August 5, 2003

Bureaucracy Kills

It may be a bit much to say that millions of bodies "can be laid at the doorstep of author Rachel Carson", as Lisa Makson does in this Front Page Magazine article.

But there has been a deadly upsurge in malaria, especially in Africa, and it seems fair to blame the 31-year old DDT ban that was inspired by Carson's now-discredited "science", and the government bureaucracy and the environmental movement that are too entrenched, funded, stubborn or paralyzed to let it go. Meanwhile, malaria goes on killing literally millions of people.

Makson describes the scope of the problem:

According to the WHO, "more people are now infected [with malaria] than at any point in history," with "up to half a billion cases [being reported] every year." The National Institute of Health reports that "infectious diseases remain the leading cause of death" in the world and is "the third leading cause of death in the United States." WHO estimates put the number of people in Africa dying from malaria annually is equal to the number of AIDS' deaths over the last 15 years combined!

Makson's tells DDT's story, and the essay is thorough and fact-filled, (if poorly edited), and worth reading in full.

But let me get this right. So politically entrenched is the DDT ban, with its accompanying bureaucracy, that even though the chemical's safety has been proven, and millions are dying that could have been saved had we changed course sooner, we can't muster the political will or the social outrage to bring an end to the ban. So who supports the ban?

In a June, 2002 essay by Todd Seavey of the American Council of Science and Health, titled The DDT Ban Turns 30 , the blame for the ban is placed with the U.S. EPA, the United Nations, and environmental groups, especially The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). On the upside, the World Health Organization, the National Academy of Sciences, and UNICEF have recommended continued DDT use, but they appear to be in an uphill battle.

One bizarre angle in the story is that the notion of millions dying is perfectly alright with some of these zealous pro-DDT ban environmentalists. It's population control, a needed social "good" presumably. From Seavey:

Around the time of the DDT ban, Dr. Charles Wurster, chief scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, may have revealed how some environmentalists really feel about human beings when he was asked if people might die as a result of the DDT ban: "Probably...so what? People are the causes of all the problems; we have too many of them. We need to get rid of some of them, and this is as good a way as any."

What's wrong with a little social engineering among well-intended environmentalists? I get it. If you can't defend your position with scientific evidence or logic, just redefine the deaths of millions of people as a good thing. In fact, there's not much to go on to condemn the use of DDT:


No DDT-related human fatalities or chronic illnesses have ever been recorded, even among the DDT-soaked workers in anti-malarial programs or among prisoners who were fed DDT as volunteer test subjects — let alone among the 600 million to 1 billion who lived in repeatedly-sprayed dwellings at the height of the substance's use. The only recorded cases of DDT poisoning were from massive accidental or suicidal ingestions, and even in these cases, it was probably the kerosene solvent rather than the DDT itself that caused illness. Reports of injury to birds could not be verified, even when one researcher force-fed DDT-laced worms to baby robins. Reports of fish kills have been greatly exaggerated, resulting from faulty data or aberrant, massive spills or overuse of the chemical that do not hint at a general danger in its use.

An excellent Washington Monthly piece from April, 2003 does acknowledge that some studies show possible harmful effects:


That's not to say that DDT is harmless. Matthew Longnecker studied American women who had lived during the period of high DDT use and suggested that high levels of DDT in the bloodstream of pregnant women might cause pre-term delivery and low birthweight, for instance. But public health use doses – two grams per square meter of wall sprayed indoors at most every six months – aren't likely to produce those concentrations. Since DDT is not absorbed through the skin, spraying DDT in houses is unlikely to expose pregnant women – or anyone else – to amounts great enough to pose a danger. And scant evidence suggests DDT gets into the environment in significant amounts when sprayed indoors. According to a WHO report in 2000, "The targeted application of insecticides to indoor walls ... greatly reduces dispersion of the chemicals into the environment. For this reason, the environmental risks from such targeted measures [are] considered minimal."

Today, proponents of DDT use advocate using it to spray residences, indoors, and not any longer as an agricultural pesticide, further reducing any possible threat to health. And as Alexander Gourevitch of Washington Monthly reasons:

... the clear benefits of DDT use would seem to outweigh the potential dangers. Malaria, after all, also causes low birthweight in newborns (and mental retardation in infants). And while DDT may prove to have as-yet-unknown side effects, malaria has a well-known, direct effect: It kills millions of people a year.

Another good information source on DDT is here.

And even on a web site purporting to debunk "anti-environmentalist myths", no real, factual defense of a DDT ban is attempted, other than to point out that some misuse and/or overuse of the chemical early on by certain countries or groups of farmers helped to hasten the development of resistance to DDT by malaria-carrying mosquitos. (By the way, opposition to any environmental policy or program favored by empowered environmentalists, regardless of cost or efficacy, apparently qualifies one to be an "anti-environmentalist". Like these 350 scientists, for example.)

I've blogged before on this idea of "bureaucratic inertia", as relates to the issue of overpopulation. Science obviously outpaces government, and as Paul Weyrich said, "bureaucrats almost never admit they are wrong".
And as Winston Churchill said, "The Americans will always do the right thing... After they've exhausted all the alternatives." Well, faster please!

We know now what we didn't know then. And government can't, or won't shift gears to reflect current reality, even if that reality is 180 degrees from the direction they're heading. There are too many jobs and grants and pensions at stake. There are reputations and egos at stake. At least in the population debate, we're only talking about U.N. talking heads pretending there is still a poulation crisis. I suppose it's relatively harmless if they persist, (except for the wasted money.)

The DDT ban is a different animal. Lots of real, dead people.


UPDATE 8/5: This TCS article on the outgoing WHO head contradicts the idea expressed elsewhere, that the WHO favors DDT use


UPDATE 6/17/05: I wanted to acknowledge that the quote from Dr. Charles Wurster used above has been called into question, as this web page claims. Their evidence that the quote is in error consists principally of a denial of it by Wurster. Thanks to the commenter for bringing this discrepancy to my attention.

Updated: March 2014: There are a few newer articles (no kidding...the post is over ten years old)that I thought should be appended here:

From the site scienceheroes.com, a resource page on The DDT Controversy.

And yes, there's a site called RachelWasWrong.org.

If that isn't blunt enough, see also The Lies of Rachel Carson.

Posted by dan at August 5, 2003 1:49 AM