September 22, 2007

More on the DDT Controversy.

I really hate it when people refer to green extremists as "environmentalists." It makes it sound as if center-right libertarians don't care about this cool little planet, and it ain't so.

Courtesy of David Linden comes this interesting essay that attempts to restore Rachel Carson's reputation with respect to the DDT/malaria issue. It makes me sigh a little, though: once again, the Far Left and the Hard Right (or vice versa, if you like) are talking past each other. Dang.

The author of the piece, Aaron Swartz, discusses at length the development of DDT-resistant strains of malaria, but doesn't talk about the fact that agricultural use of DDT has been much more responsible for this effect, rather than the indoor spraying used for disease control.

One of Swartz' most interesting passages deals with early attempts by anti-malaria activist Robert Bate and his colleagues to use the DDT issue as a weapon against the environmental movement:

Perhaps the most vocal group [. . .] is Africa Fighting Malaria (AFM). Founded in 2000 by Roger Bate, an economist at various right-wing think tanks, AFM has run a major PR campaign to push the pro-DDT story, publishing scores of op-eds and appearing in dozens of articles each year. Bate and his partner Richard Tren even published a book laying out their alternate history of DDT: When Politics Kills: Malaria and the DDT Story.

A funding pitch uncovered by blogger Eli Rabbett shows Bate's thinking when he first started the project. "The environmental movement has been successful in most of its campaigns as it has been 'politically correct,'" he explained (Tobacco Archives, 09/98). What the anti-environmental movement needs is something with "the correct blend of political correctness (...oppressed blacks) and arguments (eco-imperialism [is] undermining their future)." That something, Bate proposed, was DDT.

In an interview, Bate said that his motivation had changed after years of working on the issue of malaria. "I think my position has mellowed, perhaps with age," he told Extra!. "[I have] gone from being probably historically anti-environmental to being very much pro-combating malaria now."

I'm not particularly impressed with the fact that some people have used strict restrictions on DDT use as an tool against the green extremists. After all, activists on both sides use whatever they can in terms of imagery to put forward their own points of view. Both sides try to "market" themselves, no?

And I'm not sure that everyone who thinks DDT should be used more widely now is simply trying to save Western money that might otherwise be spent on medications and mosquito nets. The fact is, over a million people a year is too many to lose to an old disease: this should be a solvable issue, if we were all to quit taking swipes at one another for a few minutes and focus.

DDT has to be part of the international toolkit in fighting malaria, and its use has to be monitored by people who don't have an axe to grind: people who are interested in truth rather than scoring political points in either direction.

"You're using junk science!"

"I know you are, but what data am I using?"

I wonder how many people really do want to solve the problem. Despite Swartz' spirited—and probably necessary—defense of Rachel Carson's place in history, I'm not sure he's on fire about the malaria problem itself. He notes that AFM claims not to have taken money from tobacco companies, but seems skeptical about that claim, probably due to articles by Bate such as this one. And yet, tobacco farmers in Malawi tend to oppose the use of DDT, even when it's limited to indoor spraying:

At a time when countries are anxiously waiting for Artemisinin Combination Therapies (ACT), a new malaria drug yet to hit the market, government is on the other hand encouraging the use of Dichrolo Diphenil Trichroloethane (DDT) in the country to try minimise the figures of children that are dying from the disease, but there are divisions in the use of the chemical because some quarters blame DDT as being non bio-degradable and a source of pollution.

Tobacco bodies such as Tobacco Association of Malawi (TAMA) are against the use of DDT in wiping out malaria saying it would compromise with the quality and purity of the countries greatest forex earner, tobacco leaf.

Director of Preventive Health Services Dr. Habib Somanje defends government decision to use DDT to destroy malaria, arguing that it (DDT) shall only be used in indoor sprays.

Somanje observes that DDT can reduce malaria drastically as it sticks to walls for many weeks, thereby curbing malaria and saving the lives of children.

The attempt to line people up into opposing camps (tobacco companies must be allied with the right, as must proponents of DDT) muddies the water. It doesn't help.

Uganda's Director General of Health Services wrote an editorial for WSJ this past summer on how DDT—when used for malaria control only, rather than in agriculture—is a critical component in a comprehensive malaria prevention and treatment plan, and what he calls "African independence in the realm of disease control":

DDT lasts longer, costs less and is more effective against malaria-carrying mosquitoes than Icon. It functions as spatial repellent to keep mosquitoes out of homes, as an irritant to prevent them from biting, and as a toxic agent to kill those that land. The repellency effect works without physical contact. And because we will never use the chemical in agriculture, DDT also makes mosquitoes less likely to develop resistance.

The U.S. banned DDT in 1972, spurred on by environmentalist Rachel Carson's 1962 book Silent Spring. Many countries in Europe and around the world followed suit. But after decades of exhaustive scientific review, DDT has been shown to not only be safe for humans and the environment, but also the single most effective anti-malarial agent ever invented. Nothing else at any price does everything it can do. That is why the World Health Organization (WHO) has once again recommended using DDT wherever possible against malaria, alongside insecticidal nets and effective drugs.

We are trying to do precisely this. In addition to distributing nearly three million long-lasting insecticidal nets and 25 million doses of effective anti-malarial drugs, we will expand our indoor spraying operations to four more districts this year, where we will protect tens of thousands of Ugandans from malaria's deadly scourge. We are committed to storing, transporting and using DDT properly in these programs, in accord with Stockholm Convention, WHO, European Union and U.S. Agency for International Development guidelines. We are working with these organizations and to ensure support from our communities, and to ensure that our agricultural trade is not jeopardized.

Although Uganda's National Environmental Management Authority has approved DDT for malaria control, Western environmentalists continue to undermine our efforts and discourage G-8 governments from supporting us. The EU has acknowledged our right to use DDT, but some consumer and agricultural groups repeat myths and lies about the chemical. They should instead help us use it strictly to control malaria.

(My emphasis.)

And here's National Geographic on the history of malaria in Africa:

In much of the deep tropics malaria persisted stubbornly. Financing for the effort eventually withered, and the eradication program was abandoned in 1969. In many nations, this coincided with a decrease in foreign aid, with political instability and burgeoning poverty, and with overburdened public health services.

In several places where malaria had been on the brink of extinction, including both Sri Lanka and India, the disease came roaring back. And in much of sub-Saharan Africa, malaria eradication never really got started. The WHO program largely bypassed the continent, and smaller scale efforts made little headway.

Soon after the program collapsed, mosquito control lost access to its crucial tool, DDT. The problem was overuseŚnot by malaria fighters but by farmers, especially cotton growers, trying to protect their crops. The spray was so cheap that many times the necessary doses were sometimes applied. The insecticide accumulated in the soil and tainted watercourses. Though nontoxic to humans, DDT harmed peregrine falcons, sea lions, and salmon. In 1962 Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, documenting this abuse and painting so damning a picture that the chemical was eventually outlawed by most of the world for agricultural use. Exceptions were made for malaria control, but DDT became nearly impossible to procure. "The ban on DDT," says Gwadz of the National Institutes of Health, "may have killed 20 million children."

This is a problem that should be solved by Africans, with the assistance of the West. The solutions must be driven by Africans, and the tools applied should not be limited by ideology or preconceived notions—on either side.

Posted by Attila Girl at September 22, 2007 09:00 AM | TrackBack

Aaron Swartz and FAIR prove you can be wrong all of the time. They don't even bother to make it hard to debunk. But their target audience would never bother, would they?

"There are actually an estimated 2.7 million malarial deaths per year rather than 1 million -- see Scientists Find Drastic Underestimations of Malaria Morbidity, Mortality, and Economic Burden (full paper: "The Intolerable Burden of Malaria: A New Look at the Numbers," - supplement to The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene). " Junkscience, Sept. 21, 2007

Might as well cover all the rest of their(JS's) bulleted items--

"DDT is not "sprayed heavily on houses", Indoor Residual Spray regimes use minuscule quantities

Rachel Carson began her fantasy piece with "This is a fable about tomorrow" and that was about the only accurate statement between the covers

Bald eagles were never endangered by DDT and their numbers were lowest prior to and climbed throughout the period of DDT use, indeed most raptors and many other bird species increased during the period

Until recently WHO refused to fund and donor countries outright prohibited use of DDT as a condition of Aid, Green NGOs continue to lobby for transport bans under the POPs treaties and foment hysteria about "polluted" agricultural exports -- all of which creates an effective ban in all but name.

Mosquito resistance to DDT takes the form of excitation and avoidance making it an even more effective barrier against malaria transmission... "

Posted by: Darrell at September 22, 2007 12:21 PM

As I started reading this blog, I was thinking of making a comment about referring to the NGS article in the latest magazine. I was then very happy to see that you were way ahead of me! It was a very enlightening article as is this one. Keep up the good work Attila! There are a LOT of us out here that are "somewhat green" without being rabid and afflicted with tunnel vision.

Posted by: Everett R Littlefield at September 23, 2007 02:54 AM

The reason that the radical greens receive the name of "environmentalist" is because the endings -ist and -ism are from the ending by which Latin forms superlatives. In the purer sense of the word, "environmentalism" means not a concern for nature based on the need to preserve it for our own use, but a concern for nature that trumps all human concerns.

Reminds me of the American Indian tribe that had, as one of its spiritual symbols from time immemorial, the swastika. When the Nazis turned the swastika into a symbol of racism, murder, and oppression, the tribe recognized that the only way to avoid being associated with Nazism was to forswear the use of the swastika, which they did.

The same goes here; the word "environmentalist" means different things to different people; if your meaning isn't getting across, find different words. Just say you're interested in conserving nature so that it will always be there for us, and your position will be clear enough.

Posted by: John at September 23, 2007 09:16 AM

Your search function isn't working, by the way. Try a search for "DDT." Isn't that in this post? The search function says not.

Posted by: Ed Darrell at September 23, 2007 10:12 AM fact, the US 45th Infantry Division, which contained many American Indians, had the swastika on its battle flag (although I believe the hooks were reversed from the Nazi version)...circa 1933, the swastika it was replaced by another Indian symbol, the Thunderbird, and the division became known as the Thunderbird Division.

Posted by: david foster at September 23, 2007 07:41 PM

And then there is are the ancient temples with that symbol on 'em. What a horrid thing to happen to a perfectly nice symbol.

Personally, I'd vote for retaining it, but keeping the hooks reversed in all future versions--for the sake of clarity.

Posted by: Attila Girl at September 23, 2007 08:16 PM

20 Million African children. WOW!

What I find most appalling, is that far too many people will let more children die rather than retract their anti-DDT position. The cost of pride.

I'm told that soon, on a yearly basis, malaria will kill more people than AIDS in Africa.

Posted by: Brian J. at September 24, 2007 06:11 AM

Some bits of irony:

(1) it was DDT's high degree of safety that caused its over use in the first place. One of chemistry professors once remarked that the easiest way to kill a human with DDT is to beat them death with a five pound bag of it. Prior to the 60's, people used to just drench themselves in the stuff.

(2) If environmentalist hadn't gotten so mindlessly hysterical about DDT and blocked its use, then we couldn't use it now because most of the world's mosquito population would have evolved resistance to it.

I suspect the reason that DDT got singled out had to do with political marketing and brand recognition. For the WWII generation, DDT was a chemical rockstar like penicillin. It was the one pesticide that everyone knew by name.

When Leftist hitched their wagon to technophobia, they needed an easily recognizable brand of pesticide to stigmatize. DDT fit the bill. (if you like conspiracy theories, I would also point out that DDT was public domain by then but that the more expensive, "environmentally friendly" pesticides that replaced it when it was outlawed were still under patent. Who did fund the anti-DDT movement anyway?)

That's the problem with politics. It's not nobel leadership. It's an ugly scramble for power that stops just short of violence. DDT got band and millions died needlessly because a political class in the rich nations wanted to scare people into voting for them.

Posted by: Shannon Love at September 24, 2007 07:06 AM

Didn't the tobacco companies benefit from chemical hysteria? After all, chemical hysteria distracted attention from real carcinogens.

Posted by: Joseph Hertzlinger at September 24, 2007 07:51 AM

The lies that rationalized prevention of the use of DDT resulted in millions of deaths per year.

That... is extremism.
That... is a holocaust.

Exactly what equivalence is there between that extremism, enabled by a MainStreamMedia willing to parrot the invalid claims behind the "BigLie", and those that try to expose them?

I know nothing about Roger Bate. Zero... Zilch... nada.

But I do know that he's done nothing to enable the slow horrific death of 30-50 million children in the 3rd world.

Posted by: DANEgerus at September 24, 2007 08:48 AM

Tobacco is an anti-depressant.

Posted by: M. Simon at September 24, 2007 09:38 AM

So is chocolate!

And pretty girls!

Posted by: John at September 24, 2007 01:17 PM

Much as I regret Silent Spring Ms Carson's attack on DDT was based on what then was accepted, that DDT use caused thinning of eggshells and thus potentiated extinctions. After the book, possibly after her death, those studies were debunked - the experimenter(s) had deprived the birds he was feeding DDT of calcium - surprising they could make shells at all. Later studies show the thinning effect, but not nearly as bad.

Posted by: teqjack at September 24, 2007 02:31 PM

Disregard all "studies", unless you are able to read them and understand them. [Both are a pain in the ass, I admit. But what better things do you have to do, given that you seem so interested?]

Posted by: J. Peden at September 24, 2007 07:32 PM

Rachel Carson had no studies. She was just asking the questions. Documenting observations. And that is a perfectly acceptable aspect of real science. When her cause was joined by the Club of Rome idiots that actually wanted people to die, she made the unforgivable error of saying we should forget about the research and ban its use immediately "We can't afford to wait for answers." That set the stage for all future junkscience agenda-driven campaigns--like Anthropogenic Global Warming. I met her once and feel really bad for her. But she brought it on herself. May she and the 70-or-so million Souls(and maybe an equal number of the blind), rest in Peace.

Posted by: Darrell at September 24, 2007 08:20 PM

Children who die from Malaria often die from an encephalitis, that is, from a direct infection of the brain itself by the Malaria protozoan. It can't be very pleasant.

Adults, on the other hand, usually suffer merely from Malaria's attack on the red blood cells, where the agent lodges, then reproduces, eventually distorting and then exploding the red blood cells. This results in anemia - due to the frequent loss of red blood cells -and fever, due to the inflammatory load of destroyed red blood cells and the effect of the Malaria agent itself released into the bloodstream, only to then repeat its effects.

The anemia is somewhat like losing a certain amout of your blood every so often - about every four days in the case of Malaria.

At any rate, adults with Malaria suffer anemia and recurring fevers, which probably feels about like you think it would, resulting in chronic debilitation - low energy, fevers every four days or so, difficulty in maintaining caloric balance, i.e., starvation, difficulty in maintaining a normal immune response to other infectious challenges, like the flu or even anything we might fend off otherwise without noticing it, and so on.

But the adults somehow carry on, unlike the children. And, the adults can always get

Perhaps we could analogize Malaria's effect upon children and adults to that of Tuberculosis in respect to its chronic debilitating effect, and also in respect to its occasional specific effect, like destroying some structure of your body such as, say, your brain. But, why worry, since it's not your brain?

Malaria used to be fairly frequent in the U.S.. We've gotten rid of it via public health measures such as eliminating mosquito breeding grounds - mosguitos are the insect "vector" which transmits the Malaria agent, by injection - and reporting, tracing, and treating cases of Malaria. So far.

Others have not had the same benefits we in the U.S. have had, so we certainly should not let "them" use DDT in order to stop Malaria's transmission. After all, what's important is Eagle eggs, right?

Posted by: J. Peden at September 24, 2007 09:52 PM

I've wondered, on occasion - given the strange ignorance which afflicts people, not just me - if those who propose that mosquito nets will prevent mosquito-bites and their transmission of disease think that mosquitos come out only at night?

I sure wish that was true. But it's not.

Posted by: J. Peden at September 24, 2007 11:46 PM

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