In praise of Rachel Carson – Bate responds

Roger Bate of Africa Fighting Malaria has responded to my article with Tim Lambert defending Rachel Carson against the claim that she promoted a ban on DDT that has killed millions of people. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t like the article, and says we’ve overstated the extent of his work for the tobacco industry, though he doesn’t deny working for them. Since we’ve already debated that point with a commenter in the previous thread (the evidence is here with more detail here), I won’t go over it again, except to agree that we could have said more about the extent to which Bate has moved away from his initial position and his links with the tobacco lobby.

Instead I want to start with a focus on the areas of agreement which turn out to be surprisingly large. Most notably, Bate states

there are many ill-informed arguments for the use of DDT to be found, especially online. I may not have done enough in the early years of this decade to respond to those excesses, and may even occasionally indulged in them myself, but for many years I have tried to be logical.

He makes no attempt to defend Steven Milloy, the main target of our article, or his many imitators in the media and blogosphere (some Australian examples here and here.)

Bate also endorses Carson’s warnings on the dangers of overuse of agrochemicals, of which DDT was a major component, and the ban on agricultural use of DDT. He doesn’t challenge any of the points made in the article about the failure of the attempt to eradicate malaria using DDT, or about the role of resistance.

In fact, the only factual error he claims (leaving aside disputes about AFM and its funding) actually supports our case. The article stated that the public health exemption from the US ban on DDT had apparently never been used, and the word “apparently” was dropped in editing. Bate points out that DDT has been used in the US on a number of occasions, so that even the fallback claim of a “de facto” ban, pushed by many blogospheric promoters of the DDT ban story, is not true.

Finally, Bate’s article largely confirms our point that the origins of stories about the mythical DDT ban lie in the leadup to the Stockholm convention, during which, as we noted, some environmental groups pushed for the setting of a target date for DDT to be phased out, but ultimately agreed to preserve the DDT exemption. The link so commonly drawn to the US ban in 1972 is entirely spurious.

While doing some checking I found this AEI piece written by Bate in 2007, which makes a couple of points of interest. First, he discusses the abandonment of DDT spraying by South Africa in 1996 and its reinstatement in 2000 – this is a major talking point for those pushing the DDT ban myth, who normally present this as a de facto ban imposed by environmentalists.. Regarding the causes he says “DDT leaves stains on mud walls, which was the primary reason South Africa’s malaria control program replaced the use of DDT in 1996 with another chemical class–synthetic pyrethroids–although pressure from environmentalists certainly contributed.” (emphasis added).

Second, the article is quite pessimistic about the likelihood of a big expansion in DDT use, despite the fact that most environmental groups now accept it, and the WHO has explicitly endorsed its use in appropriate circumstances. Bate casts the net of blame pretty widely here, including chemical companies like Bayer with alternative products to push, supporters of alternative interventions like bednets, academic critics of DDT, and of course, environmentalists.

The only explanation he doesn’t consider is the one proposed in our article. While DDT has a place in the fight against malaria, the majority of experts in the field don’t agree with Bate that “DDT is usually the most cost-effective anti-malaria treatment”. Here’s a good starting point. Such disagreements are common in all fields. Aggressive attempts to mandate particular technologies, such as the Kill Malarial Mosquitoes Now campaign which would have required two-thirds of all funds to be spent on DDT, are not likely to help matters.

Update: Tim Lambert points out in email that Bate’s description of the petition is incorrect. In fact, it required that 2/3 be spent on indoor residual spraying and drugs, opposing the dominant emphasis on bednets, but not specifically requiring DDT. I’ve added some more links as well.

6 thoughts on “In praise of Rachel Carson – Bate responds

  1. Bayes has got it wrong about the mud walls in any case.

    Spraying with DDT leaves a white residue on painted walls.

    Even when SA re-introduced DDT in 2000, it was only a partial re-introduction, with non-DDT sprays continuing to be used for IRS on homes with painted walls. And that was part of a large cross-border program with Mozambique, who didn’t use DDT at all in their IRS program, yet they also got very good results in reducing malaria prevelance.

  2. Maybe the lesson in all of this is that we should judge people by their arguments rather than their associations.

  3. I still fail to understand why people put so much emphasis on one chemical, DDT, when there are a couple dozen choices approved by WHO to serve the same purpose of indoor residual spraying. Choice must be based on cost, efficacy, ecology and insect resistance among other factors, not on an emotional attachment to one chemical.

  4. Bill, yes but then it’d be harder to stigmatize people who disagreed about that one chemical as baby-killing monsters.

  5. “Finally, Bate’s article largely confirms our point that the origins of stories about the mythical DDT ban lie in the leadup to the Stockholm convention, during which, as we noted, some environmental groups pushed for the setting of a target date for DDT to be phased out, but ultimately agreed to preserve the DDT exemption.”

    Approx 350 NGOs including Greenpeace and WWF presented a platform to the Convention via an umbrella group called IPEN. Here is an extract from the IPEN platform document:

    “�No country or region must be asked or required to take action under a POPs agreement that is substantively harmful to the health or to the well-being of its people or environment. Special efforts must be made to ensure that health and safety are not compromised while a POP is being phased out and eliminated (particularly in the area of infectious disease control, necessary food production and other significant social or health-related matters). These should include the transfer of scientific, technological, and financial resources to help ensure a safe transition away from POPs.�

    This document dates back to 1998, well before environmental NGOs were being slandered by fruitloops from the right for supposedly supporting a blanket ban on DDT.

    The WHO was so impressed by the role IPEN played regarding the Stockholm Convention that it gave them an award and said this:

    � The Forum Standing Committee has decided to present an IFCS Special Recognition Award at Forum IV to recognize those contributing in an exceptional way on a special chemical topic or activity. It is distinguished from the Award of Merit which recognizes outstanding contributions on a global scale of a broader scope and nature.

    We are pleased to announce that this year’s recipient of the Special Recognition Award is the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN).

    IPEN is a global network of public interest non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in support of a common goal of eliminating persistent organic pollutants (POPs).

    Through its effective mobilizing and coordination of more than 350 public health, consumer, environmental, and other NGOs in 65 countries, IPEN contributed much to the successful negotiations of the Stockholm POPs Convention. Awareness raising in the general public and involvement of public interest NGOs was a crucial element for the acceptance and successful completion of the negotiations. IPEN was a key driving force to fulfil this task.

    Since formal negotiations of the Stockholm Convention were completed in 2001, IPEN has continued to play a central role in international POPs work and has been a significant force in encouraging countries to ratify and implement the Convention. IPEN is engaged in educational activities on POPs and chemical safety and has produced information packages and a POPs Handbook for the Stockholm Convention. IPEN participating organizations work together to secure opportunities for meaningful participation by public interest NGOs and other civil society organizations in programmes at the local, country, regional and global levels associated with the implementation of the Stockholm Convention.�

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