“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.
- Photo credit: Frank Espich, Indianapolis Star; caption: “West Nile virus is spread to humans from birds bitten by infected mosquitoes, which require standing water to breed. Severe cases of West Nile can include encephalitis, meningitis, muscle paralysis and death.”
- Canada News, lack of mosquitoes is part of the problem
- KnoxNews.com (Knoxville News-Sentinel) on current bed bugs troubles, and how DDT was already ineffective against them when it was banned.
- KnoxNews.com editorial comment, the DDT ban saved the bald eagle.
- “River Blindness Curse Lifted,” an opinion piece from the San Francisco Chronicle detailing a successful campaign against river blindness in West Africa, without DDT, since DDT also killed the fish the local population relied on for food.