Defending Rachel Carson: the last word
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.