Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Eco-pigheadedness and costly paranoia - DDT

National Post editors will never be accused of being shrinking-violets. The fiftieth anniversary of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring is upon us and the Post pulled no punches marking the occasion in an editorial this week. Wikipedia calls it the book that helped launch the environmental movement.

The Post points out that Carson was correct in that the indiscriminate use of synthetic chemical pesticides is not wise: "spraying large quantities of pesticides can have serious, and sometimes fatal, consequences. Ms. Carson helped sow a degree of caution about synthetic chemicals by showing the ill effects they can have on plant life, animals (Silent Spring focuses on the effects of DDT on birds — the Spring season will be “silent” once they have all been killed off) and, potentially, humans."

But, and it's a big BUT, the editorial continues: "DDT is not nearly as harmful to humans (or birds), in moderate doses, as Ms. Carson suggested. But it is harmful to the mosquitos that transmit deadly malaria and typhus that kill millions every year across the developing world." That's the issue of course, the uses of pesticides and other methods to increase crop yield or protect humans are rarely black or white situations, there are levels of appropriate use.

Its thought that the total ban or at least diminished use of DDT, particularly in areas where serious diseases (malaria) are carried by insects has led to untold millions of human deaths. How many deaths can be shown to be caused by DDT spraying? Certainly not anywhere near the deaths attributed to malaria. What I'm suggesting is that there is a level of DDT use that allows it to be used effectively without undue risk to human health, and therefore it should be used in that context.  

The ban and abandonment of DDT is for me a perfect example of the "lets be safe attitude" that many environmentalists have with regard to global warming and similar situations. You know the attitude, where they come out and say lets curtail energy output, lets cut back on industrial production, lets stop using fossil fuels to drive our economy, just in case it may cause catastrophic global warming, melting of the ice caps, raising sea levels - in fact the whole Al Gore "inconvenient truth" scenario that only the most fanatical still believe. That attitude has the effect of destroying or diminishing our economy on the chance that global warming or whatever will lead to catastrophe.

The Post's editorial mentions the use of chemical spraying in Dallas Texas to curtail the spread of West Nile virus. The irony there is that West Nile's North American invasion is likely an effect of global warming, but the spraying went ahead without much fuss.

My point being, that environmental issues are best examined where they actually affect people, and that is in local situations where those involved can make use of all the tools that are available to them and make rational and objective choices.

5 comments:

  1. How many deaths can be totaled to a lack of DDT?

    Probably none.

    1. DDT has never been banned in Africa, nor Asia. As a complete refutation of Allen Small, India is the world's greatest manufacturer of DDT and greatest use of DDT today, making and using more DDT than all other nations combined. But contrary to Mr. Small's thesis, India is not free from DDT at all. Quite the contrary, DDT seems to be spreading, and perhaps increasing despite increased use of DDT and improving medical care.

    2. Rachel Carson called for use of "integrated pest (vector) management," the method used in most of the world today, at least since 1999. Carson did not call for a ban. Critically, Carson warned that if DDT use were not carefully controlled, mosquitoes would breed resistance and immunity to it.

    3. WHO's ambitious program to eradicate malaria from Africa and Asia was curtailed in 1965, not due to a lack of DDT, but because DDT overuse had bred resistance and immunity into African mosquitoes, in areas where WHO had not even been able to treat any homes. Rachel Carson had become a prophet, just three years after her book was published.

    4. By the time the U.S. got around to banning DDT in 1972, the ban applied to outdoor spraying, on crops; cotton was the most-affected crop, in Texas, Arkansas and California.
    4A. Mosquitoes don't migrate from the U.S. to Africa, nor Asia, mostly. So the ban on DDT, which ended at the borders of the U.S., played no role in Africa nor Asia, except as I'll explain below, in 4C.
    4B. Notice the WHO campaign was halted in 1965; the ban on DDT was seven years later, and no matter how one might like to take things back, EPA was unable to travel back in time to make the ban retroactive.
    4C. EPA's regulation specifically left manufacture of DDT in the U.S. untouched, instead dedicating the entire production for export. Had any nation wished to use DDT, there was a lot more available, at even cheaper prices.

    5. WHO and other malaria-fighting organizations never stopped using DDT; however, mosquito resistance and immunity have made it necessary to test local mosquito populations for susceptibility to DDT control. Testing adds to the cost -- but DDT use can also speed resistance to other, more effective pesticides, so testing and careful use are critical.

    6. Despite the failure of DDT (certainly not Carson's fault!), malaria has declined steadily due to the valiant efforts of malaria fighters. From peak-DDT use years of 1959 and 1960, malaria incidence has declined from 500 million cases annually, worldwide, to about 250 million cases -- a decline of 50%. Deaths declined from 4 million annually to about 800,000, a decline of more than 75%.

    This decline is even more remarkable when one considers the population of the planet more than doubled in that same period of time, with more people moving into malaria-endemic regions, and with the mosquitoes that carry the disease expanding their ranges, too.

    Should we say Rachel Carson is responsible for the difference in malaria infections and deaths, since the publication of Silent Spring? Then perhaps we have the best case for posthumous awarding of the Nobel Prizes, in both Medicine or Physiology and Peace -- Ms. Carson is saving 3 million lives annually due to the decline of deaths, and stopping a quarter-billion cases of malaria each year.

    Malaria deaths are, today, at the lowest level in human history. At a minimum, it is grotesquely inaccurate to claim Rachel Carson is "to blame" for millions of malaria deaths, when the use of her suggestions saves millions of people every year.

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    Replies
    1. Well, thanks for your lengthy refutation. Apparently you have been on a bit of a crusade to defend Carson and the ban on DDT. Here is another blog where you have made comments: http://theruggedindividualist.wordpress.com/2012/07/03/the-green-movement-and-ddt-death-to-tens-of-millions/
      But, I think if you re-read what I actually said, it was not an attack of Carson per-se, but on the environmental movement that Carson helped birth.
      I said "the uses of pesticides and other methods to increase crop yield or protect humans are rarely black or white situations, there are levels of appropriate use." Do you argue that?
      I also said: "My point being, that environmental issues are best examined where they actually affect people, and that is in local situations where those involved can make use of all the tools that are available to them and make rational and objective choices."
      Is that not reasonable?
      Ultimately I think that if there is a tool or a resource that may help save or improve the lives of humans, then it should be used.
      Never once in my post did I blame Rachel Carson for anything.

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  2. I was simply looking at what you wrote. You quoted an editorial:

    [quote]But, and it's a big BUT, the editorial continues: "DDT is not nearly as harmful to humans (or birds), in moderate doses, as Ms. Carson suggested.[end quote]

    At best that is a misleading claim. Carson didn't say DDT is harmful to humans -- but since she wrote DDT has been confirmed as carcinognic to mammals, and at least a weak carcinogen to humans, according to the CDC and American Cancer Society. We know that it scrambles sex organs in fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals when they are exposed in utero, and it probably does the same to human kids. It's an endocrine disruptor, which causes sexual malformations and is a precursor to cancer.

    So, we know now that DDT is more dangerous than Carson wrote, to humans.

    Carson documented that DDT kills adult birds with acute poisoning, and it kills newly hatched chicks from acute poisoning, and she cited the research that showed DDT kills chicks in the egg. It wasn't until a decade after Carson's death that we had the first real solid findings on eggshell thinning, which is a fourth way that DDT kills birds.

    So DDT is even more deadly to birds than Carson wrote.

    I didn't get the impression that either the editorial writer or you were saying that DDT is even more dangerous than Carson thought. Is that what you meant? If so, the rest of your piece makes little sense.

    [quote] But it is harmful to the mosquitos that transmit deadly malaria and typhus that kill millions every year across the developing world." [end quote]

    Carson carefully documented that DDT is almost useless against typhus now, and she carefully documented that indiscriminate use of DDT had made mosquitoes resistant and immune to DDT in the Mediterranean area and other parts of the world. She warned that unless DDT use were carefully controlled, mosquitoes would become immune, and DDT would not longer be useful as a tool against malaria.

    Sadly, in 1965 that is exactly what killed the WHO campaign to wipe out malaria.

    So it's inaccurate to claim, today, that DDT is an effective tool against malaria and typhus, without a lot of qualifications.

    Carson warned malaria would kill more, if we were not careful. She was right.

    [quote]That's the issue of course, the uses of pesticides and other methods to increase crop yield or protect humans are rarely black or white situations, there are levels of appropriate use.[end quote]

    You're almost quoting Carson verbatim. Shouldn't you give her credit for her thoughts?



    [MORE, next post]

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  3. [Continued from last post]

    [quote]Its thought that the total ban or at least diminished use of DDT, particularly in areas where serious diseases (malaria) are carried by insects has led to untold millions of human deaths.[end quote]

    That's false. I've pointed that out. Malaria has actually decreased -- but one can make a good argument that, had we followed Rachel Carson's advice in 1962, we could have wiped out malaria by the middle 1970s. But the lingering of malaria was not due to any ban on DDT. DDT was not banned. DDT stopped working well to fight malaria, because of DDT overuse in other areas. Just as Carson warned.

    WHO ended their campaign to wipe out malaria in 1965, while hoping for a follow-up pesticide to be created; when that didn't happen, they folded their tents almost completely in 1969. The U.S. "ban" on DDT included ONLY agricultural use in the outdoors, and ONLY in the U.S. -- not the indoor spraying used to fight malaria in Africa and Asia and South America.

    If there was no ban on DDT use, and if the only "diminished" DDT use was due to DDT's losing effectiveness as a killer of mosquitoes, then one cannot say that Carson, nor EPA's ban on DDT on cotton in the U.S., caused any deaths to malaria. Mosquitoes cannot migrate from the U.S. to Africa. The U.S. ban on putting DDT on cotton could not possibly affect mosquitoes in Africa, at least 6,000 miles away, seven years earlier.

    [quote]How many deaths can be shown to be caused by DDT spraying? Certainly not anywhere near the deaths attributed to malaria.[end quote]

    Deaths of what? DDT was not banned because of its dangers to human health. So we're not talking about deaths of humans from DDT -- yet. In two separate federal trials DDT was shown to be an uncontrollable poison in the wild when used out of doors, a killer of entire ecosystems. DDT was banned in the U.S. for use on crops out of doors, in order to save wildlife.

    Most people who complain about a lack of DDT fail to note that much of the wildlife affected are species that prey on disease-carrying insects. Songbirds and bats, to mention two seriously affected classes, devour massive amounts of mosquitoes, but are killed by DDT.

    [quote]What I'm suggesting is that there is a level of DDT use that allows it to be used effectively without undue risk to human health, and therefore it should be used in that context.[end quote]

    There you go again, almost quoting Rachel Carson directly, and failing to give her credit.

    [More, next post]

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  4. [Part III, continued from last post]

    Technically, you're right. You didn't quote Carson, nor indict her directly. You quoted approvingly from an editorial that condemned Carson, and proceeded past that to claim all environmentalists are a bit kooky, and unreasonable on the use of DDT.

    Back in the real world, when DDT failed massively, environmentalist like the Environmental Defense Fund, went to work to find alternative ways to fight malaria. ED, as the old EDF wants to be known, supported indoor residual spraying using DDT where appropriate to fight malaria, constantly from 1965 on. It wasn't until the drugs used to fight malaria began to fail, generally about 1999, that most malaria fighters came around to integrated pest (vector) management, which employs any and all workable tools to help temporarily knock down mosquito populations to give new medicines and new medical care techniques a chance to work to cure malaria in the human hosts.

    Using those environmentalist approved methods, progress against malaria has continued. Malaria deaths and infections are at the lowest level in human history, today.

    Ultimately, the environmentalists were right. Had we listened to them earlier, we may have prevented a few millions of malaria deaths. Understanding that, we shouldn't paint a false picture that has those same, life-saving environmentalists, instead blocking the delivery of anti-malaria campaigns.

    How many died from a lack of DDT? None that we know. How many died because First World anti-environmentalists assumed, wrongly, that we could just poison Africa to health, if only those blockheaded environmentalists would get out of the way? That's the questions.

    If there is tragedy here, it is that we didn't listen to Rachel Carson soon enough, nor carefully enough.

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