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DDT, Fraud, and Tragedy

Why are millions dying of malaria, a disease all but extinct forty years ago?

By and 2.24.05

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"Fraud in science is a major problem." So begins "DDT: A Case Study in Scientific Fraud" by the late J. Gordon Edwards, Professor Emeritus of Entomology at San Jose State University in San Jose, California.

The article was published shortly after his death last July in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, Fall, 2004. It is based in part on his 34-page manuscript discussing fraud in acid rain, ozone holes, ultraviolet radiation, carbon dioxide, global warming, and pesticides, particularly DDT.

His publications distinguish Edwards as the leading authority on the environmental science and politics of DDT.

In World War I, prior to the discovery of the insecticidal potential of DDT, typhus killed more servicemen than bullets. In World War II, typhus was no problem. The world has marveled at the effectiveness of DDT in fighting malaria, yellow fever, dengue, sleeping sickness, plague, encephalitis, West Nile Virus, and other diseases transmitted by mosquitoes, fleas, and lice.

Today, the greatest killer and disabler is malaria, which kills a person every 30 seconds. By the 1960s, DDT had brought malaria near to extinction. "To only a few chemicals does man owe as great a debt as to DDT. In little more than two decades, DDT has prevented 500 million human deaths, due to malaria, that otherwise would have been inevitable," said the National Academy of Sciences.

But the handwriting was on the wall when William Ruckelshaus, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, in an address to the Audubon Society in Milwaukee in 1971, clearly stated his position:

As a member of the Audubon Society myself, and knowing the impact of this chlorinated hydrocarbon in certain species of raptorial birds, I was highly suspicious of this compound [DDT], to put it mildly. But I was compelled by the facts to temper my emotions.

"As you know, many mass uses of DDT have already been prohibited, including all uses around the home. Certainly we'll all feel better when the persistent compounds can be phased out in favor of biological controls. But awaiting this millennium does not permit the luxury of dodging the harsh decisions of today.

Rachel Carson began the countrywide assault on DDT with her 1962 book, Silent Spring. Carson made errors, some designed to scare, about DDT and synthetic pesticides. "For the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception to death," she intoned.

"This is nonsense," commented pesticide specialists Bruce N. Ames and Thomas H. Jukes of the University of California at Berkeley. (Ames is a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, world renowned. Jukes, who died a few years ago, was a professor of biophysics and a leader in the defense of DDT.) "Every chemical is dangerous if the concentration is too high. Moreover, 99.9 percent of the chemicals humans ingest are natural... produced by plants to kill off predators," Ames and Jukes wrote in Reason in 1993.

Carson, not very scrupulous, implied that the renowned Albert Schweitzer agreed with her on DDT by dedicating Silent Spring "to Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who said 'Man has lost the capacity to foresee and forestall. He will end by destroying the earth.'" Professor Edwards doubted the implication. He got a copy of Schweitzer's autobiography. Dr. Schweitzer was referring to atomic warfare. Professor Edwards found on page 262, "How much labor and waste of time these wicked insects do cause, but a ray of hope, in the use of DDT, is now held out to us."

But Miss Carson's skillful writing was enough to direct a new-born environmental industry looking for a hot issue into a feverish campaign against DDT. "Rachel Carson set the style for environmentalism. Exaggeration and omission of pertinent contradictory evidence are acceptable for the holy cause," wrote Professors Ames and Jukes.

THE FIRST CHARGE AGAINST DDT was that it causes cancer. No search has ever turned up any evidence, despite massive use of DDT in agriculture in the 1950s and 1960s. Wayland Hayes, U.S. Public Health Service scientist, for 18 months, fed to human volunteers, daily, three times the quantity of DDT that the average American was ingesting annually. None experienced any adverse effect, then or six to ten years later.

Workers without wearing protective clothing, with nine to 19 years of continuous exposure to DDT in the Montrose Chemical Company which manufactured DDT, never developed a single case of cancer. DDT caused no illness in the 130,000 men who sprayed it on the interior walls of mud and thatched huts, nor the millions of people who lived in them. Professor Edwards in his classroom occasionally ate a tablespoon of DDT to illustrate to his students that it is not harmful. Indeed, DDT is so safe that canned baby food was permitted to contain five parts per million.

"There has never been any convincing evidence that DDT (or pesticide residues in food) has ever caused cancer in man," concluded Ames and Jukes.

In fact, DDT prevents cancer. "DDT in the diet has repeatedly been shown to enhance the production of hepatic enzymes in mammals and birds. Those enzymes inhibit tumors and cancers in humans as well as wildlife," wrote Professor Edwards in 1992.

Unable to find harm to human health, DDT opponents turned to bird health, alleging a decline of bald eagles and other birds of prey, which they associated with heavy DDT usage. Rachel Carson led the accusation. It has been repeated so often and so passionately that the public is still convinced of it.

The charge is that DDT thinned the shells of eggs. When nesting parent birds sat on the eggs, the shells cracked and no babies hatched. Carson charged that DDT was bringing bald eagles and robins to the "verge of extinction" -- while noted ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson was reporting that the robin was the most abundant bird in North America.

Bald eagles between 1941 and 1960 migrating over Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania, doubled during the first six years of DDT-use. Their numbers increased from 9,291 in 1946 -- before much DDT was used -- to 16,163 in 1963 and 19,765 in 1968.

Professor Edwards reviews how bald eagles died of non-DDT causes. In Alaska, 128,000 were shot for bounty payments between 1917 and 1956. Between 1960 and 1965, 76 bald eagles found dead were autopsied: 46 had been shot or trapped; 7 had died of impact injuries from flying into buildings or towers. Between 1965 and 1980, shootings, trappings, electrocutions, and impact injuries chiefly accounted for their deaths.

Although some birds declined before DDT, they became much more abundant during the years of greatest DDT-use. But facts have not impeded the endless repetition of Carson's bird myth.

Scientists tested the popular shell-thinning hypothesis. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists fed birds for 112 days on a diet with 100 times as much DDT as they were getting from the environment. No thinning of egg shells was found. The DDT had no effect on the birds.

One experimenter, to demonstrate eggshell-thinning, fed quail a diet with DDT but containing only one-fifth of the normal amount of calcium. His experiment succeeded in producing thinner eggshells, but his deception was exposed.

IN 1969, THE ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENSE FUND (then, three guys with a clipboard; now "Environmental Defense"), Sierra Club, and National Audubon Society petitioned the Secretary of Agriculture to ban DDT, claiming it is carcinogenic to humans. He agreed to partially phase it out by December 31, 1970, which did not satisfy the environmentalists.

The Audubon Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council, to stop exports of DDT to third-world countries, instituted a number of lawsuits, ultimately gaining the support of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in 1977.

EPA appointed Administrative Law Judge Edmund Sweeney to evaluate DDT. In 1971-2 he conducted a seven-month hearing. EPA actually participated, testifying against DDT!

Judge Sweeney, after 80 days of testimony from 150 expert scientists, ruled that DDT "is not a carcinogenic, mutagenic, or teratogenic hazard to man" and does "not have a deleterious effect on freshwater fish, estuarine organisms, wild birds, or other wild life. There is a present need for the continued use of DDT for the essential uses defined in this case."

The Environmental Defense Fund appealed Sweeney's decision. The appeal should have been passed to an independent jurist, according to Ruckelshaus's general counsel, John Quarles, but Ruckelshaus decided to rule on it himself. Not surprisingly, he upheld his own ban "on the grounds that 'DDT poses a carcinogenic risk' to humans." (In 1994, he was to deny that that was the basis for the ban.) He had banned DDT though he had not attended a day of the 80-day hearing nor read a page of the transcript (as he told the Santa Ana Register, July 23, 1972).

In 1979, on April 26, Ruckelshaus wrote the American Farm Bureau Federation that his ban was imposed for political, not scientific, reasons: "Science, along with other disciplines such as economics, has a role to play, but the ultimate judgment remains political," he wrote. But in 1994 he wrote in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, "The scientific basis for the ban was solid then and still stands. DDT is a highly persistent chemical that moves up the food chain, and it accumulates in the fatty tissue of humans." However, according to Professor Edwards, it does no harm. Professor Edwards says that "DDT residues do not 'build up' in animal food-chains, because they are metabolized and excreted by fish, birds and mammals."

In his March 24, 1994 Wall Street Journal letter, Ruckelshaus wrote that the direct ecological effect, and the basis for his decision, "was its proven impact on the thickness of egg shells of raptors, birds such as the brown pelican and the peregrine falcon. The decision was not based on any claim of human carcinogenicity." But in 1972, he had overridden Judge Sweeney on the ground that DDT does pose a carcinogenic risk to humans.

THE BROWN PELICAN AND the peregrine falcon did suffer declines in population, but not because of DDT, according to Professor Edwards's article, "DDT Effects on Bird Abundance and Reproduction."

Brown pelicans suffered, not from fish they ate but from their catastrophic reproductive failure caused by the great Santa Barbara oil spill surrounding their nesting colonies on the island of Anacapa. Federal and California officials ignored the oil spill and attributed pelican difficulties "solely to DDT in the environment."

In Texas, peregrine falcons declined from 5,000 in 1918 to 200 in 1941, three years before DDT. Around the Gulf of Mexico, they declined from 1918 to 1934 by 82 percent, but the 1935 survey was done 15 years before any DDT appeared.

Likewise, in the East, peregrine falcons declined long before there was any DDT present there, because of egg-collectors and falconers. Falconers "raided every nest they could find" and shot falcons on sight.

Ruckelshaus, besides ruling on the appeal to uphold his own reversal of Sweeney's decision, refused Freedom-of-Information-Act demands for papers relating to the case -- he called them "internal memos" -- effectively preventing scientists from refuting his Opinion. He also refused to file an Environmental Impact Statement on the effects of his DDT ban.

In 1970, in a brief supporting the Secretary of Agriculture in the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, Ruckelshaus praised DDT: "DDT is not endangering the public health and has an amazing and exemplary record of safe use. DDT, when properly used at recommended concentrations, does not cause a toxic response in man or other mammals and is not harmful. The carcinogenic claims regarding DDT are unproved speculation."

Subsequently, Ruckelshaus, alleging adverse effects of DDT, signed fund-raising letters on behalf of the Environmental Defense Fund. On his personal stationery, he wrote, "EDF's scientists blew the whistle on DDT by showing it to be a cancer hazard, and three years later, when the dust had cleared, EDF had won."

In a January 12, 2005, letter to the editor of the New York Times, Ruckelshaus rose to the plight of the poor by urging more spending. "If the world were to invest on an annual basis even a small percentage of the funds pledged to tsunami relief toward improving health care systems, transportation, infrastructure and communications systems, we would improve the quality of life for millions of poor people around the world . . ." He said nothing about how his ban on DDT was causing the death of millions from malaria.

FOLLOWING RUCKELSHAUS'S BAN, the USAID, prodded by a lawsuit by the Audubon Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council, undertook to discourage other countries from using DDT by threatening to stop foreign aid to any country using it. Its threat spread Ruckelshaus's ban worldwide.

The effects of giving up DDT were immediately felt in the malarial areas of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Sri Lanka (Ceylon), reacting to Silent Spring, in the 1960s gave up DDT. Its malarial cases had decreased from 2.8 million down to 17. After Sri Lanka gave it up, malaria shot back up to over 2.5 million.

South American countries gave up DDT and suffered the customary rise in malaria. Ecuador, which manufactures DDT, resumed using it in 1993. By 1995, Ecuador had reduced its malarial cases by 61 percent.

Spraying the inside walls of huts with DDT once or twice a year stops the spread of malaria by repelling mosquitoes from huts. USAID agreed, but it determined that insecticide-treated bed nets are "more cost-effective."

The search for an effective substitute for DDT continues to fail 30 years after the Ruckelshaus ban. The search for a treatment for malaria continues to fail; the mutations of the malaria virus soon make a drug ineffective. The search for a malaria-vaccine continues to fail.

The environmentalists' ideological opposition to pesticides has no basis in science. It is a death sentence to millions.

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