New article on Rachel Carson and DDT

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FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), one of the most interesting magazines out there, has a new article on the “Rachel Carson is evil/DDT will save the planet” insanity in the media.

I think they pretty much sum up why an idea that is unsupported by facts has such staying power:

“At one level, these articles send a comforting message to the developed world: Saving African children is easy. We don’t need to build large aid programs or fund major health initiatives, let alone develop Third-World infrastructure or think about larger issues of fairness. No, to save African lives from malaria, we just need to put our wallets away and work to stop the evil environmentalists”

BTW, this month’s FAIR issue also has stats for the frequency with which think-tanks are used as sources in the media. Given that astroturf groups like AFM are fronted by conservative think tanks, and used as means to spread the lies about Carson, thought that would be of interest.

(thanks to Deltoid for pointing me to the FAIR article.)

12 thoughts on “New article on Rachel Carson and DDT

  1. Luis Castro

    Perhaps accusations against Carson are unfair but her science was very suspect and, frankly, inconclusive. Many of the conclusions drawn in “Silent Spring” were flat-out wrong and have been proven so. DDT was not a culprit in the diminishing numbers of eagles in the USA. How do you account for such a tremendous progress in bird counts since the 1970s if DDT has a half life in the environment of 35 years? Clearly, the cause was hunting and habitat encroachment, not DDT.

    Rachel Carson was a writer, not a scientist. She knew little of risk assessment or toxicology. I can’t say that her book helped society much at all really. You can hold to ideology so long but, in the end, science wins.

    On the other hand, I read the FAIR article and found the writer naive and ill-informed. Prior to the EU’s PIC list, there is no such thing as an international ban on anything. To that point, he’s right. However, there are many nations who look to the USDA, EPA and FDA to determine the safety of a chemical or technique. Even though their situations may be different, those countries will follow whatever the US Govt does. So, despite that there was no official ban, there was a de facto ban.

    I also noted that you took the American Chemical Society to task for backing the reintroduction of DDT into the Accepted category. Don’t you think it’s a bit bizzare to rely on internet sources to back your scientific opinion and use them to ignore what the ACS, NAS, WHO, IUPAC, etc are saying?

  2. I’m sorry Luis, but you are the one who is misinformed.

    DDT was CLEARLY the culprit–this is backed up by the literature.
    Frankly, I’m not sure you read my article on ACS correctly–I complained that their “expert” was the notoriously pro DDT Roberts. (we’re talking about this post, I assume:
    http://membracid.wordpress.com/2007/10/09/american-chemical-society-discusses-ddt/ )
    ACS has not issued a statement about DDT.
    The National Academies (NAS) remain very cautious about DDT use. WHO has allowed DDT back into the fold, and that’s ok–IF IT IS USED CAUTIOUSLY and only when it is warranted. Which is exactly what I said in the ACS post.

    I am against wide and improper use of DDT as a global solution. It is not effective against all malarial mosquitoes, or in different urban/rural situations.

    I rely on internet sources here most of the time because that is what my readers have access to–most primary literature remains locked up. However, if you look at my longer posts on the subject, I do cite quite a few primary literature papers, both on and off line.

    Also, Carson did work for the Fish and wildlife service for many years, and was not just a writer.

  3. Luis Castro

    The literature has identified DDT as the culprit in non-existent bird populatoin declines? eggshell thinning? If so, please post said references.

    I certainly hope you have something better than the 60-subject retrospective breast-cancer study you touted on this blog. What a piece of garbage! There is not one toxicologist I’ve ever worked with who takes retrospective studies seriously. Too full of confirmation bias.

    One of these days, you’ll have to explain to me how DDT is to blame for effects that never existed and, if they even did, they were resolved by hunting bans long before even one tenth of the DDT in the environment would have dissipated. Now, that’s magical!

  4. I don’t remember posting anything about DDT and Breast Cancer, unless it was the recent study that came out about 1 month ago…..Which would be primary literature. So I guess I have to choose only primary literature that agrees with you.

    It seems like you’re getting your information from junkscience.com, which is unfortunate.
    There is little disagreement among scientists about the role of DDT in bird declines.

    You might want to read this post for some commentary about how the media makes 1 dissenting scientist equal to a host of others:
    http://membracid.wordpress.com/2007/07/06/scientists-media-and-political-activism/

  5. Oh, I figured out what you mean–this paper:
    http://www.ehponline.org/members/2007/10260/10260.html

    which I linked to on the ACS post.

    Again, I have to question whether you are actually reading what I’m writing. It seems like you’re just having a Knee-Jerk reaction.

    That study had over 130 women with cancer, and 130 controls paired with them. I don’t know how you got 60, unless…you are repeating crap you read elsewhere. Like Junkscience.

    The report was published in October in a major journal; I reported that new research was published.
    There really isn’t much more to it than that.

  6. Luis Castro

    I have not mentioned junkscience.com and, yes, you did post a link to a report on the breast cancer study but not the study itself. I got 60 because that was the number of women in each group (exposed vs nonexposed). It could have been 65 so you may be right. It doesn’t matter. If the article describes the study correctly, the science is pretty dodgy. I wrote my specific objection to you that it is a retrospective study but, instead of rebutting, you seem to want to divert attention away from this flaw by inferring that I’m some kind of flunky. I feel bad for you if you can’t discuss the science behind environmental phenomena but that’s what I’m here for.

    Publishing in a jounral os no guarantee of either correctness or good science. I’ve been involved in refereeing papers and I can attest to the fact that there’s a lot of less-than-spectacular science reported, even in the best of journals. Usually, an article has to be novel and the reporting has to be somewhat accurate. There’s no guarantee that published studies are GREAT a la Tony.

    I’ve read what you’ve written and I pretty much agree with everything I’ve seen except I wanted to set the record straight that, no, DDT has not been proven to cause any environmental problems, other than accumulation. You and I pretty much agree that it is a tool to be used judiciously but you seem to believe that DDT has been proven to be an eggshell thinner, a carcinogen or some such thing. That is not true. You can post a few studies that claim to have done so but they have not fared well under rigorous scrutiny and they have failed independent confirmation.

    As far as Rachel Carson, I agree that she’s being unfairly pilloried. She may have been a writer, even a very good one, for FWS or anyone else. That fact does not give her any claim to expertise in the areas where she made incorrect assumptions and conclusions. She would have to have indeed been a pedigreed scholare to have been able to perform all the intricate analyses she claims to have done. Basically, all that can really be said is that she wrote a book for the credulous and it wasn’t her fault that the average American is fairly science-illiterate.

    So, no need to ad hom me. I support you and what you say but there are tinges that I disagree with.

  7. Frankly, I have had so many cranks here attacking me that I default to defensive. But the things you’ve said indicate you haven’t been reading what I’m writing very closely. Confirmation bias, indeed.

    I agree that peer review is no guarantee of quality; but I referenced a peer reviewed study, and you immediately shot it down. And we don’t even seem to be talking about the same paper!

    “Cases (n = 129) developed breast cancer before the age of 50 years. Controls (n = 129) were matched to cases on birth year.”

    I also disagree that a “pedigree” is required for someone to write well about scientific issues. Just look at Carl Zimmer for an example.

    The consensus is that Carson was spot on, not inaccurate. Sure, she didn’t get 100% on her predictions, but given the state of science at the time, she showed impressive foresight.
    (see this link for full citation of this quote: )

    “Silent Spring makes frequent reference to 12 pesticides then commonly used. Since then, 8 of these have been banned for use in the United States (DDT, dieldrin, aldrin, endrin, Pentachlorophenol, toxaphene, benzene hexachloride/BHC), 2 are severely restricted in use (heptachlor, lindane), and one is considered severely hazardous (parathion). Malathion remains as a registered pesticide. DDT is still used in indoor residual spraying for malaria vector control in many parts of the world.”

    I don’t have time to collect the (huge) literature on eggshell thinning, but it is quite large. I’ll put it in my “to do” list, and then we can argue about it, based on evidence, ok?

  8. Luis Castro

    I admit that I haven’t been reading what you’ve been writing on this subject. I’ve been following the subject for many years, though, and I know a fair bit about it. I have concluded that Caron’s targetting of DDT was presumptive because it was a pesticide. PCBs were also found in eagle eggshells and no campaign was launched against them.

    Again, I’m telling you that retrospective toxicology studies based on personal recollection are worthless. They are full of confirmation bias. These are the types of studies used by UFO abduction and suppressed memory believers to establish legitimacy for their claims. You can consider them secondary evidence if you wish but don’t believe that anyone will take them seriously as proof of anything.

    Yes, there are people who can write what is known about a particular science very well. Sagan and Asimov come to mind. However, these people are not propositive as much as they are dispositive. That is, they don’t go off on fishing expeditions outside the known to try to establish an unkown like Carson did. Her work was extremely speculative and often wrong. Yes, that long list of pesticides have been banned but not for the reasons Carson would have had them banned. You need to read their cases individually. They may be on the EPA website. The parathion case may be an education for anyone who believes that it was banned for being a bad actor environmentally or for chronic health effects.

    You will now begin to collect the facts behind what you’ve been writing for so long. (I don’t know I’ve only now followed here from a different forum because I like what you write.) That’s a really bad habit, Bug Girl. If you’re going to campaign about something, you really should have this stuff at your beck and call. That’s really the only practical thing that bothers me about this particular topic.

    Here’s what I believe. Carson saw DDT in eggshells, along with a few other articial substances and, because it’s a pesticide, presumed that it was the xenobiotic culprit in the demise of the bald eagle. I have no idea why she ignored the other substances as I feel they would have led her to a different conclusion. The problem with environmental damage of all types is not pesticides, stable or not. It’s us: society. Habitat destruction and ecroachment are the primary reason for endangered species and despoiled environments. Substances like DDT, phthalate esters, dioxins, PCBs etc are merely long-lived chemicals one can use to track the extent of human incurson into the environment. The chemicals are really doing very little or, at least, not as much as internal combustion engines and chainsaws. That story is much less palatable to humanity than one where banning a few substances will magically allow us to keep doing what’s been the problem all along. Take a lesson from the poor Dodo: it’s not the pesticides per se.

    Anyway, Bug Girl, keep on with the campaign. You and I disagree on this topic but I could be wrong. I pretty much support everything you write except for this pet peeve of mine.

  9. Actually, I haven’t bothered to write up the evidence about DDT and egg shells, because no one I know thinks it’s in question.

    That is a completely different literature than DDT and insecticide resistance (which I do have at hand) and DDT and estrogenic effects, and DDT and Cancer, and DDT-relatives (dielrin, ect.) and…you get my drift. The literature is huge, and goes back over 40 years.

    As for collecting evidence, even with literature which I’m very familiar with, it takes a while to write something that a lay person can read. (My husband the artist is my test case–and about half the time he says I’m still over his head. I’m still trying.)

    I do have a life outside this blog, which means that writing anything longer than “hey this is cool click this link” takes a while.

    I will agree that the cancer study isn’t the strongest one ever; it is however evidence that added to the estrogenic effects that continue to be reported, indicates caution.

  10. Luis Castro

    I looked for the eggshell thining data back in the 80′s and found none. Of course, that was several geologic ages ago and before the days of Google, AltaVista and so on. I’m not sure that any peer-reviewed test on egg-thinning has been run by either the pro- or con- side of the argument as these tests are expensive. Like you, I was told that this evidence was voluminous. Not so when I looked for it.

    I don’t want to be tiresome and pedantic, Bug Girl, but dieldrin is not related to DDT. It seems so because they both contain chlorine but, then again, they both contain carbon. Don’t fall into the trap that, merely because two molecules exhibit similar effects, they are related. Take a look at the number of analgesics on the market. They are all very different structurally and in mode of action.

    Be careful what you believe. Hugeness of supporting but questoinable science is still questionable. What you need to establish the carcinogenicity of anything is replicated studies on animals of at least two different species with similar findings in man. Do you have that for DDT?

  11. In terms of how pesticides are classified, all the organochlorines are related.
    I think we are using the terminology of two different disciplines to describe things.

    The reason studies weren’t done on DDT in the 80′s is probably that no one saw the DDT/eggshell connection as an unanswered question.

    You are correct that we can’t establish definitively the carcinogenicity of something without the type of evidence you describe–but I think most people would prefer that action is taken well before that level of evidence is reached!
    You can’t always collect all the data you would like or want for ethical and practical reasons.

  12. Elizabeth J. Rosenthal

    This was a very interesting thread about Rachel Carson and DDT. I’m surprised to see someone suggesting that the literature is inconclusive concerning DDT and eggshell thinning. Tell that to all the scientists who worked feverishly in the 1960s to determine the cause of the precipitous decline in the numbers of the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon (which was completely extirpated from the eastern U.S.), the osprey, and even the brown pelican, and soon found, through both laboratory and field experiments here and abroad, that DDT caused eggshell thinning, making it impossible for the aforementioned birds to procreate.

    I have a whole chapter on the involvement of Roger Tory Peterson and others on this very topic in my new book, Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson (Lyons Press, 2008).

    Peterson played a central role in the expansion of birding not only in the US, but also Europe and East Africa. My book details these things, as well as demonstrating the breadth of his involvement and leadership in many of the most celebrated conservation causes of the 20th century (including the eradication of the use of DDT and other chlorinated hydrocarbons). Also, the reader learns about Peterson the Man: what motivated him, personal and professional challenges he faced, and his personal impact on many of today’s top birders and conservationists. It’s also worth pointing out that Peterson was an enthusiastic Lepidopterist as well as a botanist, and these passions of his are discussed in the book, too.

    I ended up talking to well over 100 people from around the world to put together this portrait of a complex and driven man. (Many of the people I spoke with are scientists who were directly involved in establishing the link between DDT and the decline of certain bird species.) Birders, natural history buffs, and conservationists alike will enjoy the book.

    If anyone has any questions, please feel free to e-mail me at ejrose@aol.com.

    Thanks.

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