Natalie Sirkin, in an eye opening column on DDT, points out the difference between pop-science and the real thing. Africa is awash with preventable diseases because false science, in obedience to Grisham's law, has driven out real science.
Roger Bate is a South African who has devoted himself for decades to promoting the use of DDT in the battle with malaria in Africa . Bate in his November 5 Wall Street Journal piece, “Last Chance for DDT,” tells how the use of DDT is being undermined by environmentalists and organizations selling alternatives to DDT.
Environmentalists are scaring undeveloped nations telling them that DDT causes cancer or birth defects (totally false). European Union officials are suggesting their crops would be boycotted. Within national donor agencies, teams are writing anti-malaria literature while running No-Spray programs. The U.N. is hurting. Mozambique has run a successful indoor residual spraying program, but the media ignore the news.
DDT is a miracle. DDT is a killer. Which is it? The National Academy of Sciences’ President said DDT is the greatest chemical ever discovered. Rachel Carson said DDT and other pesticides silence nature. She made outright misstatements, but she did it in mellifluent prose that the world found persuasive. Ten years later, William Ruckelshaus, head of EPA, cemented her mission with a ban on DDT.
Today, according to Bate, some of the motivations for misidentifying DDT have changed, but DDT is not much closer to being allowed to save humanity from death from malaria and two dozen other infectious diseases than it was.
Ruckelshaus’s ban followed a seven-month public hearing on DDT from 125 experts in over 9,300 pages of testimony. The Hearing Examiner, Edmund Sweeney, held that DDT is not carcinogenic, mutagenic, or teratogenic to man. The uses of DDT under the regulations do not have a deleterious effect on freshwater fish, estuarine organisms, wild birds, or other wildlife . . .; there is a present need for the essential uses of DDT.”
The Environmental Defense Fund, then three guys and a clipboard, appealed to Ruckelshaus to reverse Judge Sweeney’s decision. Ruckelshaus agreed. He assigned the appeal to—Ruckelshaus—himself--as appellate judge.
Ruckelshaus knew nothing of the case, had not read a page of the transcript, had not attended a day of the hearing. His decision was “padded with propaganda from EDF literature that appeared nowhere in the entire transcript of the hearings,” according to J. Gordon Edwards, professor of entomology at San Jose State University, whose corrections of Ruckelshaus’s errors were placed in the Congressional Record (pp. S11545-47, 24 July 1972) by Senator Barry Goldwater.
The basis for Ruckelshaus’s decision, as he wrote in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, was “its impact on the thickness of eggshells of raptors, brown pelicans, and the peregrine falcon.” Was this the first time eggshell-thinning was made the chief reason for banning DDT? Probably not. Aaron Wildavsky, in his account in his book “But Is It True? A Citizen’s Guide,” makes the statement (though without explanation) that DDT thinned raptors’ eggshells, which caused depopulation of the bald eagle, the brown pelican, the peregrine falcon, and the osprey.
To this day, people believe it. What are the facts? In the articles and manuscripts of Professor Edwards and in Wildavsky’s book, these facts can be found:
• Bald Eagles: Before DDT was widely used, only a few bald eagles nestled in northern U.S. , none in New England . The Audubon Christmas Count per-observer recorded 197 bald eagles seen in 1941. In 1960, after years of heavy DDT use, there were 891 per observer, a 25% increase. The Hawk Mountain Sanctuary counts showed that the number of bald eagles migrating through Pennsylvania more than doubled during the first six years of heavy DDT use, 1946-52.
• Peregrine falcons: Over the last century they declined. Eastern populations declined before DDT, completely disappearing east of the Rockies . There have since been massive captive breeding programs, and they have become abundant.
• Ospreys: In 1946, 191 ospreys were seen by the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association. During the years of great use of DDT, there were great increases: 1951 254; 1961 352; 1967, 457; 1969, 527; 1971, 630; then in 1974, 318; 1975, 279, according to the Sanctuary newsletter. It was thought they were migrating to the West.
• Brown pelicans: There were few in Texas and Louisiana from around 1918 and fewer, around 900, in 1934. In 1937, instead of 1300 nests, 300 were seen. They continued to decline, and were around 300 in 1942 to around 1959. But they were plentiful in California during 20 years of heavy DDT use till the oil spill at Santa Barbara in 1969.
Environmentalists blamed DDT, never mentioning the oil spill.
Of the 25 different birds observed in the Hawk count, 15 were more numerous in 1960 than 1941, and only nine, less numerous. It is surprising, therefore, to find Professor Thomas H. Jukes, professor of biophysics at the University of California at Berkeley , writing in 1992 that his and his pro-DDT colleagues had no strong faith that science would win:
The defense of DDT was, from the beginning, a lost cause. A few of us vainly hoped that science would prevail. We soon found that Gresham ’s Law, which states that bad currency drives out good currency, applies to science as well as to economics.
By Natalie Sirkin