Fisking “Junk Science” and “100 things you should know about DDT”: A new project

June 27, 2007

Looking at the odd campaign against the reputation of Rachel Carson, conducted largely by a group of corporate-paid, political scalawags, one will eventually come across a site named, which has as a motto, “All the junk that’s fit to debunk.”

One might be forgiven if one assumes that the site debunks junk science claims. But that does not appear to be it’s aim at all. On this page, for example, “100 things you should know about DDT,” the site perpetrates or perpetuates dozens of junk science claims against Rachel Carson, against public health, against government and against reason. The site promotes junk science, rather than debunking it!

For example, I had just read a chunk of history reminding me that our first Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, William Ruckelshaus, had been ordered by a federal court to review the pesticide certification for DDT, and had acted against DDT only after two different review panels recommended it be phased out, and states had already started bans of their own. At the time, in 1972, Ruckelshaus faced a heap of criticism for moving so slowly on the issue.

EPA history caption: Rachel Carson's Silent Spring led to banning DDT and other pesticides. [EPA iimage]

EPA history caption: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring led to banning DDT and other pesticides. [EPA iimage]

How is this action described at

You wouldn’t quite recognize the events — and I doubt you could verify other oddities the site claims:

17. Extensive hearings on DDT before an EPA administrative law judge occurred during 1971-1972. The EPA hearing examiner, Judge Edmund Sweeney, concluded that “DDT is not a carcinogenic hazard to man… DDT is not a mutagenic or teratogenic hazard to man… The use of DDT under the regulations involved here do not have a deleterious effect on freshwater fish, estuarine organisms, wild birds or other wildlife.”

[Sweeney, EM. 1972. EPA Hearing Examiner’s recommendations and findings concerning DDT hearings, April 25, 1972 (40 CFR 164.32, 113 pages). Summarized in Barrons (May 1, 1972) and Oregonian (April 26, 1972)]

18. Overruling the EPA hearing examiner, EPA administrator Ruckelshaus banned DDT in 1972. Ruckelshaus never attended a single hour of the seven months of EPA hearings on DDT. Ruckelshaus’ aides reported he did not even read the transcript of the EPA hearings on DDT.

[Santa Ana Register, April 25, 1972]

19. After reversing the EPA hearing examiner’s decision, Ruckelshaus refused to release materials upon which his ban was based. Ruckelshaus rebuffed USDA efforts to obtain those materials through the Freedom of Information Act, claiming that they were just “internal memos.” Scientists were therefore prevented from refuting the false allegations in the Ruckelshaus’ “Opinion and Order on DDT.”

I propose to Fisk much of the list of 100 claims against Carson (which is really a list over 100 items now), in a serial, spasmodic fashion. I’ll post my findings here, making them generally available to internet searches for information on Rachel Carson and DDT. Below the fold, I’ll start, with these three specious claims listed above.

Read the rest of this entry »

New assessment tool for teachers: Blowhard

June 27, 2007

Read about it here; slick as a whistle, if you ask me.

Didn’t know insanity is contagious: Sen. Tom Coburn

June 27, 2007

Several outbursts of insanity in Washington, D.C., lately make one wonder if there is some contagious disease that prompts these outbursts.

Although, I must admit, this outburst was before the Cheney/Snow claims that the nation’s chief executive and vice chief executive are not executive branch members.

In a flash of irony that shattered irony meters across libraries, laboratories and the research facilities in Oklahoma universities, Oklahoma’s U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn placed a hold on the bill to name a post office in honor of Rachel Carson, accusing Carson of “junk science.” What Coburn failed to say — or, God forbid, failed to notice — is that the criticisms of Carson are truly junk science.

In the Washington Post Coburn offered this inexplicable explanation:

In a statement on his Web site yesterday, Coburn (R) confirmed that he is holding up the bill. In the statement, he blames Carson for using “junk science” to turn public opinion against chemicals, including DDT, that could prevent the spread of insect-borne diseases such as malaria, which is spread by mosquitoes.

Coburn, whose Web site says he is a doctor specializing in family medicine, obstetrics and allergies, said in the statement that 1 million to 2 million people die of malaria every year.

“Carson was the author of the now-debunked ‘The Silent Spring,’ ” Coburn’s statement reads. “This book was the catalyst in the deadly worldwide stigmatization against insecticides, especially DDT.”

This issue is arcane enough that history aficionados reading may not be fully aware of the problems with Coburn’s claims. Let me explain.

First, Carson didn’t complain about insecticides, but instead pointed out that overuse of some insecticides is damaging to the environment, and ultimately frustrates their use as intended. As Carson pointed out, DDT was ceasing to be effective in the fight against malaria due to this overuse. In other words, Carson’s advocacy, if it was as effective as Coburn imagines, saved DDT as an effective tool in the fight against malaria. But Coburn blames her for the opposite. It’s as if he were treating a kid who fell out of a tree, and he blamed the broken arm on a cold virus, because the kid’s nose was running.

Second, DDT is a deadly killer. It’s not like DDT is perfectly harmless. Carson, using studies by insecticide manufacturers and entomologists accumulated over the previous 20 years, pointed out that broadcast use of DDT to protect cotton from boll weevils not only failed to protect the cotton, it also endangered humans. Overuse of any insecticide tends to drive evolution of resistance in the insects targeted, and this is exactly what happened, and what Carson reported. That’s not junk science in any form. It’s accurate, real science, that benefits humans.

Had Carson’s book not appeared when it did, it is quite possible, maybe even likely, that it would have been rendered completely useless against insects.

But even worse, animals don’t evolve resistance as quickly as insects can, and the levels of DDT and its daughter compounds were multiplied in living things as they were higher in a local food chain. DDT is absorbed into living tissues very effectively, so it does not remain floating about, say, in the water of a swamp where it is sprayed for mosquitoes. Instead it is absorbed by other insects, by plants, and then by the animals that consume those insects and plants, and then by the predators at the top of the food chains. Carson was way ahead of her time in understanding this relationship, but the science at the time supported her conclusions exactly, and every study done since then has reinforced Carson’s reporting of the scientific conclusions.

This was important because, as concentrated especially in birds, DDT and its daughters cause eggs to be non-viable, and it even changes the behaviors of birds in raising their young. DDT kills the next generation of birds. It is especially deadly against raptors at the top of the food chain — America’s symbol, the bald eagle, for example, was driven to the brink of extinction by DDT — but it also kills the songbirds which, in a well-balanced ecosystem, keep mosquito populations down and prevent the spread of mosquito-borne diseases like malaria or dengue fever.

So DDT use, as Sen. Coburn appears to defend it, would have left the world malaria and mosquito-ridden, exactly the opposite of his claims.

Third, Carson’s book has been verified in hundreds of studies. To call it “debunked” is either a total purchase of junk science, or a dastardly distortion of the the facts. Carson worried that DDT might be a cause of cancer, a carcinogen. Knowledge of carcinogens was so limited when she wrote that Congress and the medical establishment — two groups Coburn belongs to — endorsed the Delaney Clause to the Food and Drug Act in 1957, ordering that nothing that caused cancer be allowed as an additive in foods or food supplements. This seems almost naive today, when we know that some things, like selenium, are both essential nutrients and carcinogenic, and when we can detect vanishingly small traces of carcinogens in almost everything. Carson called our attention to potential dangers of DDT.

And, it turns out, she was mostly right about DDT and cancer. The good news is that DDT is not a potent carcinogen in humans that we know. Coburn appears to rest his entire case on a misunderstanding of that last sentence. Anti-Carson screeds tend to note that DDT has not been found to be a major cause of breast cancer in women. While true, that study leaves these facts: DDT is a known carcinogen in mammals (and we know of no carcinogen that affects other mammals that is not also a carcinogen for humans, who are mammals); DDT’s effects would be expected to show up in liver cancer, because DDT is a toxin and toxins damage the liver even as the organ does its job in cleaning the toxin out; DDT is a known toxin to human livers, causing liver damage leading to liver disease. Liver disease is a frequent precursor to liver cancer. We need more studies, but it is simply false to say that we know DDT is not a carcinogen. DDT is a carcinogen; the only thing we don’t know is how potent it is in humans.

So here we have Sen. Coburn, an MD in the Senate, a man who has the training of a scientist, a guy who used to practice medicine, helping people avoid things that harm or kill them, falling victim to junk science claims about Rachel Carson and her work, and DDT and what it does, and how it does it.

It ain’t the things we don’t know that get us into trouble, some wag once said: It’s the things we know that ain’t so.

Perhaps you could drop Dr. Coburn a letter, gently inform him of the facts, and ask that he release the hold on honoring Rachel Carson, winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the woman who saved DDT from becoming a useless limb in the war against insect-borne disease? It would be the patriotic thing to do.

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