I don’t judge people by their looks, intelligence, bank account or fame. I only judge people by the good things they have done to save and improve lives. It’s a simple equation. Using a similar life calculator, Dr. Paul Offit, in an article in the Daily Beast, examined the legacy of Rachel Carson, and her groundbreaking book, Silent Spring. Published in the early 1960s, Carson was the first to warn that DDT effects include accumulation in the environment, and by doing so, it could bring harm to wildlife. She also warned that its overuse could make it ineffective. And finally, she said that we should use natural means for pest control, like bacteria that killed the mosquito larvae.
But Dr. Offit looked at something that is generally ignored with regards to the most important of DDT effects – it killed malaria carrying mosquitoes that kills millions of lives. Today, because of DDT, there is no malaria in the USA. But it’s more than just America, Dr. Offit looks carefully at other successes of the pesticide:
As malaria rates went down, life expectancies went up; as did crop production, land values, and relative wealth. Probably no country benefited from DDT more than Nepal, where spraying began in 1960. At the time, more than two million Nepalese, mostly children, suffered from malaria. By 1968, the number was reduced to 2,500; and life expectancy increased from 28 to 42 years.
It’s hard to imagine, but Nepal had a 99% decrease in malaria infections just because of DDT. From our cozy homes in the wealthy developed world, malaria seems like some distant disease that matters not. But it wasn’t too long ago that malaria was rampant in many areas of the developed world, like Italy, the American south, Greece, and other areas. It’s not some boring disease, it kills.
And since DDT was banned, malaria has come screaming back. According to Dr. Offit, “since the mid 1970s, when DDT was eliminated from global eradication efforts, tens of millions of people have died from malaria unnecessarily: most have been children less than five years old. While it was reasonable to have banned DDT for agricultural use, it was unreasonable to have eliminated it from public health use.”
There is a claim out there that whether we chose DDT, and killed ourselves and the environment, or choose malaria with no DDT, it was all the same. But in fact, real scientific studies have since shown us that the danger from DDT was overstated, while the danger from malaria stayed the same.
It’s the 0,1 binary scale of decision making that we see by a lot of anti-science types. DDT may save lives of by preventing malaria, but any harm to the environment is bad. Either an insecticide must be 100% safe, or it’s 100% unacceptable.
DDT facts and myths have been part of our shared environmental consciousness for two generations. Most of our beliefs about DDT, a powerful insecticide long-banned by most countries, came from Rachel Carson’s best selling book,Silent Spring, published over 50 years ago.
Carson was an aquatic biologist, working for the US Department of Fisheries, who became a champion of the environmental movement across the world. Her influence on environmental policy is still felt today. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that her movement lead to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970.
Silent Spring was an influential book that drove pro-environmental policies and thinking of many of us who grew up in that era. Essentially, the book outlined the environmental disaster caused by the indiscriminate use of synthetic pesticides, especially on agricultural lands. She seemed to advocate for a complete ban on DDT and other pesticides based on some anecdotal and statistical correlation between DDT use and certain environmental issues.
But it was too late. The DDT myth (or facts, depending on the evidence) had started, and it was imprinted into the American consciousness. In 1972, DDT was banned for use in agriculture in the USA, which has lasted until today. It’s ironic that the Reagan administration, a notoriously anti-environmental group, refused to reconsider the ban on DDT.
Predictably, the chemical industry lashed out against the Ms. Carson and her book. But given the nature of the times, they really had no shot, and the environmental movement was born.
However, what do we make of the strength or weaknesses of DDT facts? Is it a myth? Or were some of Ms. Carson’s points valid? I think after 50 years we can answer some of that, but DDT has evolved into a word that induces fear and loathing in most people across the world. Let’s take a look at it. Continue reading “The DDT facts – examining the evidence after 50 years”
I know I shouldn’t use the conspiracy theory fallacy when talking about the pseudoscience-pushing science deniers, who are the bread and butter of topics for skeptics. But, when I keep observing the same ridiculous and insanely illogical arguments used in the same manner by all of the deniers, I begin to wonder if they don’t get together annually at the International Society of Pseudoscience meeting, usually held in Sedona, Arizona, ground zero of woo. They obviously share their stories, because we hear the same regurgitated stories in different contexts.
The antivaccinationists, creationists, anthropogenic global warming deniers, and whomever else pretends to use science to actually deny science frequently focus on a trope that “science makes mistakes.” And then they produce a list of historical events that “prove” that science is wrong. Of course, this indicates more of a misunderstanding of what is science and the history of science than it is a condemnation of science. But your typical science denier is probably not going to let facts get in the way of maintaining faith in their beliefs. So let’s deconstruct and discredit these “science makes mistakes” tropes.
When we hear about global warming these days, it’s usually about melting ice in polar regions or rising ocean levels, which has already had some disastrous effects. The global warming denialists continue to call it a “scientific controversy”, which it isn’t, and resist all efforts to halt or reverse human activities that may contribute to climate change.
Some scientists have speculated whether it’s too late to reverse global warming, since the earth has a strong positive feedback mechanism where as it gets warmer, things happen to make it even warmer. For example, ice reflects sunlight, reducing the amount of heat absorbed by the earth. As the ice melts, and is replaced by dark land or water, more heat is absorb, melting more ice, then absorbing more heat. Once the earth hits some tipping point, it may be impossible to reverse course. Continue reading “Consequences of global warming–healthcare”
I’ve never been a fan of Microsoft, but I think Bill Gates’ legacy is probably going to be more about his charitable work than Microsoft Windows. And his contribution to the Global Fund, about which there are unsubstantiated rumors (my assumption is that Gates wouldn’t have contributed $1.00 if they were true) regarding their finances, is critical to their strategy of eliminating infectious diseases. Global Fund’s success is documented:
New HIV infections are declining in many of the countries most affected by the epidemic. More and more countries are in a position to target the elimination of malaria from their territories. The world is on course to halve TB mortality by 2015 in comparison with 1990.
Since its inception in 2002, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has been a major engine driving this remarkable progress.