have properly incorporated this fact? If they assume DDT would have remained highly effective for the past 40 years, saving increasing numbers of lives, they would likely be greatly overstating the opportunity cost of not using the chemical. One would expect very large improvements soon after spraying, with these declining over time as resistence in the target populations built up.

    Fourth, in terms of the political angle on this, it is useful to note that there are many western policies that contribute to elevated mortality in the developing world. Fairly broad restrictions on funding of family planning services is a good example, likely increasing both infant and mother mortality rates. Agricultural subsidies in the US and Europe are another. These policies make food and other agricultural imports from the developing world to the west far less competitive than they would be in a free market. The result is to prevent millions of small farmers in Africa and Asia from exporting their food and earning a living. There are probably many more examples. While DDT provides a good hook to slam environmentalists, it would be inappropriate to pretend it is the only, or even the major, source of increased suffering in the developed world.

    Finally, one should ask why, given that the negative attributes of DDT have been known for 40 years, have there been no better chemicals developed for the purpose of mosquito control in malarial regions. Given the number of deaths, the research effort into vaccines has also been extremely low — something the Gates Foundation will hopefully be able to correct.

  20. #20 jre
    March 26, 2005

    Alec and likwidshoe – what Kristof wrote was that “blocking all spraying in the third world has led to hundreds of thousands of malaria deaths”, which is just plain wrong, since all spraying has never been blocked. Quibbling about the difference between “blocking” and “banning” does not carry your argument very far.

    For more information, try

    the Malaria Foundation International
    and click on
    “Is DDT still effective and needed in malaria control?”

    You will find, among other useful facts, that

    DDT has been used in malaria control programmes since the late 1940s, often with great success.

    and

    Anopheles mosquitoes are physiologically resistant to DDT in some regions, and thus DDT is not effective in these areas. Currrent insecticide resistance test data should be used when planning malaria control efforts.

    The Malaria Foundation

    argued successfully
    against a ban on DDT, yet offers the caution above about insecticide resistance and (not coincidentally) supports rules against use of DDT in agriculture.

    Conclusions:

    Kristof was wrong.

    Goldberg was wrong.

    You will need to find another stick to beat environmentalists with.