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Sorry, Right-Wing Hacks: Zika’s No Reason for a DDT Comeback

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 9, 2016

Osprey coming home on the Connecticut River (Photo: Kris Rowe)

Osprey coming home on the Connecticut River (Photo: Kris Rowe)

by Richard Conniff/

In New England, where I live, this is the time of year when ospreys take their last turn on the waterways before heading south. They’ve mated, reared their young, and seen their fledglings take wing and begin to hunt for themselves. If you are lucky and know your local watering holes, you can still sometimes see them plunging out of the sky and carrying home blood-spangled fish in their talons. It is one of the great spectacles of summer.

But only for a little while longer. Soon the ospreys will migrate 2,500 miles or more, down to the Caribbean or the northeastern coast of South America, where males and females will overwinter separately. They’ll return in March, find their old nest mate (they’re faithful to mates and nest sites, more or less), and begin the ritual once again.

Carson-w-book-1-340The resurgence of ospreys from near extinction in the 1970s to their modern abundance always makes me think with gratitude of Rachel Carson and the demise of DDT as a standard tool of mosquito control in this country. Her book Silent Spring, published in 1962, first alerted Americans to the risky business of spraying the countryside with as much as 80 million pounds of DDT, an untested chemical, in a single year. One effect of DDT, scientists were demonstrating, was the fatal thinning of the eggshells of ospreys, eagles, peregrine falcons, brown pelicans, and other species. The eggs collapsed under the weight of the nesting parent, and generations were lost. As a result, the osprey population in my home territory, the lower Connecticut River Valley, plummeted from 200 nesting pairs to just two by the early 1970s. The same thing happened to ospreys and other species nationwide. Then the Nixon administration banned most uses of DDT in this country, and wildlife slowly began to recover.

This year, though, my gratitude to Carson, and my pleasure in ospreys, is complicated by the political response to the devastating birth defects and deaths from mosquito-borne Zika virus, along with the persistent effects of mosquito-borne West Nile virus, which has killed

more than 2,000 people since it arrived in the United States in 1999. That’s on top of the 438,000 deaths in 2015 from mosquito-borne malaria, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Zika outbreak has inspired a proliferation of headlines like the one in a June 6 opinion piece in the New York Post: “The Answer to Zika Is Obvious: Bring Back DDT.” These articles are always written by right-wing political hacks with limited familiarity with science. Apart from the chance to use DDT as a political brickbat, they also have no real interest in public health.

People who have spent their lives working on mosquito-borne disease would tell them, first of all, that mosquitoes had already evolved resistance to DDT in many areas, long before Rachel Carson’s book, in part because manufacturers had enthusiastically promoted its indiscriminate use. Second, the federal government never banned use of DDT for public health issues and had no power to ban it abroad.

Mosquito control efforts began to fail in many countries for lack of funding, brought on largely by complacency and political mismanagement once the malaria threat had been somewhat reduced. If you want a good analogy for what happened, look at the congressional failure earlier this year to allocate emergency funding for Zika control. It was the usual partisan blunder fest: Republicans saddled the bill with provisions promoting the Confederate flag and putting limits on Planned Parenthood. Democrats balked. And the public be damned.

Health workers would tell the political hacks, finally, that DDT continues to be used in many countries, and U.S. tax dollars still pay for it through foreign aid block grants. Antimalaria workers spray DDT on the

Spraying DDT in the home, 1955 (Photo: Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images)

Spraying DDT in the home, 1955 (Photo: Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images)

interior walls of homes as a last resort, when safer pesticides have failed. They do it because it can save babies’ lives. But they also recognize, as one specialist in tropical diseases and pesticides told me, that they are “putting DDT in the mouths of babies through the mother’s milk” and that studies have linked DDT exposure to increased incidence of high blood pressure, reproductive disorders, and Alzheimer’s disease, among other health problems. Those political hacks blindly promoting DDT will tell you it is absolutely safe. So offer to spray it in their houses.

In truth, no one wants to live with DDT when other, safer measures are available. The best way to fight Zika and other mosquito-borne diseases is to start by consulting the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which, by the way, is also underfunded because of congressional bickering and complacency. You’ll note the key phrase “source reduction,” which mainly means applying larvicide to kill immature mosquitoes in local waterways and also getting rid of all the incidental places—spare tires, abandoned pools, random containers—where water accumulates and mosquitoes breed. Repellents, protective clothing, proper window screens, and in problem areas, aerial spraying of less dangerous pesticides can also help. (But just last week, South Carolina learned the danger of aerial spraying even supposedly safe pesticides: One farm lost 2.5 million honeybees on the spot.)

We can have public health without sacrificing our environment, our children’s health, and our wildlife. I will continue to watch my ospreys with pleasure and honor Rachel Carson for helping to save them, and us. The politically motivated call for a return of DDT is just a mindless bid to go back to that blighted era when we thought the only way to save the world was to destroy it.


6 Responses to “Sorry, Right-Wing Hacks: Zika’s No Reason for a DDT Comeback”

  1. Ed Darrell said

    Thanks. We’ll have to keep repeating it for years, the DDT-hoax machine has been churning so long. Rachel Carson was right; no, DDT was never banned from fighting disease; no, DDT can’t help because the mosquitoes and flies and bedbugs are resistant or immune to it now; but DDT still kills birds, fish, frogs, lizards and bats, and all other predators of the disease-carrying mosquitoes.

  2. Adam Neira said

    The only way to debate the DDT issue properly is in an open, public forum. Both the pro and anti-DDT sides represented.

    But for what it’s worth…

    Research the truth about DDT. How “wise” was Rachel Carson really ? Was her “science” based on facts or suppositions? The commissioning, writing, publishing and promotion of “Silent Spring” was part of an elaborate business plan. Rachel Carson was a useful idiot who knew how to turn a phrase. Silent Spring is to science what Konrad Kujau is to biography.

    Cheap to produce DDT was banned so as other more expensive pesticides would fill the space. Profit driven “science”. But now things have boomeranged terribly.

    “Oh what a tangled and wicked web we weave, When first we practise to deceive !”

    Use of pesticides to ward off Zika+ mozzies not the problem with the bee kill-off problem recently. The wrong chemical was used. i.e. Naled

    Bring back DDT!

    DDT will not kill off bees in an area if used correctly.

    Very different to Naled in its effect on bees!

    DDT is a proven & cost effective weapon to use against disease carrying mosquitoes with little side-effects.

    Paul Müller published several papers on the fact that bee populations of all species were not at risk from correct use of DDT !

    1948 Nobel Prize Speech at the Royal Caroline Institute to Paul Müller.

    He would not have won a Nobel Prize for DDT if bee populations were at risk as a result of DDT spraying.


    • You make an interesting argument. On the one hand, you take Paul Müller’s word that DDT has no effect on bees, disregarding his role as the inventor of DDT and as an employee of the chemical company that stood to profit from it. On the other hand, you paint Rachel Carson as an ignorant tool of the chemical companies? Your faith in the absolutely objectivity and correctness of the Nobel Prize committee is also touchingly naive.

      But just to be sure, I checked with May Berenbaum, an entomologist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne, and one of this country’s leading bee researchers. Here’s her reply. (Adam, I am so sorry I cannot include the multiple scientific studies she attached to her email, as I know how much you care about considering all the evidence.):

      Hah! Wiesmann 1942 reported in a Swiss journal that DDT was harmless to honey bees but that paper was based on one trial with only 10 (!!) bees. By 1944 Holst demonstrated that in fact DDT is “definitely” both a stomach and contact poison for bees and that same year Wolfenbarger was already testing DDT for eradicating “out of place” colonies. I’m also sending Eckert (1945), which reported on more extensive toxicity testing and c oncluded with the warning, “From the small amount of information available as to its effect on bees, if DDT should be used as carelessly as other insecticides are used at present, there is reason to believe that it might become more destructive than any other insecticide now known.”

      So, yes, DDT is toxic to honey bees, not only compared with 1930s-era arsenicals but also compared with contemporary pesticides (see Hardstone and Scott 2010). Muller may have genuinely thought it was harmless based on his compatriot’s very preliminary study but had he read beyond 1942 (in English-language journals) he would have learned otherwise.

    • Ed Darrell said

      It may be useful in this discussion to remember the history and impact of “Silent Spring” as it’s more conventionally recorded, especially with regard to corporate influence and conspiracy notions.

      1. Rachel Carson wrote the book at the urging of friends who had seen, first hand, the damage DDT did to birds with acute deaths of songbirds. Carson’s old employer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tracked and tested DDT effects on wildlife from the middle 1940s, and she was familiar with much of the research, but especially the researchers. Carson carefully documented each claim in the book, with notes very useful more than 50 years later. In those 53 pages of footnotes, there is not one science claim Carson cited which is not good science still. Not a single footnote was rebutted by later research.

      2. Carson’s project was a series of articles for The New Yorker magazine. No chemical manufacturer played any role until after the publication of the series, and the series’s compilation into the book.

      3. Chemical manufacturers were quite anxious to continue to make DDT. The insecticide found its way into hundreds of products, from crop pesticides to home pesticides, and embeddings in paint and Walt Disney-themed wallpaper. DDT manufacturing was a cash cow for several manufacturers, including Olin and Velsicol, and others.

      Quite contrary to being in cahoots with chemical manufacturers, Rachel Carson was subjected to one of the hardest campaign hits on a writer ever, run by the industry. Manufacturers joined to create a $500,000 publicity campaign to impugn Carson and cast doubt on the science of the book. Considering how ill Carson was with cancer at the time, in retrospect it looks quite cruel, and it was. Of course Carson didn’t advertise that she had cancer, and the chemical industry was anxious to preserve income.

      4. The ban on DDT on crops, by EPA, came 8 years after Carson died. More than 30 DDT makers, formulators and sales companies were party to the administrative hearings on DDT at EPA, each fighting to keep the cash flowing. The final EPA rule promulgated by Administrator William Ruckelshaus got around a provision in FIFRA that required a total ban on DDT, and the rule allowed DDT makers to keep making the stuff in the U.S., for export for public health uses — to fight malaria, for example. DDT was made in the U.S. until at least 1984, 100% exported in most years. Several of the last DDT makers declared bankruptcy in 1984, the day before the Superfund law would have made them liable to clean up their manufacturing sites. According to CDC, of just more than 1,600 Superfund sites in the U.S., more than 400 show contamination from DDT.

      Manufacturers were not ready to abandon DDT in 1972, they did not abandon making DDT, and they ran with their profits when they could.

      5. I think a careful check of medical, zoological, and even botanical literature will reveal DDT to be toxic to every living thing on Earth, including honeybees — only exceptions now being those insect species who have evolved resistance or immunity through behavioral, morphological or genetic change.

    • Ed Darrell said

      Nobel committee for the award in Physiology or Medicine did not consider whether DDT kills bees before awarding Muller the prize.

      “Safety and efficacy” is the standard FDA uses for new pharmaceuticals in the U.S., but Nobel committees are wholly unaffected by that rule.

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