Rachel Carson, DDT and the Greens

At the end of 2010 Channel 4 broadcast a fascinating documentary called What the Greens Got Wrong.

There was a lively studio debate afterwards featuring Stewart Brand, Mark Lynas and George Monbiot, with GMOs and nuclear power were the main topics under discussion. Another controversy, perhaps even more fundamental to the canon of Green thinking was also scrutinized, and lead to a somewhat acrimonious exchange between Stewart Brand and George Monbiot: Rachel Carson and DDT.

In his book Whole Earth Discipline Brand writes of the legacy of Rachel Carson and the subsequent *restrictions* on DDT use to combat malaria:

Environmentalists were right to be inspired by marine biologist Rachel Carson’s book on pesticides, Silent Spring, but wrong to place DDT in the category of Absolute Evil (which she did not) … In an excess of zeal that Carson did not live to moderate, DDT was banned worldwide, and malaria took off in Africa. Quoted in a 2007 National Geographic article, Robert Gwadz of the National Institutes of Health said: ‘The ban on DDT may have killed 20m children.’

and rightly, Monbiot asks for sources for this claim: are the Greens really to blame for 20million deaths? This is a serious charge and demands suitably verifiable references.

Brand just refers him back to Robert Gwadz, a source Monbiot apparently has no interest in pursuing, instead over-playing his hand against Brand, as Keith Kloor noted at the time:

Well, to my eyes, Monbiot is swinging wildly with the charge of Brand being little more than a corporate shill. It’s too bad, too, because Monbiot was clearly winning on points with all the tight jabs that did hit their mark in his latest post.

Roll forward three-and-a-half years to yesterday’s World Malaria Day and Monbiot has post discussing his recent interview with another prominent Green Heretic James Lovelock concerning his new book A Rough Ride to the Future in which Lovelock repeats the same claims as Brand, apparently also without references:

Neither Rachel Carson, nor the green movement – nor the US government seemed aware of the dire human consequence of banning the manufacture of DDT and its lookalikes before substitutes were available … In 1963 malaria was about to become effectively controlled. The insecticide ban led to a rise in malaria deaths to 2 million yearly, plus over 100 million disabled by the disease.

Monbiot tells the same story that he told in 2010: there was no worldwide ban; DDT was no longer effective for malaria vector control due to over-use in agriculture; the Stockholm convention which regulates pesticide use permits DDT use for disease vector control; the whole story about DDT bans and millions of deaths is just a trumped up slur against the noble green movement and the honorable legacy of Rachel Carson by right-wing think tanks in the pay of Big Tobacco.

Not so fast. It seems to me there is rather more to this story than Monbiot and other Green apologists would like us to believe.

For a start, with reference to the Tobacco industries’ conspiracy and Monbiot’s claim of “paid astro-turfers” it turns out that things are not so simple. Fascinatingly according to Matt Ridley, Rachel Carson’s mentor William Heuper fully supported her views on DDT and other agrochemical carcinogens, and believed himself that the targeting tobacco as a cause of cancer- which was only really taking off in the 1960s and ’70s- was a plot to detract attention away from agrochemicals.

So obsessed was Hueper with his notion that pesticides and other synthetic chemicals were causing an epidemic of cancer and that industry was covering this up, that he bitterly opposed the suggestion that smoking take any blame – as an industry plot.

Elsewhere, the tobacco industry has also seen its interests threatened by the continuing use of DDT, thus indirectly finding common cause with environmentalists:

Yet British American Tobacco, in a coalition with many other corporations in Uganda, has called for a delay to the spraying program, warning that the use of DDT could threaten lucrative exports of tobacco, coffee, cut flowers and other agricultural products.

It seems to me that Monbiot resorts to paranoid conspiracy theories because he cannot substantiate his claims either. On Twitter yesterday I asked George whether he was 100% sure that environmental campaigns against DDT might not have contributed to the post-mid-1960s resurgence of malaria, sighting this paper on malaria in India:

In 1947, when India became independent, 75 million malaria cases in a population of 330 million were estimated.7 During the eradication era in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a spectacular achievement was witnessed on the malaria eradication front because malaria cases significantly declined to just 100,000 in 1964. However, reversal was experienced, and malaria staged a comeback. By 1976, malaria cases had touched the 6.4 million mark. A continued rise in P. falci-parum was witnessed, and its proportion has gradually risen to nearly 50% in recent years

Monbiot responded tersely:

-but in fact this is quite wrong: drug resistance is a separate issue that made treating malaria much harder, while no mention is made of DDT resistance. The Monbiot refused to correct himself on this, his rude and defensive tone betraying his desperate need to defend the Greens from any historical wrong-doing at all costs:

Instead, he could have simply referenced the Wikipaedia article on DDT which provides a good summary and confirms that DDT resistance was becoming a growing problem in the 1960s threatening to roll back many of the gains made in the previous couple of decades. However, it is NOT clear that this is what lead to the dramatic come-back made by the disease in the late-1960s:

In 1955, the World Health Organization commenced a program to eradicate malaria worldwide, relying largely on DDT. The program was initially highly successful, eliminating the disease in “Taiwan, much of the Caribbean, the Balkans, parts of northern Africa, the northern region of Australia, and a large swath of the South Pacific”[26] and dramatically reducing mortality in Sri Lanka and India.[27] However widespread agricultural use led to resistant insect populations. In many areas, early victories partially or completely reversed and, in some cases, rates of transmission even increased.[28] The program was successful in eliminating malaria only in areas with “high socio-economic status, well-organized healthcare systems, and relatively less intensive or seasonal malaria transmission”.

So, yes, it is indeed true that DDT resistance contributed to a resurgence of malaria in some countries- those without the means for a more comprehensive campaign relying not only on DDT but also including other environmental controls and public health measures; but this does not entirely let the Greens off the hook

A couple of things do not add up in the environmentalists’ defence since we are told repeatedly that DDT was never banned for vector control. The question is, which Monbiot (nor Quiggin and Lambert, who he references) does not address, instead deflecting the attention away with paranoid ramblings about paid astro-turf groups) is whether the 1972 US domestic ban for agricultural use made it hard to get for health workers in the field- this after all was the original claim made by Gwadz:

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.”

(emphases added.)

Wiki states:

Spraying programs (especially using DDT) were curtailed due to concerns over safety and environmental effects, as well as problems in administrative, managerial and financial implementation, but mostly because mosquitoes were developing resistance to DDT

So the availability of DDT may be a mute point if it had been found to be ineffective anyway and was no longer being used.

There was indeed an environmental camapaign against DDT in the late-60s post- Silent Spring:

DDT became a prime target of the growing anti-chemical and anti-pesticide movements, and in 1967 a group of scientists and lawyers founded the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) with the specific goal of winning a ban on DDT.

Why was this necessary, one wonders, if DDT was already falling into disuse due to resistance?
According to this statement by the WHO in 2006

Nearly thirty years after phasing out the widespread use of indoor spraying with DDT and other insecticides to control malaria, the World Health Organization (WHO) today announced that this intervention will once again play a major role in its efforts to fight the disease.

-suggesting that DDT for vector control used in IRS (Indoor Residual Spraying) WAS severely curtailed, contradicting somewhat complacent claims by Monbiot that there was no restriction on its use for this purpose.

Wiki cites other reasons for the return of malaria apart from insect resistance:

WHO’s anti-malaria campaign of the 1950s and 1960s relied heavily on DDT and the results were promising, though temporary. Experts tie the resurgence of malaria to multiple factors, including poor leadership, management and funding of malaria control programs; poverty; civil unrest; and increased irrigation.

while countries who stopped using DDT experienced an increase in malaria:

According to DDT advocate Donald Roberts, malaria cases increased in South America after countries in that continent stopped using DDT. Research data shows a significantly strong negative relationship between DDT residual house sprayings and malaria rates. In a research from 1993 to 1995, Ecuador increased its use of DDT and resulted in a 61% reduction in malaria rates, while each of the other countries that gradually decreased its DDT use had large increase in malaria rates.

The reports are mixed: banning DDT for agricultural use may have saved lives by slowing the development of resistance; on the other hand, why was it still permitted- or used- in vector control if resistance had been such a problem? How long after the agricultural ban does resistance stop being a problem? The patterns of resistance and use in agriculture vis-a-vis vector control seem to be complex and vary considerably from country to country.

It has also been alleged that donor governments and agencies have refused to fund DDT spraying, or made aid contingent upon not using DDT. According to a report in the British Medical Journal, use of DDT in Mozambique “was stopped several decades ago, because 80% of the country’s health budget came from donor funds, and donors refused to allow the use of DDT.”[130] Roger Bate asserts, “many countries have been coming under pressure from international health and environment agencies to give up DDT or face losing aid grants: Belize and Bolivia are on record admitting they gave in to pressure on this issue from [USAID].”

More weight to the claim that environmental campaigns hindered the availability of DDT in some countries where it was badly needed comes from this letter to The Lancet in 2000, quoted in the comments under Monbiot’s Guardian article yesterday:

Since the early 1970s, DDT has been banned in
industrialised countries and the interdiction was gradually
extended to malarious countries. The bans occurred in
response to continuous international and national
pressures to eliminate DDT because of environmental
concerns…..Despite objections by notable malariologists, the move away from spraying houses was progressively
strengthened by WHO’s malaria control strategies of 1969,
1979, and 1992. These strategies were adopted even
though published WHO documents and committee reports
have consistently and accurately characterised DDT sprayed
houses as the most cost effective and safe approach
to malaria control…..Other mechanisms also have been used by
environmental advocates to stop use of DDT for malaria
control. A recent example is the agreement of the North
American Commission for Environmental Cooperation
(CEC) that forced Mexico to stop producing and using
DDT for malaria control. This agreement also eliminated
a rare source of DDT for malaria control in other countries
in South America…….Numerous epidemics have occurred in many countries,
after suspension of DDT house treatments, such as
Swaziland (1984) and Madagascar (1986–88), where
malaria killed more than 100 000 people….Today, few countries still use DDT and most have no way to even buy this insecticide…The position of
many scientists concerned about increasing malaria was
described in an open letter that was subsequently signed
by over 380 scientists, including three Nobel laureates in
medicine, representing 57 countries. The letter supports
continued use of DDT and residual spraying of houses for
malaria control.

This letter was covered by the Guardian at the time:

“While it is true that we don’t know every last risk of using DDT, we know very well what the risk of malaria is – and on balance malaria is far, far more deadly than the worst that one could imagine about DDT,” said Amir Attaran, director of the Malaria Project in Washington. He and the Malaria Foundation International organised the open letter.

In 2001, Greenpeace were campaigning to “close down the only major DDT production facility in the world, located in Cochin, India.”

Others who could claim to have some personal experience in malaria-torn countries and the use of DDT in both agriculture and disease control who finger the Greens include
Norman Borlaug (though he makes no reference to the possibility that resistance had become a problem); and
Anthony Trewavas in a letter to Nature (which I do not have access to);

According to an editorial in The Economist in 2000

In the early 1990s, for example, the United States Agency for International Development stopped the governments of Bolivia and Belize from using DDT. In Madagascar, the United Nations Development Programme tried to persuade the government to replace DDT with Propoxur, a less effective pesticide. To its credit, Madagascar refused. In Mozambique, both NORAD, the Norwegian development agency, and SIDA, its Swedish counterpart, said that they could not support the use of DDT, as it was banned in their own countries. That the problems of a desperately poor malarial country in Africa might be somewhat different from those of wealthy, non-malarial Scandinavia seems not to have occurred to them.

Monbiot would have is believe that all of these opinions of experts- including Gwadz and Roberts who are experts in the field with decades of experience in malaria control, and the 380 scientists and malaria experts including three Nobel Laureates who signed the Washington Malaria Project Open Letter are just the lazy and ideological parrots of a conspiracy perpetrated by tobacco industry shills.

To accept this is to deny the wider legacy and ideological roots of the environmental movement. As Jon Entine expalains in his book Scared to Death- How Chemophobia Threatens Public Health the post- Silent Spring DDT debate took place in the context of a growing political environmentalism that was often misanthropic in nature:

The issue of restricting population growth played into the debate over DDT in a disconcerting way. The public was confronted with Ehrlich’s (erroneous) conviction that hundreds of millions of people would starve to death in coming decades because of overpopulation. The issue of withdrawing anti-malarial programs as a means of population control was broadly discussed and debated. In his book, Ehrlich himself appeared to “blame” DDT for saving lives, exacerbating the overpopulation problem: “The introduction of DDT in 1946 brought rapid control over the mosquitoes which carry malaria. As a result, the death rate on the island [of Ceylon] was halved in less than a decade. … Death control [DDT use] did not reach Colombia until after World War II. … Each child adds to the impossible burden of a family and to the despair of a mother.” (Ehrlich 1968)

As with many other instances of over-zealous application of the Precautionary Principle, Entine explains:

The paradigmatic example of an overreaction is what happened to DDT, the insecticide targeted by Rachel Carson. DDT remains the totemic villain of the environmental movement, but it has saved more lives from malaria and other insect-borne diseases than any other chemical. In retrospect, the ban on DDT has proven to be a mistake of tragic proportion. In the early 1960s, several developing countries had nearly wiped out malaria. After they stopped using the insecticide, other control methods had only modest success and malaria came raging back. In one of many examples, in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), DDT spraying had reduced malaria cases from 2.8 million in 1948 to 17 by 1963.

Entine concludes that although most environmental NGOs now accept DDT use for vector control, they should not be let ignore the costs of past actions:

Given the state of the science at the time Carson wrote her book, one might generously make the case that her concerns about the potentially unknown effects of synthetic chemicals on human health were not unwarranted. Some key facts were unclear. But after four decades chasing the potential risks of DDT and certain other chemicals without measurably improving world health, and is some cases degrading it, her followers in the environmental movement bear the responsibility of wasting billions of dollars and destroying millions of lives.

Exaggerated environmental alarmism is liable to cause, and is responsible for, a great deal of human suffering, a current issue being the campaign by Greenpeace and the Organic movement against Golden Rice. This is an asymmetric story of wealthy westerners with idealistic environmental obsessions interfering with the much more immediate life-and-death concerns of the poor. The South African journalist Ivo Vegter points out in his book Extreme Environment: How environmental exaggeration harms emerging economies how convenient it was for the US to plan a ban on DDT use in 1971, just after the last developed nation had eradicated malaria from its own shores.

He sums up the DDT debate:

Both sides are wrong. Both sides are guilty of exaggeration. And neither side does the rest of us any favours by their shrill extremism.
Rachel Carson was not evil. She raised very real problems, which in the preceding years had several times made newspaper headlines across her native United States….

In particular, Carson did not advocate ignoring insect-born diseases merely because combating them might require chemical pesticides. What she actually said was ‘Practical advice should be “spray as little as you possibly can” rather than “Spray to the limit of your capacity”‘.

Monbiot is right to challenge the hyperbole of comparing Rachel Carson to Hitler and blaming her personally for tens of millions of deaths, but this does not exonerate the environmental movement which continues to try to ban useful and life-saving technology due to narcissistic fears more than any science, from GMOs to nuclear power to neonicotinoids.

And Monbiot is guilty of his own hyperbole when it suits him. He calls out Lovelock:

James repeats and embellishes an extraordinary and disgraceful myth, first circulated a few years ago by corporate-funded astroturfers, that green campaigners are responsible for the deaths of millions of people.

But is this really any worse than Monbiot himself making unsubstantiated hyperbolic claims such as this about climate change?

This is the great moral issue of the twenty-first century, and if we don’t deal with climate change, we condemn hundreds of millions of people to death.

Is not this accusation -that those who obstruct (a particular kind of) “action on climate” are “worse than Hitler” the origin of the word “denier” which Monbiot is happy to use himself in his rhetoric?

Stay tuned- this is a topic I hope to return to quite soon….