I’ve been doing a little research into how the Rachel-killed-millions hoax was spread. In The War Against the Greens (1st edition, published in 1994), the argument appears, but it is confined to the lunatic fringe:
“How many people have died as a result of environmental policies like the banning of DDT?” the Larouchite [Rogelio Maduro] asks rhetorically. “I’d say millions, because it was the most effective weapon against malaria. Right now methyl bromide is supposedly being banned for ozone depletion, but I think this is really an attack on refrigeration, because that’s what CFCs and methyl bromides are used for: the storage and transportation of food. If you look at the environmentalists’ policies, they say they want to reduce world population to 500 million and 2 billion, and the best way to do that would be to destroy the world food system. That would create mass starvation. That’s the way to achieve their aim”
Ron Bailey‘s 1993 book Eco-Scam: The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse must have found this too nutty to mention, but in his 2002 book: Global Warming and Other Eco Myths: How the Environmental Movement Uses False Science to Scare Us to Death he has a chapter from Angela Logomasini who states:
Nowhere is this danger more apparent than in the efforts to ban DDT, which has led to millions of deaths every year around the world.
The same year Bailey wrote in Reason:
Carson’s disciples have managed to persuade many poor countries to stop using DDT against mosquitoes. The result has been an enormous increase in the number of people dying of malaria each year.
So how did the “Rachel killed millions” claim get from lunatic fringe to mainstream?
Well, in 1998, the new Director-General of the World Health Organization, Gro Harlem Brundtland established the Tobacco Free Initiative to reduce death and disease caused by tobacco use. Since it would also reduce tobacco company profits, they used one of their favourite tactics: When an agency plans to take actions against smoking, tobacco companies pay third parties to attack the agency for addressing tobacco instead of some other issue. For example, when the FDA proposed to regulate nicotine, Philip Morris organized and paid for an expensive anti-FDA campaign of radio, television and print ads from think tanks such as the CEI.
Simplify our arguments.
Pick issues on which we can divide our opponents and win. Make our case on our terms, not on the terms of our opponents – malaria prevention is a good example. …
this will create tensions between LDCs and OECD countries and between public health and environment.
The simple argument they used to drive a wedge between public health and environment was that we had to choose between birds and people. That by banning DDT to protect birds, environmentalists caused many people to die from malaria.
The only problem with the simple argument is that it is contradicted by the story of the fight against malaria. The standard history of this is Gordon Harrison’s Mosquitoes, malaria, and man: A history of the hostilities since 1880, and he tells you the real reasons why the plan to eradicate malaria failed. It had nothing to do with Rachel Carson stabbing DDT in the back and more to do with mosquitoes evolving resistance to DDT, just as Carson had warned. You don’t have to choose between birds and people — protecting birds by banning the agricultural use of DDT also protects people by slowing the evolution of resistance.
By using DDT, Sri Lanka had reduced the number of cases to just 17 in 1963. They thought that had won and suspended the spraying program. Harrison writes:
Despite these rumblings of trouble the epidemic that hit the island in 1968-69 was shocking, unexpected and deeply discouraging The few score cases suddenly multiplied into more than half a million. In a single season parasites reestablished themselves almost throughout the areas from which they had been so expensively driven in the course of twenty years. Sri Lanka went back to the spray guns, reducing malaria once more to 150,000 cases in 1972; but there the attack stalled. Anopheles culicifacies, completely susceptible to DDT when the spray stopped in 1964, was now found resistant presumably because of the use of DDT for crop protection in the interim. Within a couple of years, so many culicifacies survived that despite the spraying malaria spread in 1975 to more than 400,000 people.
Sri Lanka was only able to get malaria under control again by switching to malathion instead of DDT.
So what was Bate’s plan to deal with this?
A book on malaria, either written by one author, or as a collection of papers would be a good start.
If history doesn’t support your case, just rewrite it. And that’s what Bate did, writing (with Richard Tren) an alternative history: When Politics Kills: Malaria and the DDT Story. They rely heavily on Harrison, citing him over twenty times, but when they write about the Sri Lankan experience, they conspicuously fail to mention that Sri Lanka resumed DDT spraying and that it failed because of resistance, instead claiming that
pressure not to use DDT may have been applied by western donors using resistance as a convenient argument. Recent evidence shows that even where resistance to DDT has emerged, the excito-repellancy of DDT causes mosquitoes not to enter buildings that have been sprayed (Roberts et al., 2000). Under test conditions (see Grieco et al., 2000), for at least one type of malarial mosquito in Belize (the only country in which these tests have so far been conducted),DDT is far more successful than the most favoured vector control pesticide Deltamethrin. Hence it is unlikely that malaria rates would have increased (significantly) even if resistance were found.
But malaria rates did increase because of resistance even though DDT was extensively used. Harrison has an entire chapter on this, which Bate could not possibly have missed. Bate and Tren’s history of DDT and malaria is deceitful.
But also very successful in influencing people. Bate and Tren is cited a half-dozen times in Bailey’s Eco Myths book I mentioned earlier and along with AFM funded Amir Attaran is the main authority cited on DDT and malaria. Harrison is not cited at all. Bailey’s Reason article cites an ACSH which in turn cites Bate and Tren.
But Bate didn’t just fool the right-wing anti-environmentalists. His story also proved attractive to “sensible centrists” like Sebastian Mallaby and Nicholas Kristof, because they could write about they support defending the environment but don’t agree with the extremist DDT banning baby killing environmentalists. What could be more sensible and centrist than that!
And the upshot of all this hasn’t just been that Philip Morris has weakened the World Health Organization’s ability to act against tobacco. If you think that DDT was poised to eliminate malaria, then the obvious thing that we should be doing now is spraying more DDT and if folks are distributing insecticide treated bed nets instead it must be because the all-powerful environmentalists won’t let them use DDT.
So last year, after being subject to constant attacks for not promoting DDT use, the World Health Organization announced that it would advocate DDT use in areas where there was intense transmission of the disease. But while this might mollify the DDT fetishists, there was no scientific basis for the change.
All the evidence confirms
the hypothesis derived from modelling, that in high transmission
settings interruption of transmission is not possible.
This implies that IRS must be continued indefinitely, requiring
long-term predictable financing mechanisms. Despite
the increased global investment in malaria control, these
do not currently exist.
IRS must be carried out at high quality and coverage to be
effective in any setting but particularly in high transmission
settings. This requires highly skilled and motivated staff,
well maintained equipment, efficient logistics support and
systems for flow of funds, communities accessible by road
and acceptance by the community. This has been feasible
where health systems and infrastructure are well developed
(e.g. South Africa) or where a fairly small and defined
area can be targeted (e.g. Mozambique, South Africa,
Namibia and Swaziland) through a vertical programme. Many
sub-Saharan countries have now adopted decentralised
and integrated health systems, making IRS a far more
difficult operational challenge. In addition, the fragile status
of the majority of sub-Saharan African infrastructure
and healthcare systems means that heavy investment is
needed before the task of carrying out high-quality biannual
spray campaigns over broad areas of rural Africa will be
Rapid development of insecticide resistance was one
reason IRS was considered unsuitable in high transmission
settings (Zahar, 1984). Whilst this concern should not prevent
IRS use, it highlights that not enough is known about
the long-term role of IRS in such settings. Development of
alternative insecticides is crucial to ensure that control can
be maintained if resistance arises.
Only after IRS is identified as a suitable approach in
a given setting should insecticide choice be considered.
DDT and synthetic pyrethroids are both highly effective in
many countries. Whilst DDT’s longer residual life is a major
advantage, other criteria are also important. DDT is often
cited as the cheapest option (WHO, 2006), yet there are no
robust costing data comparing DDT with the alternatives.
The logistical costs associated with the bulkier DDT as well
as additional safety measures, supervision and internal testing
systems to avoid contamination of export goods with DDT,
must all be considered. Lastly, it is necessary to consider the
implications of longer lasting pyrethroid formulations with a
similar residual life to DDT that may soon become available.
Previous consensus has been that ‘IRS cannot be considered
as a principal tool for long-term malaria control in
tropical Africa’ (Zahar, 1984). There is no new evidence of
the suitability of IRS in such settings, and the operational
constraints to long-term, high-quality intervention remain.
What is new in malaria control is the gradual but accelerating
improvement in insecticide-treated net (ITN) coverage.
Whilst IRS should be considered an appropriate intervention
where the right conditions are met, its limitations should be
accepted and the need for sustained investment to continue
ITN scale-up should not be overlooked.
In other words, the myths about DDT that Philip Morris paid for and Bate spread are harming the effort to fight malaria.
Roger Bate’s existence is a strong argument against the existence of a just God.