Since my post noting DDT being sold as snake oil, good for any and all ailments, readers have called to my attention to already-existing calls to use DDT to fight West Nile virus, a use that no public health official has asked for, and a use that would be particularly ironic since broadcast spraying of DDT also kills the chief victims of West Nile: Song birds.
So, here’s our list for August 2007:
Snake Oil Salesmen of the Month
Milloy’s winning contribution is particularly brilliant. He notes that there are other pesticides that are effective, but, because they do not continue killing for years uncontrollably, he calls for DDT. It’s a column Dave Barry could not dream up for parody:
West Nile virus has killed seven people in Louisiana this year, two in Mississippi and at least 145 people in six states have been infected. A 12-year-old Wisconsin boy died last week of mosquito-borne encephalitis.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says West Nile virus is in the U.S. to stay. The virus may now be found in 37 states, including every state from Texas to the Atlantic.
CDC Director Julie Gerberding called West Nile virus an “emerging, infectious disease epidemic” that could be spread all the way to the Pacific Coast by birds and mosquitoes.
Louisiana has been monitoring the virus since 2000 and has one of the most active mosquito-control programs in the country — and yet it is the state with the highest death toll.
It’s time to bring back the insecticide DDT.
Currently used pesticides, such as malathion, resmethrin and sumithrin, can be effective in killing mosquitoes but are significantly limited since they don’t persist in the environment after spraying.
This award has to be retroactive — Milloy wrote this in August 2002. Since then, it is still true that no public health official has asked for DDT, and it is also true that the West Nile outbreaks continue to plague birds more than humans. (I regret I did not find this article earlier, to use as an example of the craziness of the advocates.) Tiger mosquitoes don’t change their stripes, Milloy’s piece should remind us.
Miller’s winning entry is notable for the way it completely ignores contrary data, and rather overlooks 35 years of tough work to ameliorate damage from DDT.
In the absence of a vaccine, eliminating the carrier — the mosquito — should be the key to preventing an epidemic. But in 1972, on the basis of data on toxicity to fish and migrating birds (but not to humans), the Environmental Protection Agency banned virtually all uses of DDT, an inexpensive and effective pesticide once widely deployed in the U.S. to kill disease-carrying insects. The effectiveness and relative safety of DDT was underplayed, as was the distinction between the large-scale use of the chemical in agriculture and more limited application for controlling carriers of human disease. There is a world of difference between applying large amounts of it in the environment — as American farmers did before it was banned — and using it carefully and sparingly to fight mosquitoes and other disease-carrying insects. A basic principle of toxicology is that the dose makes the poison.
Miller fails to note that there is not a world of difference between applying large amounts of DDT on crops and applying large amounts of DDT on swamps, which is what he appears to be advocating.
To control mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus, the pesticide would need to be used extensively — and it should be. DDT should be made available, immediately, for both indoor and outdoor mosquito control in the U.S.; and the government should oppose international strictures on the pesticide.
Miller doesn’t mention that the deadliest, most uncontrollable actions of DDT were in waterways, especially when applied to kill mosquitoes in the past. The poison bio-accumulates as it rises through the food-chain, so that the dose a raptor like a bald eagle, osprey, or brown pelican gets from spraying for mosquitoes is a dose 10 million times more potent than was originally received by the mosquito.
Miller’s piece is highly ironic in its timing, coming about six weeks after the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list. America has worked for 35 years to get rid of the effects of DDT, whose spraying ended prior to 1972, and we are just now seeing good results that merit celebration — Miller urges that we poison the birds all over again.
I predict West Nile virus will be the chief selling point for the DDT snake oil salesmen during the month of September. With the West Nile season winding down, however, one wonders what disease will crop up next for which the DDT snake oil will be touted as a cure: Rocky Mountain spotted fever? Lyme disease? Diabetes? Heart disease?