DDT as snake oil

“It’ll cure what ails ya!”


My first year in college, we spent Saturday nights watching “Emergency!” I don’t recall now whether it was on NBC or ABC, but after we saw it once, we were all hooked, Al, Ben and me.

No, it wasn’t great drama. An hour-long drama about paramedics in Los Angeles probably has a lot of potential — this wasn’t that drama. Jack Webb, of “Dragnet” fame, directed. It had a cast amazing for its “how-did-HE- get-there” quality: Bobby Troup, the jazz pianist and composer of “Route 66″ (” . . . get your kicks on . . .”) played a doctor; his wife, jazz vocalist Julie London, played a nurse. Loved Julie London. Beautiful, but she had all the acting chops of David Janssen (“the man of a thousand faces” of “The Fugitive” fame). Martin Milner was there, too — he actually starred earlier in NBC’s “Route 66” which featured Corvettes, but not Bobby Troupe’s hit song (go figure) — and so was Kevin Tighe and Randolph Mantooth. And Robert Fuller, and Kent McCord. Whew!

For undergraduate college students, the show was a riot. We noticed early on that the script writers were defibrillator happy. Every time the paramedic truck showed up, the first thing off was the defibrillator. Heart attacks seemed to be a big problem in LA at the time — maybe Jack Webb’s own mortality subconsciously sneaking into the scripts — so the defib unit got a lot of use.

But it also came out at all the wrong times. Drowning victim? Defibrillator first, THEN artificial respiration. Poison victim? Defib. Auto accident? Defibrillate the victim, THEN worry about the spurting, arterial bleeding (if it’s spurting, is the defib necessary?). Classic kitten in the tree? Defib the tree, THAT will get that kitten down.

Oh, I exaggerate some. Not much.

Whatever the problem, the defibrillator was the answer.

DDT becomes the new snake oil

The Chronically-Obsessed-With-Rachel-Carson Club (COWRCC) borrows a lot of its scripts from “Emergency!” To them, DDT is to the world today what the defibrillator was to the script writers of “Emergency!” — the answer to every problem. DDT is being hawked like snake oil.

So I wasn’t surprised to see a few people claim that, ‘if only we hadn’t banned DDT, West Nile virus would not be killing Americans now.’ Or, ‘we wiped out bed bugs with DDT, but — blame William Ruckelshaus and the environmentalists — bed bugs are back.’

If any infectious disease has any link to any insect, or arachnid, or anything that makes some people go “EEWWWWWWW!” then the conversation will soon turn to bringing back DDT.

We could bring back the Cold War, too. It was simpler to figure out foreign relations when we had to confront the Soviet Union everywhere — but that won’t fix current problems in Iraq, or Iran, or Palestine, or Peru, or Indonesia, or Kasmir.

Be wary of calls to return to old answers to old problems, when the calls crop up today in response to new problems. Notice that in almost all cases, experts recommend something other than DDT to fight to problem.

For example, Henry I. Miller assaulted environmentalists in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on August 17 (subscription required for more than the opening paragraphs) — claiming exactly that had we not banned DDT from broadcast use (and overuse), we’d be free of West Nile problems today. He called for a change in policy, I guess to spray wetlands and towns with DDT. (The Wall Street Journal seems particularly to have lost its head over this issue; Miller’s piece, filled with hysteria and inaccuracy, is just one of a series of assaults on environmentalists over DDT; see this hysteric letter, nearly every statement of which is wrong.)

Reports of West Nile virus problems have become summer routine. This year the anti-Rachel Carson lobby had prepared the path, and a few people called for a return of DDT mass spraying, though no public health official proposed that as a rational solution. The end of summer brings reports of a few deaths from the disease, and these are always troubling.

Last summer a young man who lived a few dozen yards from our older son died, in Richardson, Texas. The Associated Press reports (via the San Jose Mercury-News) another death in California — the 13th death in that state, this year. Georgia may have a second death for 2007, in a particularly tragic case. Even Canada is having a record year for West Nile virus.

So far this summer, 1,790 people have become infected with West Nile [in Canada], compared with the record of 1,481 cases in 2003. This year, the vast majority of the cases are in the Prairies, where the deaths of seven people are linked to the virus. Saskatchewan Health officials said Friday a total of 1,054 confirmed or suspected cases have been reported, and Manitoba has seen more than 500 cases.

Part of the problem, the article says, is that despite very wet weather in the plains, it’s been a good year for “nuisance” mosquitoes, those that usually harass humans, but which don’t carry West Nile, and most people think mosquitoes are no big problem this year. So they are not taking precautions against mosquitoes, like insect repellents, draining standing water, and fixing screens.

For example, LaPorte County, Indiana, is spraying to reduce the West Nile-carrying mosquitoes. But the health department’s list of things to do to fight West Nile do not include bringing back DDT:

LaPorte County officials offer the following tips to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes:

  • Avoid being outdoors between dusk and dawn.
  • Apply insect repellent containing DEET, Picaradin or oil of lemon eucalyptus to clothes and exposed skin.
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants.

To eliminate breeding areas:

  • Empty birdbaths and wading pools weekly.
  • Clean clogged gutters.
  • Empty flower pots of standing water.
  • Get rid of old tires.
  • Keep buckets, jars and other containers turned upside down.

With such simple solutions available, we should challenge people who advocate bringing back DDT. The bald eagle was removed from the Endangered Species List earlier in 2007, after 35 years of hard work to undo the damage that DDT had done to eagle populations. Several other birds are still listed, bats are finally coming back in the American southwest, and fish kill problems are down a little. The fight to fix the problems DDT caused is not over, and it has not been easy.

DDT is to these COWRCC critics of Rachel Carson and unnamed environmentalists what the defibrillator was to the harried script writers of the old “Emergency!” — a plot device used only because we don’t want to take the time to think about what the right action might be.

Other sources:

11 Responses to DDT as snake oil

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Nothing is 100% effective, Josh. DDT’s effectiveness declines with use. As an insect repellent, DDT is less effective than other insect repellents. Why use a deadly poison and long-term pollution source when a more effective repellent that is NOT a long-term killer is available? An integrated program that includes prevention of bites with screens, repellents, etc., and which includes good access to proven pharmaceuticals, works best. Nothing alone can do the trick.


  2. Josh Scholar says:

    Uhm, you should be aware that insect repellent is no where near 100% effective.


  3. Ed Darrell says:

    DDT is never a good alternative for outdoor spraying. DDT kills the predators of harmful insects, and consequently tends to promote next generation population explosions in disease vectors. Plus, when sprayed in swamps, DDT is taken up by all the living things in the swamp very quickly, making its staying power against insects a completely moot point; DDT is absorbed by grasses, zooplankton and phytoplankton, and so is ineffective against mosquitoes within a couple of days of spraying in a swamp. DDT is the wrong stuff to use, all the way around.

    There is no responsible scientist who suggests DDT ever be sprayed in swamp — especially not in any kind of estuarine environment — nor is there any research to suggest that the short term gains come close to equalling the long-term devastation.

    There is no place where DDT can be sprayed that other solutions are not available.


  4. cheeto says:

    I am by no means a DDT snake-oil seller, and think that many of the newer insecticides are more environmentally sound. However, there are situations where DDT is a better insecticide then the newer types. DDT is extremely persistent in the environment (one of the reasons it was a problem), so in situations where it is impractical to spray more than once or twice a season (in a swamp or some other hard-to-reach location) DDT would be a good alternative.

    my 2 cents.


  5. The Ridger says:

    In their defense, that was about all they were legally permitted to do. Defib and hang some lactate and transport. This was the early early days of paramedics, and the show was as much propaganda as anything else.

    Of course, that applies here, too. These guys don’t seem to realize that even if DDT was, once upon a time, all that and a bag of chips, the times they have a’changed.


  6. Dave S. says:

    Leave us not forget “ringers lactate, D-5-W”. After the thrill of defrib, they always chilled out with a bag of D5W.


  7. […] Steven Milloy, of JunkScience.com, peddling junk science at Fox News: […]


  8. Ed Darrell says:

    Hadn’t known that! London was Webb’s first wife. He married three times after they divorced in 1957. Bobby Troup had also been an actor in the original “Dragnet!,” and Troup and London were husband and wife when Webb cast them in “Emergency!”

    Oh, what a tangled Webb! Webb had also worked with David Janssen. I shoulda figured — they all went to the same acting school, I’m sure. Wikipedia’s listing on Webb lists details:

    In the early 1970s, Webb produced The DA with Robert Conrad and O’Hara: US Treasury with David Janssen. These were short-lived, but another show, Emergency!, proved to be a huge success, running from 1972 to 1977, with ratings occasionally even topping its timeslot competitor, All in the Family. Webb cast his ex-wife, Julie London, as well as her second husband and Dragnet ensemble player Bobby Troup, as nurse Dixie McCall and Dr. Joe Early.


  9. DHoyt says:

    Not relevant to your main point, which is excellent, but I remember that Julie London was married to Jack Webb, which would explain her presence on the program.


  10. Ray C. says:

    @Onkel Bob: People have always believed in BS. Like “when Jupiter is in the seventh house and the moon aligns with Mars….” Or that bloodletting will cure disease. Or that there’s an invisible being in the sky that cares about our love lives and our efforts to lose weight.


  11. Onkel Bob says:

    Ahhh, the echo chamber affect. People gravitate to seeing and hearing what they want to see and hear. So when they have a set world view, they tend to linger on the sites or news sources that reinforce that world view. That and when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.
    Has critical thinking has declined over the years or is it just that in this era of instantaneous information it is simply more visible that we live in a Nation of Idiots? I lean towards the latter as only an idiot looks to a fool for leadership, and history shows us consistently selecting the best fools to political office.


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