Lomborg on the mythical DDT ban

One of the great themes (or maybe memes) of rightwing delusionism in recent years has been the alleged ban on the antimalarial use of DDT, supposed to have cost millions (or, on some accounts, billions) of lives. It’s not hard to prove that this ban is totally mythical and that the failure of DDT to eradicate malaria, evident well before the 1972 ban on agricultural use in the US, was primarily due to resistance and cost factors. It’s also possible to trace the myth to its roots in rightwing fringe movements like the LaRouchites and the John Birch Society, and document its popularisation by tobacco lobbyists like Roger Bate and Steve Milloy, who used it to attack WHO. (Search on DDT here or over at Tim Lambert’s site for the details) But it’s harder to tell when this fringe conspiracy theory became part of rightwing orthodoxy.

This 2001 debate between Bjorn Lomborg and Tom Burke in Prospect is unfortunately paywalled, but you can read much of the text here. The money quote from Lomborg

DDT has helped wipe out endemic malaria in both Europe and north America, and its cheap protection still works wonders for third world malaria

It’s unsurprising that Lomborg takes a favorable view of DDT. What’s notable here is that, as of 2001, he hadn’t got the memo about evil environmentalists banning it. On the other hand, as this old post of mine shows, the myth had made it into more general rightwing circulation by 2003, and it was taken as incontestable truth by most rightwingers a year or two later.

50 thoughts on “Lomborg on the mythical DDT ban

  1. Re: Lomborg’s comparison with coffee: I don’t think that can be connected to the ban, as I’m fairly sure the possible carcinogenic effects on humans weren’t part of the reason for banning agricultural use of DDTs.

  2. Apologies for typos in the above, I was called away.
    6. at pp.242-244 Lomborg mentions Time’s claim (supported by Greenpeace) in 1993 that DDT was the likeliest cause of breast cancer in the USA, but notes that the National Research Council considered it unlikely that substances whose prevalence had long been decreasing could be responsible for the increasing incidence of breast cancer.
    It seems conclusive from Lomborg’s great book that he never explicitly asserts the existence ever of a worldwide ban, and in fact supports reduced use of DDT etc as a pesticide because of its harmful effects on the environment, while suggesting to Prof. Quiggin that perhaps he should reduce his coffee intake.

  3. Hmm, ok, I take that previous statement back. It would seem from http://www.someareboojums.org/blog/wp-content/images/ddt/ead.pdf that the possible carcinogenic effect on humans was listed as the first reason for the ban, on the basis that while the immediate risks were neglible, the long term risks from long-term use were more considerable. That is, if DDT had continued to be used in large quantities for agricultural use, it would eventually accumulate in sufficient concentrations to present a serious human health risk.
    (BTW http://www.someareboojums.org/blog/?p=62 is about the most comprehensive discussion of the whole DDT ban issue I’ve seen – the author actually bothered to dig up original files from the EPA).

  4. #25 On the contrary, the headline is neutral and the post makes it clear that as of 2001, Lomborg had never heard the claim that DDT was banned.

  5. #29. Not so fast. Lomborg clearly believed as early as 1998 (Danish edition) that there were bans on DTT, which explained why DDT levels in shell fish dropped from 1973 in various countries including the USA and Denmark, v. Skeptical Environmentalist, Engish version 2001, page 235:“our intake of coffee is about 50 times more carcinogenic than our intake of DDT before it was banned”. Compare that with your statement that “as of 2001, Lomborg had never heard the claim that DDT was banned”. Clearly you are wrong.

    Your problem – and Tim Lambert’s – is that you think DTT should be banned and regret that it was not except in a few mostly OECD countries where malaria was not a problem but where excessive use as a pesticide was rightly “banned” or at least restricted, as Lomborg shows. You both imagine that non-DDT attacks on malaria are preferable to house spraying with DDT and do not equally or worse generate resistance, which is why you think it should now be banned even if it never was worldwide.

  6. I wonder why the focus was on the carcinogenic effects of DDT in the risk analysis. Given that it is a nerve toxin, I would have thought a build of DDT in body tissue would result in an increase in nervous and brain disorders. (Perhaps of the type that absinthe abuse causes given the wormwood extract in this drink is a chemical closely related to DDT.)

  7. For reasons that are no doubt fully explicable, Professor Quiggin has as yet failed to respond to my last. There I showed that contrary to his opening assertion on this thread, Bjorn Lomborg did in fact understand that there was some kind of ban or restriction on use of DDT as a pesticide in countries like the USA and Denmark from about 1972 (when the USA’s EPA formalised such a ban).

    Fast forwarding, we come to the IPCC, 2nd AR, 1996, when Paul Rieter, arguably the world’s leading expert on mosquito-borne disease, was recruited by the IPCC to be a contributor to its chapter “proving” that climate change would lead to malaria sweeping across the globe and wiping out most of us. Amongst his fellow 1,500 experts (the IPCC always aggregates across all disciplines), he found that for his chapter there was one whose expertise was the effectiveness of motor cycle helmets and the health effects of cell phones. Not one of the other TWENTY “lead authors” of the chapter on malaria and other vector-borne diseases had ever written a paper on such diseases (did this group include Quiggin and Lambert, I wonder?). The group of Twenty then anticipated the Stern Report by claiming that climate change (sic) would lead to malaria returning with a vengeance to London and New York, increasing the proportion of the world’s population at risk of malaria to 60%, leading to at least 50-80 million extra cases a year. This chapter by 20 “experts” was then proclaimed to the world by the IPCC as the consensus of the world’s top 1,500 scientists, not of the 20 who actually wrote the chapter (remember this was only in 1996, by 2007 we are up to 2,600 experts who are expert on ALL subjects). Reiter later refused to participate in the 2001 IPCC Report, which cranked up its prognosis nonetheless, to be seized on by the Stern Report as the basis for saying we are all doomed to die of malaria quite soon unless his mantras are adopted.

    Reiter’s take is worth noting, ignored as it is by the Henrys, Lamberts, and Quiggins of this debate: “a genuine concern for mankind and the environment demands the inquiry, accuracy, and scepticism that are intrinsic to authentic science”. I fully expect to be banned after this, just as Lambert “disemvowels” all he disagrees with.

  8. As I surmised, my last contribution has so far been “moderated”, this century’s word for “censored”. So here it is again.

    Arthur T Wall Says:
    April 11th, 2008 at 8:28 pm
    For reasons that are no doubt fully explicable, Professor Quiggin has as yet failed to respond to my last. There I showed that contrary to his opening assertion on this thread, Bjorn Lomborg did in fact understand that there was some kind of ban or restriction on use of DDT as a pesticide in countries like the USA and Denmark from about 1972 (when the USA’s EPA formalised such a ban).

    Fast forwarding, we come to the IPCC, 2nd AR, 1996, when Paul Rieter, arguably the world’s leading expert on mosquito-borne disease, was recruited by the IPCC to be a contributor to its chapter “proving� that climate change would lead to malaria sweeping across the globe and wiping out most of us. Amongst his fellow 1,500 experts (the IPCC always aggregates across all disciplines), he found that for his chapter there was one whose expertise was the effectiveness of motor cycle helmets and the health effects of cell phones. Not one of the other TWENTY “lead authors� of the chapter on malaria and other vector-borne diseases had ever written a paper on such diseases (did this group include Quiggin and Lambert, I wonder?). The group of Twenty then anticipated the Stern Report by claiming that climate change (sic) would lead to malaria returning with a vengeance to London and New York, increasing the proportion of the world’s population at risk of malaria to 60%, leading to at least 50-80 million extra cases a year. This chapter by 20 “experts� was then proclaimed to the world by the IPCC as the consensus of the world’s top 1,500 scientists, not of the 20 who actually wrote the chapter (remember this was only in 1996, by 2007 we are up to 2,600 experts who are expert on ALL subjects). Reiter later refused to participate in the 2001 IPCC Report, which cranked up its prognosis nonetheless, to be seized on by the Stern Report as the basis for saying we are all doomed to die of malaria quite soon unless his mantras are adopted.

    Reiter’s take is worth noting, ignored as it is by the Henrys, Lamberts, and Quiggins of this debate: “a genuine concern for mankind and the environment demands the inquiry, accuracy, and scepticism that are intrinsic to authentic science�. I fully expect to be banned after this, just as Lambert “disemvowels� all he disagrees with.

  9. To help folks get a handle on the level of honesty Wall brings to the discussion, he has posted 22 times on my blog so far this month. Not once has he been censored or disemvowelled.

    His assertions about the SAR are, as far as I can tell, untrue.

  10. WRT Northern Europe and the US, the statement should be that malaria is not endemic to areas which are cold enough to kill of the mosquitoes during the winter and break the chain. Reinfection occurs by bringing in mosquitoes during the summer in freight, etc. or by people being infected in the tropics and then being bitten when the return home. DDT etc has little to do with these isolated cases, although, of course, they can spread.

    Malaria was endemic to southern Europe and the southern US.

  11. I’ve been sick for past couple of days, so don’t expect anything much from me for a while.

  12. According to Arthur T Wall ‘Lambert “disemvowelsâ€? all he disagrees with’.

    There is a very simple way to refute this ludicrous claim – one need merely check any of the threads at Deltoid and count the numner of (extremely abundant) comments that disagree with Tim Lambert, and to count the number of disemvowelled posts. The latter are thin on the ground indeed.

    Even a minute or two of cursory sifting through Deltoid will show Arthur T Wall to be lying through his teeth.

    Arthur T Wall, I suggest that you take a reality check and sincerely, unreservedly and humbly apologise to Tim Lambert.

  13. i checked my moderation queue and spam trap Arthur and there’s nothing from you. the problem must be at your end.

  14. Apologies, but how about same from Prof. Quiggin to Lomborg who is regularly denigated here?

  15. ATW, having just apologized for lying about Tim Lambert, you now owe me a further apology for suggesting I’ve done the same about Lomborg.

    I’m getting very tired of trolls, so please either deliver an unqualified apology or stop commenting here.

  16. Tim and the Dingo Dogs on the Island of Doubt know that I flatout reject all of this climate change claptrap and global warming gobblygook, but I still have my bowels. As a matter of fact I flatout reject Roger Sr’s ideas that land use changes effect global climate although these can effect local and regional weather and possibily local climate.

    I base this conclusion on the fact the humans occupy only a small amount of the earth’s surface
    and of that only a quite small amount land has been totally modified from its original form as exemplified by large cities.

    The geographical surface area of Canada is about 3 trillion acres if bodies of water such as Hudson Bay and all the Arctic seas are included, but the population is only 33 million. Essentially Canada is unpopulated. Ditto for Siberia, Australia and the deserts which are 33% of the land surface area. Toss in the polar deserts, and how much land is left for humans?
    Not very much!

  17. JQ: so you categorically deny (a) that you HAVE ever said HERE (i.e. on your blog) that Lomborg is not a statistician, and (b) that on this very thread, that Lomborg NEVER said there had been a DDT ban? Take care, I gave the page ref here where he did say there had been such a ban.

  18. ATW

    1. You are permanently barred from making any further comments on this site, as previously advised

    For the information of readers who might care:

    2. Lomborg is not a statistician. When he was an academic he was a political scientist. His published work (of which only one paper was of any note, AFAIK) was in the area of game theory and computer simulations.

    3. DDT was banned for general (but not public health use) in the US in 1972, and similar bans apply in other countries. There is no global ban on the antimalarial use of DDT, and there never has been. As far as I know, Lomborg has never contradicted these facts- certainly his statements in the discussion quoted above are consistent with them.

  19. That’s really pathetic, but I regret to say consistent with his past behaviour. Curtin is supposed to be an academic. Resorting to posting under false names at a site where he is not welcome is not the kind of thing I would expect from any responsible adult.

  20. Professor Quiggin,

    I am one of those delusional right wingers who think DDT has gotten a bad rap (although I have never once in my life considered myself a conservative). Granted it tends to thin the eggs shells of raptors (the famous one being the bald eagle) and caused some species near extinction.

    However we know fire is hot but we still use it to warm ourselves. I believe we just need to realize that DDT can cause harm to that type of wildlife and using it in sensible ways. There was never a worldwide ban on DDT usage but there was an ill advised campaign by WWF and Greenpeace to discourage it’s use in Africa.

    The above are the problems I have with the current public opinion of DDT and I welcome any comments that would set me free of my delusions.

  21. Ben, question for you, given the vast majority of lobby groups put human interests above those of other species, do you think it’s unacceptable that there are one or two that put the interests of other species above those of humans?

    (I actually don’t particularly believe the WWF puts the interests of other species ahead of those of humans, but I can understand why some might see them that way).

  22. Hi wizofaus,

    Not at all. As long as it’s not done at the expense of humans. In the DDT example I would be happy for people to lobby for the intelligent use of DDT as a vector control agent in areas where it will not harm affected species. Just not a blanket ban.

  23. But that’s just it…a lobby group that puts the interest of other species above those of humans IS by definition promoting things that, in one way or another, “at the expense of humans”.

    After all, most of our existence is at the expense of other species. For the most part, this is reasonably justifiable (seeing as any species that doesn’t put itself first isn’t going to last long), but it’s when we start imagining that the needs of other species count for nothing that we risk creating a uninhabitable (or at least not very pleasant) world.

  24. There is a difference between being at the expense of human convenience and the expense of human lives. It might be easier just to spray an entire nation with DDT and have done with it but that puts carrion at risk. However if we ask a nation to ban DDT outright it is placing Humans in harm’s way.

    Why would a group that puts animals first feel the need to advocate a course of action that doesn’t help the animals yet in turn harms humans?

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