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Defending Rachel Carson: the last word

June 14th, 2008

The Prospect article defending Rachel Carson I wrote with Tim Lambert kicked off a lengthy round of blast and counterblast in the blogosphere. Some of the response did little more than illustrate the continuing gullibility of the RWDB segment of the blogosphere, notably including Andrew Bolt and Glenn Reynolds (start here). The more serious discussion began with links from Andrew Leonard at Salon and Brad Plumer at TNR, and a reply from Roger Bate, claiming that we had greatly overstated his links with the tobacco industry (Tim Lambert responded here and Andrew Leonard here and here, with plenty more evidence on this point). A further piece makes the claim (which I have no reason to dispute) that British American Tobacco has now switched sides and is arguing against DDT use in Uganda.

Through all this sound and fury, some progress was made. No one even attempted to defend the claim that the use of DDT against malaria had been banned, or the outrageous lies of Steven Milloy (still employed by Fox News and CEI, despite his exposure as a tobacco industry shill) who blames Rachel Carson for every malaria death since 1972. It even turned out that the much-denounced decision of South Africa to abandon DDT use (reversed when malaria cases increased because of resistance to the pyrethroids used as alternatives) was not primarily due to environmentalist pressure. As Bate noted in his reply, the main factor behind the decision was the unpleasant look and small of DDT sprayed on hut walls, which often led to repainting or replastering. A minor, but still striking point, is that DDT continued to be used for public health purposes in the US (against plague-bearing fleas) even after the 1972 ban on general use of the chemical, and is still available for these purposes if needed.

Update:Absolutely the last word Via Ed Darrell a quiet victory for friends of Rachel Carson with the abandonment by Senator Tom Coburn of a block on the naming, in her honor, of the post office in her birthplace. It appears that the campaign of denigration against Carson (and, by implication, the environmental movement as a whole) has become untenable.

To sum up the position. DDT has never been banned (either de jure or de facto) in antimalarial use and remains available for that purpose.
Although there have undoubtedly been occasions when DDT’s bad reputation (caused by the failure of the first DDT-based eradication campaign as well as the environmental effects first publicised by Rachel Carson) led to its being underused, the current danger is the opposite – that pro-DDT campaigners will push for its use when alternative pesticides, or other approaches such as bednets, would work better.

Coming back to the question of the origins of the pro-DDT campaign, nothing in the debate has shaken our position that the tobacco industry, through bodies like Milloy’s TASSC and Bate’s ESEF, sought to divert the focus of WHO and other bodies from work to reduce smoking, and used a variety of strategies, including spurious claims about DDT and malaria, to promote this end. In this respect, I’ll take the advice of Jonathan Adler at Volokh who suggests that the work of ESEF “can and should be evaluated on its own terms”. So, I’ll hand over the mike to Lorraine Mooney, medical demographer for ESEF and later for Africa Fighting Malaria.

In a Wall Street Journal piece entitled “World Bank and WHO Gang Up On Big Tobacco“, Mooney writes of Gro Harlem Brundtland

she has two main focuses: saving innocent children from malaria and saving naughty grownups from tobacco. As regards malaria, it is about time; in Africa, a child dies every minute from this devastating disease. As for tobacco, we can see where this campaign is headed from the call Dr. Brundtland made last week for cigarettes to be available on prescription only, like nicotine patches.

Mooney goes on to describe the WHO/World Bank campaign against smoking as “patently absurd” and “ludicrous”, saying “The poor African countries, which might have preferred help in combating infectious and water-borne diseases, have been disenfranchised by the WHO.” Here’s a 2003 CEI piece from Bate, pushing exactly the same argument. Obviously Lambert and I are not the only ones to see a link between malaria and tobacco.

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  1. June 15th, 2008 at 03:57 | #1

    If only it were the last word. There will be many more words needed to defend Rachel Carson and bring people back to rationality on the issue of DDT.

    In the meantime, I had missed the news that on May 27, 2008, the post office in Springdale, Pennsylvania, was named the “Rachel Carson Post Office.” Springdale is the community she grew up in.

    U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Penn., got a few hundred local people to wrote to U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to urge him to let the bill move that named the post office in Carson’s honor, and late last summer Coburn relented.

    Now, if only we can get the tobacco companies and Steven Milloy to come into the light . . .

  2. yilloslime
    June 15th, 2008 at 04:14 | #2
  3. yilloslime
    June 15th, 2008 at 05:07 | #3

    It’s nice to see Bate tone down his rhetoric a bit and admit that there is no ban, etc. In his newest piece even admits that “the chemical is no panacea for malaria, and it may not be appropriate everywhere.” Still, he’s named that article “An Invaluable Insecticide” and implies that choice currently facing Uganda is between spraying DDT or 300 people dying each day, ignoring the fact that “the chemical is no panacea” and there are plenty of other interventions that could be used instead of it. So he still has a ways to go in terms of toning down his rhetoric.

    He also implies in the article that recent declines in malaria incidence in the Lumbobo region of Africa are due to more DDT spraying, but the article he cites to back up that idea attributes the success to starting IRS spraying with bendiocarb in Mozambique, not more DDT spraying. So it seems he also has a ways to go in terms playing fast and loose with the facts.

  4. Hans Erren
    June 15th, 2008 at 09:00 | #4

    “To sum up the position. DDT has never been banned (either de jure or de facto) in antimalarial use and remains available for that purpose.”

    DDT is banned globally and countries can apply for an exemption for anti-malaria campaigns.

    In my street, parking is prohibited but I can get a parking licence at my town hall.

    Is parking de jure prohibited in my street?

    When I travel to the United Stated I am from a country that is part of the Visa waiver programme. I don’t need a Visa for the US.

    Is there a de jure visa compulsion for the US?

  5. jquiggin
    June 16th, 2008 at 22:50 | #5

    Pretty clearly, if parking is allowed, it is not banned. For that matter, driving a car is prohibited in most places, unless you are licensed and your car is registered. Same goes for voting, opening a shop, getting married, working in many occupations and all sorts of things.

  6. Hans Erren
    June 17th, 2008 at 06:55 | #6

    If parking is restricted, then it’s is not allowed.
    Speeding is also not allowed, it is restricted.
    DDT was almost banned completely, only thanks to strong lobbying of the anti-malaria groups it was not effectuated. DDT is still restricted, countries have to apply at UNEP for an exemption: Thats a “banned unless” policy to me.

  7. jquiggin
    June 17th, 2008 at 08:15 | #7

    Indeed, DDT use is restricted, as it should be.

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