Insecticide Alarmism, the DDT Ban and the Global Warming Scare

On the opening day of the Copenhagen Climate Change conference, the US EPA declared that Carbon Dioxide is a pollutant of the air. The long anticipated declaration that a natural component of air is a threat to public health was easily mocked, especially as it implies that simply to breathe is to pollute. A political motivation for this decision was evident: with the ‘Cap and Trade’ bill floundering in the Senate, this decision would permit regulation of CO2 emissions (under the existing Clean Air Act) without passing any new legislation. And it came just in time for the USA delegation at Copenhagen to point at least to this step as demonstrating USA readiness to take action on climate change.

William Ruckelshaus

William Ruckelshaus, the 1st head of the US EPA, acted quickly and against the evidence to ban DDT

This was not the first time that the EPA was seen to be acting on political consideration with little regard for the evidence. In fact, its first significant achievement, the banning of DDT in 1972, gives all the appearance of a political decision against the presented evidence. In this post I want to open up discussion of the links between recent Global Warming Alarmism and the organic insecticides scare of the 1960s and 1970s.

In 1971, when the anti-DDT campaign was taken right up to the US Federal Court, it looked like evidence-based science would hold out against increasing popular alarm. After a comprehensive hearing of the evidence in a case brought by the Environment Defence Fund (EDF), and in the face of enormous public and political pressure, the Hearing Examiner, Edmund Sweeney, found only limited endangerment to humans and wildlife by excessive use of DDT, and so recommended against a full ban on its use [40 CFR 164.32].

However, this decision was summarily over-ruled just two months later by the first head of the newly formed EPA, William Ruckelshaus, in a decision that gave every indication there was little regard to the evidence. In fact, it even went against Ruckelshaus’ own testimony two years earlier. In a case brought by EDF in 1970, just before he took leadership of the newly constituted EPA, Ruckelshaus testified that DDT is not endangering the Public Health…

To the contrary, DDT is an indispensable weapon in the arsenal of substances used to protect human 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. [EDF v. Hardin, 1970]

Later Ruckelshaus famously admitted, in correspondence with the president of the Farm Bureau, that the EPA decisions involving the use of toxic substances are not scientific but political, indeed science…has a role to play but the ultimate judgement remains political (to D Grant, 26 Apr 1979). Ruckelshaus, an attorney and civil servant, approached his decision-making as an attorney with attention to the political implication, and his leadership set the pattern for the EPA – for the next 3 decades his successors were attorneys, with many of their decisions notable for their remoteness from the science and even the views of their own scientists.

Since the DDT decision – and so from the beginning – the EPA has made little effort to uphold the pretence that it is an institution of science, and so it is hardly a scandal when evidence emerges that yet again political triumphs over science (see this recent example). This is why the decision last December on CO2, for good or ill (depending on your sympathies), was generally accepted for what it was – a political decision. The IPCC, which in many respects in an international version of the EPA, has nonetheless strongly resisted any accusations of its politicisation. It stakes its claim to authority on the rule of science – the best scientists assessing the evidence according to the strictest of scientific process. Even as scandalous evidence of the politicisation recently cascaded into the mainstream media, the head of the IPCC continued to declare it the gold standard of current climate science.

The first major scandal over the scientific integrity of the IPCC came as early as 1996, when late modifications to its 2nd assessment changed from inconclusive to conclusive the finding on the single most critical issue – this 2nd assessment report went to press declaring that the ‘fingerprint’ of an anthropogenic component to the recent warming is in fact evident in data (see details of the controversy here). Then, with the next IPCC assessment, came the scandal over the construction of the Hockey Stick graph and its use to demonstrate that the recent warming is unprecedented. And now with the 4th assessment scandals have multiplied over the dubious authority of its claims of the impacts of the anticipated warming on glaciers, on the collapse of the Amazon, famine in Africa, and so forth (See Booker’s discussion).

In all this, it is easy to argue that, despite what it claims, the IPCC is only playing a politicised role much as the EPA. And of recent times sceptics have being looking back on this controversy over DDT for various links with the global warming controversy. In the movement against the new synthetic pesticides, which began in the 1950s and continued through the 60s & 70s, they see an archetype of the environmental alarmism that informed the Global Warming scare launched in the 1980s. Some of this discussion has been very emotive and partisan (see eg the movie Not Evil, Just Wrongextract here). I want to avoid that as much as we can in a look at the extent to which there is continuity from the campaigns against the use of organic insecticides to the campaign against the emission of CO2. And were there are links, we will be interested in the extent to which they demonstrate a trend toward the corruption not so much of politics but of the processes of science.

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How reasonable were concerns over insecticide usage in the 1950s?

The first issue to raise is the extent to which the alarm was reasonable and justified. That is to say: Was there cause for alarm over the widespread use of the newly synthesised insecticide across the USA during the 1950s?

Consider the case of Thalidomide, a newly synthesised wonder drug of the late 1950s. We now know that its use to treat morning sickness resulted in thousands of birth defects, but before this link was made in the early 1960s scientists were confident that no drug could cross the placental barrier and harm the child. They were wrong. The tragedy lead to the development of stricter testing of drugs before they could be licensed. The USA was spared disaster by a cautious FDA, but no authority, not the least the Department of Agriculture, was so cautious about the side effects of insecticides on wildlife and human life. The Department of Agriculture was helping the chemical companies to promote their unrestricted application to eradicate as many insect pest populations as they were able. And there was only what would now be regarded as preliminary research into its effects before clouds of organic insecticides were drifting over farms and forest, streams and lakes, houses and gardens.

US Military image of the wartime use of DDT

Paul Muller discovered the marvellous qualities of the DDT and its related compounds while researching insecticides for an international chemical company in the neutral Switzerland at the outbreak of WW II.  One of the outstanding qualities he noted was their resilience. And this resilience was a large part of DDT’s first extraordinary wartime success, when occasional dustings down the shirt-front or up the skirt controlled lice among soldiers and refugees. DDT would persist in clothing and on surfaces for weeks even after washing. And this resilience would be important later when DDT would be incredibly successful in the eradication of malaria through the periodic spraying of the insides of dwellings. The war-time importance of such an insecticide should not be underestimated, as Mellanby explains:

From the earliest recorded data, we have known that in war there are far more casualties from disease , including insect-borne disease, than from the weapons of the enemy. Thus during the [Boer War] 35 casualties occurred for every 1 from enemy action. In [WW I] the figures were 9 to 1. [The DDT Story p17-18]

In peace time the new organic pesticides were applied in heavy concentrations and increasing volumes in the war against the insect pests consuming US crops. But this was not the extent of their use. They were also sprayed on forests, roadsides, parks and buildings, and they were promoted for unrestricted use on domestic lawns and gardens. Indeed, these new and resilient man-made poisons were everywhere. And confidence in their power lead to even more ambitious plans. Some pests, especially introduce insects, could be eradicated entirely by ambitious programs involving the aerial spraying of vast areas.

Aerial spraying of DDT for insect eradication

Aerial spraying of DDT for insect eradication

One of the most ambitious of these plans was the campaign in 1957 to eliminate the Gipsy Moth by spraying across 4 states, including heavily populated areas such as Long Island. The following year a similar campaign of eradication was mounted against the Fire Ant across 9 states. And so, millions of American people, homes, gardens, pets, ponds and playgrounds were showered with the tiny pelts of this relatively new and unknown poison, falling in a silent shower much reminisce (as campaigners would not neglect to point out) of the mystery fall-out that would showered farms and towns after the secret nuclear tests conducted above ground during the 1950s. And as with the nuclear testing, this blank spraying was conducted without consultation or redress. And so it was that among the fierce protest against this spraying a new movement of environmentalism was born. This movement held up a flag of caution to the extraordinary optimism of the post-war era, where economic progress and development was promoted as good in itself, and where the advance of science and technology was promote as holding the solutions to all the problems of the past, including the elimination of crop damaging and disease carrying pests.

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Silent Spring and the promotion of ecology

The case against the widespread and reckless use of organic pesticides was consolidated in 1962 by Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, and this served also to consolidate the movement. As with Carson’s earlier books, one of the undoubted contributions of Silent Spring was the education of the public in the scientific understanding of nature, especially its ecology. In cautioning the use of these insecticides, Carson explained the interdependence of species; how the elimination of one pest could cause a plague of another, or otherwise the starvation of predator animals or fish, or, more generally, how the killing of one species could upset the balance of a whole eco-system. In order to promoted the alternative use of biological controls, she explained about tiny insect parasites. She explained how poisons could accumulate in the flesh of animals and pass up the food chain and to places far removed from the spray zones. She explained how small populations of rapidly reproducing organisms, such as insects, can evolve rapidly with changes in their environment when she explained the emerging problem of insects developing resistance to insecticides. And in general, with her call for cautious intervention into the web of life she explained to her readers how little science really understood the ecology of the world around us.

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Carson’s distortion of the scientific evidence

Carson, who died shortly after the publication of Silent Spring, did not call for a ban on DDT. She supported targeted poisoning programs in the place of blanket spraying, and she urged the authorities to look for alternative and more clever ‘integrated control’ – much like the pest control strategies common and accepted today. Carson saw a conflict of interested within the Department of Agriculture, with its role to both promoted and regulated the use of pesticides, thus she recommended for an independent body to look to the dangers for wildlife and humans – as we have today. We should be careful not to attribute to Carson the excesses of her followers. But in all of this Carson was careless with her science, and critic, both at the time and after, have compiled long lists of distortions and fabrications of the evidence that she used in order to strengthen her case (see for example here). Historically, the most important area of distortion is the linking of organic pesticides with human cancers.

Carson was right to raise the problem that the carcinogenic effects of a substance may take some years, even decades, to manifest after first exposure, and even then many cases could go unnoticed before the link is identified. She was right in claiming that little was known about the mechanism of causation. We now know that the replacement of the old arsenic based insecticides with DDT was to move from a dangerous natural carcinogen to a safe synthetic substitute, but in Carson’s time this was not so evident. Perhaps this forgives her rhetorical uses the known cancer-causing dangers of arsenic to promote fear over DDT. But this does not excuse her persuasive but highly dubious use of anecdotal evidence to support her claim that DDT is a dangerous carcinogen, that there is no save dose of a carcinogen, and that we are swimming in a sea of carcinogens mostly of our own making.

The title of her chapter on cancer, ‘One in Every Four,’ refers to the claim that the chance of a person getting cancer had recently increased from 1 in 5 to 1 in 4.  She then links this increasing rate of cancer to our increasing exposure to synthetic chemicals during the same period. The inference of the chapter is clear: The reason that there is now a cancer epidemic is because our world has become ‘filled with cancer-producing agents.’  Carson’s distortion of the available evidence is well documented, as is the refutation of the supposed causal link (see for example Chapter 22 of Lomborg’s The Sceptical Environmentalist). And so we can now see how, in the case of the cancer scare at least, opponents of the environment movement are justified in claiming that here we have phoney science sparking off unreasonable alarm. This scare would run across 3 full decades and it was not just pesticides that were feared, but it was synthetic chemicals generally that were supposedly causing this epidemic of cancer.

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The similarities of the anti-DDT campaign and the anti-CO2 campaign

There are some striking similarities between the earlier insecticide alarmism of the 1960s and 1970s and Global Warming Alarmism of the 1980s and 1990s. Here we will consider some parallels between the two, especially around the following two unsubstantiated claims:

  • that organic insecticides cause cancer
  • that CO2 emissions cause catastrophic global warming

A perceived correlation
DDT: As the prevalence of synthetic chemicals has increased so too has the rates of cancer.
CO2: As CO2 emissions have increased so too has global temperature (at least during the 1980s and 1990s).

Evidence of some effect
DDT: There is undisputed evidence that some of the organic pesticides do have a negative effect on non-targeted species and that blanket spraying causes resistance.
CO2: There is undisputed evidence that CO2 is a greenhouse gas.

The possibility of delayed effect and delayed detection
DDT: Cancer can take years, even decades, to manifest, and it could take even longer for a carcinogenic link to be confirmed.
CO2: The heat-banking qualities of the oceans, and the temporary dampening effects on factors such of volcanic eruptions and a quiet sun, these may account for delays in atmospheric warming of years or even decades.

Government funding feedback cycle on research
DDT: As the organic pesticides scare developed, grants of funding increased for research into their adverse effects.
CO2: Since the AGW scare began the funding for climate research has expanded enormously and is often actually labelled Climate Change Research (as per the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research).
In both cases it seems that the more the science shows the effect, the more the funding for the science, and so this encourages a bias.

Products of industry associated with growth
DDT: Pesticides are manufactured and used to increase the yield of crops
CO2: Industrial production overwhelmingly requires the burning of fossil fuels and so the release of CO2.

Nasty profit-driven opponent
DDT: The Chemical industry mounted a defence of DDT that backfired and failed despite the fact that the evidence was on their side.
CO2: Global warming alarmists continue to proclaim that the likes of ‘Big Oil’ are behind the sceptics.
Note: When AGW alarmists wish to characterise the motivation of the sceptics they do not invoke the DDT controversy but rather the smoking-causes-cancer controversy. This may be because the position of ‘Big Chem’ might be easier to defend on the science and also on humanitarian grounds (eg, that the campaign against DDT inhibits the control malaria in developing countries) and so that association is best avoided.

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The anti-DDT movement and the peculiarities of USA Environmentalism

DDT promoted for control of household insect pests

A 1947 US government advertisment for the domestic use of DDT

The way the insecticides controversy played out in the USA was quite distinct from how it played out in other western countries, and the power of its influence on the environment movement was also peculiar in the USA. Consider for example that not in Britain, nor Australia, was there anything to compare with the obstinacy and ambition of the Fire Ant eradication program, and nor was there anything to compare with the enormous public backlash. The confrontations outside as much as inside the USA courts was as publicised as it was emotive, and it launched scientists into advocating against industrial interests for nature conservation with the backing of the conservation lobby (aside from the EDF this was mostly the Serra Club, which supported the litigation and commissioned not only Silence Spring but also Ehrlich’s Population Bomb). The success of the confrontational litigation strategy of the EDF had an impact that was simple absent outside the USA. As Kenneth Mellanby puts it in The DDT Story, in Britain the decisions to restrict and/or banning organic pesticides were the result of ‘discussions mostly held in private, though they were not secret and the reports of all the committees were published. The law was not brought in.‘ [p90]

The campaign against organic pesticides is widely regarded as providing the foundations of American environmentalism, whereas, in other Western countries, like Germany, Britain and Australia, environmental movements formed in markedly different ways. In Australia for example, the movement emerged out of a failed campaign, begun in the late 1960s, to save a wilderness lake.

And yet, as with all else American in the 20th century, US domestic controversies had a global impact. The impact of the American environmental movement on the global movement was most strongly felt when AGW Alarmism began to overwhelm all other international environmental issues. Readers of this blog outside the USA may have been as surprised as I was to come up against the Global Warming debate as it is playing out in the USA. There is the evangelical and apocalyptic fervour, not just of Al Gore, by also of the scientist-advocates such as Ehrlich, Schneider and Hansen. And then there is the political polarization of the issue and its frightfully aggressive expression. But what we can also see by looking at the American insecticide controversy is that herein lies an important precedent in the use of phoney science to stir up a scare.

This is why Carson is important not just for environmentalists but also for critics of environmentalism in American. Carson, the Serra Club and then the EDF successfully used corrupt science to persuade an enormous public scare, which the newly formed EPA chose not to ignore. And so the EPA began its life by dismissing the evidences at hand so as to respond to this scare with the extreme measure of  banning DDT. On the American scene, the rise of environmentalism and the corruption of science-for-policy go hand in hand. And so it is understandable that American critics who see climate science corrupted by an aggressive propaganda campaign often view this as but another expression of the corrupting influence of environmentalism generally.

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– BernieL

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