Carson Bashing and the Ill-Informed DDT Campaign

June 5, 2007
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As I’ve written several times in this space, the New York Times has become the chief outlet for an ill-informed and unscientific campaign to boost DDT use to combat malaria. Today’s entry comes from John Tierney, a conservative columnist who even includes a link to corporate defender Steve Milloy’s “junkscience.com” website alongside his diatribe.

His hook is the 100th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s birth, which has set off a mostly negative set of responses in the national press. Whether or not Carson overestimated the damage done by DDT, the cudgel with which writers like Tierney beat her and her latter-day disciplies are the dying children of Africa. As he put it:

The human costs have been horrific in the poor countries where malaria returned after DDT spraying was abandoned. Malariologists have made a little headway recently in restoring this weapon against the disease, but they’ve had to fight against Ms. Carson’s disciples who still divide the world into good and bad chemicals, with DDT in their fearsome “dirty dozen.”
Ms. Carson didn’t urge an outright ban on DDT, but she tried to downplay its effectiveness against malaria and refused to acknowledge what it had accomplished.

His chief witness? One I.L. Baldwin, who wrote a review of Carson’s book, “Silent Spring,” in Science Magazine. Unless you paid very close attention to the attribution, you might have missed the fact that Baldwin at the time was an agriculturalist from Wisconsin. How would he know what was happening on the ground in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where the World Health Organization’s campaign to eradicate malaria was taking place? That campaign was largely based on the faulty proposition that widespread mosquito control, such as had taken place in agricultural areas of the U.S., could eliminate malaria in the rest of the world as it had in the southern U.S.

Tierney’s article is laced with references to Carson’s unscientific methods. It’s a funny charge for one journalist to level against another. She was, after all, a New Yorker writer. Her mission was to excite interest and concern. And the fact that we know her name today suggests she did a pretty good job.

But defending Carson is not my mission. The real question is why the New York Times continues to open its pages to diatribes by people who obviously have axes to grind, and who make statements that can be refuted by spending just fifteen minutes in online databases that contain scientific abstracts. The facts are that the pro-DDT campaign spearheaded by writers like Tina Rosenberg, John Tierney, and corporate flack Steven Milloy has only limited application in the real world, and even a brief tour of the scientific literature would corroborate that point.

For instance, here’s what I culled from recent papers on the specific points he raise — that the malaria eradication campaign in the 1960s failed because of growing first world environmentalist concern about DDT:

“Perhaps the most important (reason for the eradication campaign’s failure) was the rapid development of immunity to DDT and later to other insecticides. . . . But politicians and other decision-makers were dazzled by the power of DDT.”

– Arthur Brown, WHO representative in Southeast Asia from 1955-1962, writing in 2002 in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

Are there better methods that ought to be getting the emphasis?

“The historically most effective campaign against African vectors . . . relied overwhelmingly upon larval control. . . These affordable approaches were neglected after the advent of dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane (DDT) and global malaria-control policy shifted toward domestic adulticide methods.”

– Gerry Killeen of the Swiss Tropical Institute writing in Lancet Infectious Diseases in 2002.

While it may be effective in some settings, are there any downsides to spraying homes with DDT?

“In high transmission settings, indoor residual spraying (IRS) must be implemented indefinitely and at high quality to achieve control. As current infrastructure limitations and unpredictable funding make this unlikely, each country must carefully consider the role of IRS. There remains a need to support ongoing insecticide-treated net scale-up. Insecticide choice is hampered by the lack of economic costing data.”

– A group of Uganda specialists writing in a soon-to-be-published article in Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

Their argument, based on experience on the ground: Give individuals their own bednets, rather than ask governments to go door-to-door spraying every home twice a year.

When will the New York Times send a reporter to Africa to report some facts about mosquito resistance to DDT and other insecticides? When will the paper explore cultural barriers to widespread use of indoor residual spraying (which in large parts of Africa, means someone from the government showing up on your doorstep with a spray gun, not a tommy gun, and saying, “Hi, I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”)

And when will they report what might be more effective malaria control policies in the face of those realities? Continuing to rely on people holed up in right wing think tanks grinding axes is shamefully bad journalism.

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