An eye-opener from Natalie Sirkin that might well be titled "How Environmentalists Facilitated Malaria Among the Poor In Africa."
The summer of 1971 brought the Sirkins and the gypsy-moth infestation to Sherman and Connecticut. Environmental organizations told us not to spray. In those days, we were all environmentalists. We held out till we could bear it no longer. A few days later, even they gave up.
In those days we still could have had DDT. The EPA public hearing which lasted eight months was still in progress. Its decision by Hearing Examiner Sweeney would vindicate DDT completely, but soon after EPA William Ruckelshaus would overrule Sweeney’s decision. Science could help, said Ruckelshaus, but this was a political decision, which put him in charge. He and Rachel Carson were the sources for the bad on DDT.
Rachel Carson, nine years earlier, had started it all. Her book started the environmental movement. Pesticides were the problem, especially DDT, and her book, Silent Spring, had an impact over the whole country and beyond. Ceylon had been using DDT and had reduced the number of malaria cases from 2.6 million to 17. Seventeen! But when they read Silent Spring, they stopped using DDT, and in a few years, malaria in Ceylon rose to what it had been when they started using DDT.
Even famous scientists (in other fields) accepted the Carson warnings. “The allegations against DDT were repeated so often and stated with such passion that the public remains convinced of their validity,” as Aaron Wildavsky described the condition of the country. As with Global Warming today, only one side was heard.
The Congress was no exception. Tuesday, April 24, was Africa Malaria Day, and Michigan Representative John Conyers invited Pesticide Action Network to Congress to denounce DDT as an “unsafe malaria intervention.” Senator Jeffers had earlier proclaimed that all you had to do was to read a chapter of Silent Spring and you would understand the great danger of DDT.
What else could be thought when for decades that was all one heard or read? Science magazine told microphysics Professor Thomas Jukes of Berkeley that it would never publish anything supporting DDT. In the decades since, the false information that DDT was harmful to the bald eagle, for which there is no evidence, has been echoed in every media article. Even if it were true, millions of children and pregnant women particularly in Africa are dying every year of malaria. Are they were less important than the birds? (They are. Critics of DDT worried about overpopulation, which DDT would permit.)
Judge Sweeney’s decision of April 24, 1972, was that there was nothing at all the matter with DDT. It is not harmful to freshwater fish, wild birds, or other wildlife. “The evidence in this proceeding supports the conclusion that there is a present need for the essential uses of DDT,” declared Sweeney. DDT is not mutagenic or carcinogenic.
His friends in the Environmental Defense Fund (now Environmental Defense) appealed, and Ruckelshaus reversed Sweeney’s decision, finding that DDT ”poses a carcinogenic risk to humans.” He refused to comply with the Freedom of Information Act and failed to file an Environmental Impact Statement. He make several errors, which expert J. Gordon Edwards described and Senator Goldwater put in the Congressional Record. Not a one ever reached the public, though dozens of copies wee distributed. According to Edwards, Ruckelshaus was a member of EDF. Later he sent out letters on his personal stationary soliciting funds for EDF.
Ruckelshaus should have referred EDF’s appeal to the EPA judicial officer, according to John Quarles, Ruckelshaus’s General Counsel in 1971-2. Added Quarles, “There were no findings that DDT had caused any harm or would cause harm under a specific set of circumstances or at any particular time or place.” Quarles remarks appear in his affidavit to the U.S. District Court in Northern Alabama on June 3, 1982.
According to EDF founding member Yannacone, the EDF, then three guys with a clipboard, was acting for the National Audubon Society, a member of whom attended all board meetings of the EDF. In 1971, Ruckelshaus addressed the Wisconsin Audubon Society: “As a member of the Audubon Society myself, and knowing the impact of this chlorinated hydrocarbon in certain species of raptorial birds, I was highly suspicious of this compound [DDT] . . . Certainly we’ll all feel better when the persistent compounds can be phased out in favor of biological controls.” The following year he made it so.
The effort to combat malaria ever since Ruckelshaus’s DDT ban has been on finding a vaccine. Even some of the Gates Foundation mllions are going for vaccine-research. Even if it were siccessfi;, consider the alternatives: Vaccinating all African youngsters under five and pregnant women vs. spraying DDT on the interior walls of huts, which only has to be done twice a year.
Along with the search for a vaccine, the WHO even as it has finally come to accept DDT (as have a couple of environmental organizations) has nevertheless also opted for an ancient Chinese herb, artemisinin, a derivative of sweet wormwood. WHO believes it should be combined with other substances lest the mosquitoes become resistant to it. Such combination therapy slows the emergence of microbes resistant to drugs.
And then there are “bednets,” far less useful than DDT and far more costly but better than nothing, though only two percent of African children use them. The U.S. Government is spending a lot of money on bednets for Africa .
A simple act of Congress could overturn the EPA ban on DDT. Never was there a more efficacious remedy nor a cheaper one. Ruckelshaus’s ban on DDT has to be judged the most expensive error the EPA has ever made. As for Rachel Carson, she is not a model of great women in American history.
By Natalie Sirkin