Defending Rachel Carson: the last word

by John Q on June 14, 2008

The Prospect article defending Rachel Carson I wrote with Tim Lambert kicked off a lengthy round of blast and counterblast in the blogosphere. Some of the response did little more than illustrate the continuing gullibility of the RWDB segment of the blogosphere, notably including Glenn Reynolds (start here). The more serious discussion began with links from Andrew Leonard at Salon and Brad Plumer at TNR, and a reply from Roger Bate, claiming that we had greatly overstated his links with the tobacco industry (Tim Lambert responded here and Andrew Leonard here and here, with plenty more evidence on this point). A further piece makes the claim (which I have no reason to dispute) that British American Tobacco has now switched sides and is arguing against DDT use in Uganda.

Through all this sound and fury, some progress was made. No one even attempted to defend the claim that the use of DDT against malaria had been banned, or the outrageous lies of Steven Milloy (still employed by Fox News and CEI, despite his exposure as a tobacco industry shill) who blames Rachel Carson for every malaria death since 1972. It even turned out that the much-denounced decision of South Africa to abandon DDT use (reversed when malaria cases increased because of resistance to the pyrethroids used as alternatives) was not primarily due to environmentalist pressure. As Bate noted in his reply, the main factor behind the decision was the unpleasant look and small of DDT sprayed on hut walls, which often led to repainting or replastering. A minor, but still striking point, is that DDT continued to be used for public health purposes in the US (against plague-bearing fleas) even after the 1972 ban on general use of the chemical, and is still available for these purposes if needed.

Update:Absolutely the last word Via Ed Darrell a quiet victory for friends of Rachel Carson with the abandonment by Senator Tom Coburn of a block on the naming, in her honor, of the post office in her birthplace. It appears that the campaign of denigration against Carson (and, by implication, the environmental movement as a whole) has become untenable.

To sum up the position. DDT has never been banned (either de jure or de facto) in antimalarial use and remains available for that purpose.
Although there have undoubtedly been occasions when DDT’s bad reputation (caused by the failure of the first DDT-based eradication campaign as well as the environmental effects first publicised by Rachel Carson) led to its being underused, the current danger is the opposite – that pro-DDT campaigners will push for its use when alternative pesticides, or other approaches such as bednets, would work better.

Coming back to the question of the origins of the pro-DDT campaign, nothing in the debate has shaken our position that the tobacco industry, through bodies like Milloy’s TASSC and Bate’s ESEF, sought to divert the focus of WHO and other bodies from work to reduce smoking, and used a variety of strategies, including spurious claims about DDT and malaria, to promote this end. In this respect, I’ll take the advice of Jonathan Adler at Volokh who suggests that the work of ESEF “can and should be evaluated on its own terms”. So, I’ll hand over the mike to Lorraine Mooney, medical demographer for ESEF and later for Africa Fighting Malaria.

In a Wall Street Journal piece entitled “World Bank and WHO Gang Up On Big Tobacco“, Mooney writes of Gro Harlem Brundtland

she has two main focuses: saving innocent children from malaria and saving naughty grownups from tobacco. As regards malaria, it is about time; in Africa, a child dies every minute from this devastating disease. As for tobacco, we can see where this campaign is headed from the call Dr. Brundtland made last week for cigarettes to be available on prescription only, like nicotine patches.

Mooney goes on to describe the WHO/World Bank campaign against smoking as “patently absurd” and “ludicrous”, saying “The poor African countries, which might have preferred help in combating infectious and water-borne diseases, have been disenfranchised by the WHO.” Here’s a 2003 CEI piece from Bate, pushing exactly the same argument. Obviously Lambert and I are not the only ones to see a link between malaria and tobacco.



Commenterlein 06.14.08 at 5:27 am

The comment section over at Volokh is incredibly depressing. So much stupidity and ignorance.


bi 06.14.08 at 8:42 am

Strangely, Jonathan “on its own terms” Adler is totally silent on those wackos who start spewing out global warming talking points. I’m still waiting for his indignation over these people’s “shameful” “slimes”.

But I guess he thinks it’s OK, since they’re on his side.

 – bi, Intl. J. Inact.


JP Stormcrow 06.14.08 at 3:25 pm

This is at a pay site at which I do not have an account, but I assume some might have institutional access. Monsanto’s “A Desolate Year” which begins:

Public health experts regard DDT as the greatest life-saving chemical ever developed. One consequence of its success is that it became the most widely applied chemical in human history. DDT is effective because unlike other pesticides it destroys hundreds of different…


Adam 06.14.08 at 7:26 pm

I suspect the real question is whether Rachel Carson or her faction advocated the complete banning of DDT.


Eli Rabett 06.14.08 at 9:26 pm

It would be a good thing if others joined the comments at Volokh. Adler is no fool. He recognizes that humans are driving climate change but cannot reconcile what must be done with his libertarianism. He wants someone to help his unbelief.


Robin Green 06.14.08 at 10:52 pm

He recognizes that humans are driving climate change but cannot reconcile what must be done with his libertarianism.

That’s a key part of what drives global warming denialism in the US, and that’s why you don’t see that denialism to the same extent in the UK. Like evolution by natural selection, which is an existential threat to a certain popular variety of religious fundamentalism, global warming is an existential threat to libertarianism.

You cannot hold that minarchism is the solution to every problem, and yet believe that human-induced climate change is one of the biggest problems facing our planet. The two beliefs simply are not compatible.
Just as you cannot simultaneously believe that the Bible (or the Torah, or the Koran, etc. etc.) is the unerrant word of God, to be taken literally, and that evolution is fact.

Cognitive dissonance is a powerful thing.


Pinus contorta 06.14.08 at 10:57 pm

4: No a complete ban is not the “real question” because she did not advocate for one. Rachel Carson wanted to stop the use of DDT for agricultural use not just for environmental reasons. Indiscrimate use of DDT would lead to resistant mosquitos and make it less effective for protecting public health.


MikeJ 06.15.08 at 12:37 am

pinus, adam was simply trolling trying to move the goalposts. Next it will be, “sure Rachel Carson didn’t have the letters D or T in her name, but if any of her supporters did, we should obviously perform full immersion baptisms in DDT. It’s obvious.”


Robert Waldmann 06.15.08 at 8:02 am

I don’t understand the trade off you see between DDT and bed-nets “the current danger is the opposite – that pro-DDT campaigners will push for its use when alternative pesticides, or other approaches such as bed-nets, would work better.” I thought the standard approach to malaria prevention was DDT impregnated bed-nets so not one or the other but both together.

I don’t see any advantage to untreated bed-nets. The evidence that insecticide on bednets saves many lives is strong
(note permethrin not DDT in that case). I don’t see how suggesting to people that they put insecticide on their bed-nets could reduce their use of bed-nets.


Ed Darrell 06.15.08 at 8:27 am

Eli, comments are closed at Volokh’s site.

Comments are still open here, with one of the more bellicose of the Volokh commenters:

Or, please, feel free to drop by my blog and leave a comment on any of the several threads about DDT and Rachel Carson. I posted a day or so ago about the happy piece of news I had missed earlier — Sen. Coburn released his hold on the bill to name the post office in her hometown after Rachel Carson, and the ceremony took place on May 27, in Springdale, Pennsylvania.

Every bit of small encouragement helps — helps me, at least.


John Quiggin 06.15.08 at 9:22 am

#9 From what I’ve read, pyrethroids are generally preferred to DDT for bednets, although DDT-impregnated nets were used in WWII.

It’s not clear to me exactly why pyrethroids are favoured more in this context than in relation to spraying.


SG 06.15.08 at 10:59 am

john, isn’t the preference something to do with a combination of cost-effectiveness and resistance? I think that there were some studies linked to a while ago on deltoid which showed this.

It’s funny how libertarians, while supposedly so excited by the true free market, always seem to end up supporting distorting monopolies – nuclear power, aerial spraying, big tobacco, big oil.

It’s almost as if they weren’t being honest about their motives.


J F Beck 06.15.08 at 1:38 pm

Pyrethroids are used for bednets because of their low mammalian toxicity (possible direct overnight human contact with the net) and much higher potency.


Robert Waldmann 06.16.08 at 6:22 am

Ah I see. google scholar does seem convinced that bed nets are usually impregnated with permethrin. Even if I search for: malaria bed-nets ddt I get comparisons of permethrin impregnated bed nets to DDT spraying.

I don’t understand. I didn’t think that DDT has genuine mammalian toxicity (I’ll check). I would guess it is the higher potency.

OK no luck with google scholar so I (blush) went to the Wikipedia. My reading of the evidence is that it is about what one would expect for a benign chemical. However, it seems very likely that concerns about human toxicity of DDT are a factor. I will go on about the wiki at my blog (when blogger lets me)

Anyway I learned something here. Thanks.


J F Beck 06.16.08 at 7:36 am

Mr Waldmann,

DDT is not highly toxic to humans but is unlikely to be used on a bed net that a child or infant might suck on overnight. Just imagine the uproar.

The link below shows the potencies of the various insecticides approved for IRS – it appears that the insecticides approved for use on bed nets are also used for IRS. It is worth noting that the only insecticide on the list with a potency approaching the pyrethroids (bendiocarb) was withdrawn from the US market because of the danger it poses to children, who might lick sprayed surfaces.


John Quiggin 06.17.08 at 3:33 am

I’ve deleted a couple of OT comments.


R.K. 06.18.08 at 7:25 pm

Very interesting point on a malaria/tobacco link. I hadn’t heard that before. I like the Mooney quote.

here’s another interesting recent defense of Rachel Carson:


trollhattan 06.18.08 at 7:57 pm

DDT’s threat is primarily from chronic rather than acute exposure. And since it’s incredibly stable and persistent in the environment, chronic exposure is a very legitimate concern, especically where it is used over time.

DDT exposure routes are ingestion, transdermal and inhalation. The only IDLH number I can find is for inhalation @ 500 mg/m^3. The NIOSH exposure limit (for the workplace) is 0.5 mg/m^3.

IRIS summaries for non-carcinogenci chronic health hazard and lifetime carcinogenicity are listed here:

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