Jay Ambrose retired from editing newspapers, and now writes commentary for the Scripps News chain of papers. Because of his experience in editing, I was suprised to see his commentary from last week which takes broad, inaccurate swipes at environmental groups (here from the Evansville, Indiana, Courier & Press).
Ambrose is victim of the “DDT and Rachel Carson bad” hoax.
His column addresses bias in reporting, bias against Christians, which he claims he sees in reporting on issues of stem cell research, and bias “in favor” of environmentalists, which has resulted in a foolish reduction in the use of DDT. I don’t comment here on the stem cell controversy, though Ambrose’s cartoonish presentation of how federally-funded research works invites someone to correct its errors.
Relevant excerpts of Ambrose’s column appear below the fold, with my reply (which I have posted to the Scripps News editorial section, and in an earlier version, to the on-line version of the Evansville paper).
Ambrose opens his broadside against environmentalists talking about what he calls “assumptions” made by news media. You do not have to be an avid fan of mystery fiction to see this is a setup to debunk the assumption he identifies:
Environmentalists are one of the best things that ever happened to this land of ours. That’s another assumption of the mainstream press, and it’s the reason you will see so few headlines about the consequences of green opposition to using DDT to combat malaria.
Most environmentalists would like to know where they might find a bias in their favor anywhere in America. The most famous recent environmental case is that of former Vice President Al Gore, whose participation in an Academy Award-winning documentary about climate change is ridiculed hundreds of times daily by news commentators, internet pundits, and Bush administration officials. This is the situation that environmentalists have almost always faced, with the possible exception of when Theodore Roosevelt himself led the charge up environmental protection hill.
Rachel Carson’s book was met in 1962 with a well-funded campaign by pesticide manufacturers, claiming she was in error. At every step of the long process in DDT reduction, from the first restrictions by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1958 to today’s court fights over Superfund cleanup sites such as those off the coast of California, in Houston, and in the Hudson River Valley, environmentalists are the underdogs, underfunded, underlawyered, fortified only with hard science and tenacity — nobody goes into environmentalism to get rich.
The other end of the Ambrose’s premise also deserves scrutiny. Malaria is a hot topic in recent years, getting a lot of attention from the foundation established by Bill and Melinda Gates, getting a lot of attention from the World Health Organization’s campaigns to fight the disease, and never being out of the focus of local public health officials, pharmaceutical companies (though they may not have focused as much attention as the disease deserves from its ultimate human effects), and pesticide manufacturers and users. Any year will see dozens, if not hundreds, of major stories in broadcast, print and internet, on malaria and its problems. Is the involvement of the environmental movement really overlooked? I doubt it. It’s more likely that environmentalists simply are not the bogeymen Mr. Ambrose will try to paint them to be.
Malaria is a tough group of parasites, many of the worst of which have developed resistance to the drugs used to treat victims. Climate change has expanded the range of the vectors of the disease, spreading the range of the mosquitoes that carry the parasite to humans. Deforestation in places like Kenya, coupled with population concentrations in cities, has provided a fertile ground for malaria to spread to humans. Poverty prevents many people from providing the basic means to fight malaria and mosquitoes — cheap malaria prophylactic drugs, screens on windows, and so forth. Unstable governments in many nations contribute to the difficulty public health officials have in mounting serious campaigns against the disease.
If the public health officials exist at all.
None of these issues can be blamed on environmentalists or environmentalism, yet each of these has played a larger role in malaria’s recent rebound than environmentalists possibly could.
Plus there is this nagging fact: Environmentalists have argued in favor of DDT use where appropriate to fight malaria — it would be difficult to find any case where environmentalists said “let malaria rage” for any reason.
Notice that the quick, simple problem identification is wrong in this case. Environmentalists are not loved, and malaria is not a disease environmentalists have been lax against. But it takes a lot of explanation to make the point.
Most of Ambrose’s column repeats the canards of the professional junk science purveyors and industry public relations people against DDT and Rachel Carson (though to his credit, Ambrose never maligns Carson by name).
Now look at how environmentalists long persuaded the United Nations and United States and European governments to dissuade poor nations in Africa to never use DDT in indoor spraying to combat the spread of malaria, and look at what happened: pure horror, ugliness of a kind that statistics can hint at but don’t finally express, the deaths of millions of children.
This is factually in error. DDT use on crops has been the focus of the campaign against DDT. Especially in Africa, after the middle 1960s (before the U.S. cancellation of the registration of DDT as a pesticide for broad use), DDT had declined in effectiveness against mosquitoes, and was discontinued because of its ineffectiveness. All studious sources agree that a chief cause of resistance to DDT in mosquitoes was agricultural overuse of the pesticide. Far more than 90% of DDT use was on agricultural crops, and most of that on cotton — such use speeded insect evolution of genes that effectively made them immune to the poison (mosquitoes now carry genes that produce enzymes to digest DDT without harm).
There is an interesting and perhaps regrettable issue of sociology: In some nations, people resist allowing DDT to be sprayed into their homes. First, they were told early sprayings would completely eradicate the mosquitoes and the disease — which didn’t happen. So they are wary. Second, they have heard the stories of DDT misuse, how over spraying in Borneo killed not only mosquitoes, but also the wasps that preyed on the caterpillars that eat the thatch on the roofs of the houses, and how the huts across the sprayed area suddenly were roofless; how the geckoes that ate the cockroaches got superdoses of DDT, and died; and how the cats of the islanders, who also ate cockroaches and geckoes, also died. WHO famously arranged for an airlift of cats to Borneo to prevent outbreaks of rodent-borne diseases like typhus. Add to this the knowledge that DDT was banned in the U.S. and Europe, and many people in the third world don’t want such poisons in their homes. Education could fix this problem, but such education requires a working government, a working public health agency, and money.
Even when you grant qualifications, the fanaticism of some environmentalists on the issue of DDT is beyond defense. While it is true that DDT can kill raptors by thinning their eggshells, top experts say there are no “peer-reviewed, replicated” studies showing a threat to human beings, and there is zero evidence that any wildlife would be endangered by indoor spraying.
Hundreds of doctors and scientists have testified on this score, and people in African countries have begged for DDT.
It’s fascinating that the fanatic environmentalists referred to are not named. I thought that such crazy fanatics would pop out from official documents, since their sins are so manifest, to Ambrose. However, I have searched documents to find who these people are, and they are not identified. I think the “fanatic environmentalist” is an invention, and a hoax at that.
Beyond that, Ambrose allows one scientific fact, that DDT kills birds of prey, but then caroms off into inaccuracy. DDT thins eggshells of all birds who get it, including songbirds, many of which have declined 90% in the past 30 years. DDT outright kills smaller birds — Wisconsin famously noted the bizarre deaths of robins after DDT spraying, early in the 1960s. DDT concentrates in living things quickly, and it multiplies up to 10 million times up the food chain. DDT concentrates in fatty tissues, where it is relatively benign. However, when those fats are used, the DDT may prove toxic. Consequently, migratory birds — the raptors, and especially the tiny songbirds — are put at highest risk of DDT poisoning when they migrate and burn the fats with the stored DDT. Worldwide, migratory songbirds and raptors have suffered precipitous declines beyond their loss of habitat.
DDT was also known to be particularly effective in killing bats, which are mammals. In the pre-Earth Day political correctness, people poisoned bats to get rid of them, and the bans on DDT specifically mention pleas to keep DDT available to kill bats. Since then we learned better. Bats help control mosquitoes. In fact, bats were discovered to get significant doses of DDT from eating so many insects (up to their body weight in mosquitoes, nightly). When the bats migrate, they burn their DDT-laced body fats, and die of acute DDT poisoning. This is significant because it demonstrates the dangers of DDT, particularly in the fact that it survives for decades in the wild, concentrating in places and ways we have not discovered. DDT is toxic to most living things (including humans).
Ambrose also fails to note that the vast weight of scientists who testify about DDT anywhere, testify that we need to find a better substitute, chemicals that target specific species, and that break down quickly in the environment to eliminate so many of the problems of DDT. Nor does he give credit where credit is due: Among those scientists “begging” for DDT use in Africa are those from Environmental Defense (ED). ED, formerly known as the Environmental Defense Fund, is the organization that was created more than 40 years ago specifically to challenge spraying of DDT on Long Island. ED’s history and expertise in DDT is unequalled. (Isn’t it odd that the Bush administration would claim to be following environmentalist’s policy in refusing to fund DDT against malaria in Africa? This story deserves more investigation — it smells wrong.)
Hundreds of scientists plea for DDT, but not because it’s safe. They ask for DDT use to fight malaria while we search for safe alternatives.
Many environmental groups were unbending, just as some groups still are despite the fact that malaria is now afflicting half a billion people annually, and killing a million. The numbers are higher than those of two decades ago, and now the United Nations is encouraging instead of discouraging the indoor spraying of DDT, as is the United States. Many environmentalists are signing on, too, if grudgingly and sometimes with irrelevant, stupefying remarks that show they still don’t get it.
Malaria’s lethality is greater than Ambrose states — estimates are that about 2.7 million people have died annually from the disease in the last decade or so. The half-billion affected annually are those exposed to the disease, and that number has not significantly risen in 40 years.
But who are these “unbending” environmental groups? Not ED, not the Audubon Society, not National Wildlife Federation — who? I think Ambrose has been told a ghost exists, and he thinks it is real. And take a look again at the ED letter to USAID — that’s not “grudging” approval. ED is pushing the Bush adminisitration to get off its duff and do something about malaria.
The “stupefying remarks” from people who “don’t get it” are those from the bashers of environmentalists. In Ambrose’s entire column, there is scarcely a fact that is not misrepresented at least, if not downright wrong.
So let’s talk about the press and how it decided the opposition to federally sponsored stem-cell research from some religious conservatives and an American president was a very big deal, and how, on the other, the opposition from environmentalists to using DDT to save millions was not.
Biases in reporting the news show up in a great many ways, and in some quarters the bias is very much against conservatives.
There comes a time when facts break through even the most stubborn of ideological predispositions, and that’s been happening in the case of DDT opposition, but too late for millions of the dead, and too late to hide the truth about the liberal bias of so many reporters.
Here is my response, stressing the need for a bias to accuracy:
On DDT, the bias the press exhibits is a bias for accuracy — and that’s good.
“They” say no good deed goes unpunished, and your screed against environmental groups is proof of that. On one hand you blame environmentalists for things they didn’t do; on the other hand you oversell the benefits of DDT and undersell the dangers.
The irony is that it has been environmental groups, such as Environmental Defense (ED), who have been urging the Bush Administration and USAID to allow DDT spraying against malaria in Africa. Why did the Bush administration balk? They claimed to fear opposition from environmental groups.
But environmental groups have always urged that exceptions to DDT bans be made for public health reasons. The first federal actions against DDT from 1958 through William Ruckelshaus’s 1972 order canceling the registration of DDT for most uses, all specifically listed public health use as one that could be excepted. The 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pesticides (POPs treaty) specifically allows DDT use against malaria. I’ll wager you can’t name an environmental group that opposes DDT use where necessary. Your shotgun indictment is in error.
But, “top scientists” (if we can call the National Academy of Scientists that) urge an end to DDT, because it is highly toxic to many things, including bats and birds that prey on mosquitoes and, thereby, help stop malaria and other diseases. The hundreds of doctors and scientists who testified all urged that DDT be replaced with better targeting chemicals. DDT kills indiscriminately. Only when DDT and its daughter components started to drop in the tissues of many birds, did the eggshell-thinning stop increasing. Where eagles, peregrine falcons and other raptors are endangered, disease-carrying rodents go amok. DDT is implicated in the near extinction of several bat populations in the Americas, bat declines which in some cases contributed to the spread of tropical diseases. Bats eat hundreds of mosquitoes, each, every night.
Finally, malaria came roaring back partly because of overuse of DDT, not underuse. Large scale broadcast spraying of cotton and other crops helped breed mosquitoes immune to DDT. That use is what environmental groups campaigned hard against, particularly since it made control of malaria so much more difficult.
Other problems also helped malaria: Ineffective governments in too many tropical nations made it impossible to conduct campaigns against malaria that worked (think of Uganda under Idi Amin). The malaria parasites the mosquitoes carry themselves developed immunity to the drugs used to treat people — DDT has no role in that. Health delivery systems in much of the malaria-prone part of the world simply do not exist. Finally, deforestation and rising local temperatures have dramatically expanded the ranges of malaria-carrying mosquitoes. None of those problems can be blamed on any environmental organization.
Malaria is a difficult problem. Environmental groups work on all aspects of the problem, and have done for at least the last 40 years. If news media seem biased when they report that, good: It’s a bias for accuracy. It’s a good bias which we should hope to be infectious.
There is a nasty campaign against environmental groups, against Rachel Carson personally, and against scientific research that questions industrial use of chemicals. For over a decade this well-funded campaign has spread half-truths about DDT, claiming it as “harmless.” That’s not true. The campaign also claims DDT is a panacea against malaria. Alas, that’s not true, either. News reporters, and editorial writers, have proven difficult to mislead on these issues, though not all have been so stoic. Good for the media.