Annals of Hoaxes: American Enterprise Institute sends out hoax backgrounder on DDT and trade barriers

How do hoaxes get started?

The self-proclaimed august American Enterprise Institute issued a “backgrounder” today on foreign trade.  Backgrounder #2509, written by James Roberts.

The first paragraph is complete fiction:

Decades ago, the use of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) was banned worldwide for what were generally seen as noble and unassailable environmental and public health reasons. Today, ample evidence shows that the ban on DDT spraying has been a tragic mistake. In developing countries, it is linked to millions of preventable deaths from malaria. Worse, some protectionist European business sectors and activist groups continue to exploit the fears of DDT in ways that increase the suffering of the poor around the world.

Here are the errors of fact:

  1. DDT has never been banned worldwide, so there could never be a decades-old worldwide ban. A nearly-world-wide ban was agreed upon by treaty  in late 2001, less than one decade ago.  However, any nation may ignore the ban, legally, by simply writing a letter to the World Health Organization (WHO) saying the nation will be using DDT.  DDT manufacturing continues in a few nations today, including North Korea and India.  India is far and away the largest user of DDT now, using more than all other nations combined.  No worldwide ban on DDT ever existed, and DDT use has been continuous since 1946.
  2. Earlier bans on DDT were assailed in court as unreasonable infringements on commerce. The U.S. banned DDT use on agricultural crops in 1972, but only after two federal district courts had ruled the substance essentially uncontrollable in the wild, and after a lengthy administrative law hearing at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) covering most of 1971 and more than 9,000 pages of testimony.  EPA’s rule left DDT available in the U.S. for emergency use, or for health use.  EPA’s rule left manufacturing alone so the U.S. could export DDT to any other nation who wanted to use it.  Still, DDT manufacturers fought hard in court to overturn the ruling.  Manufacturers argued that the science was thin to back the ban, and that the ban was too much regulation for small gain.  Appeals courts ruled that the science backing the ban was ample.
  3. 39 years after the U.S. ban on crop spraying with DDT, benefits are enormous — history and science show the recovery of dozens of beneficial species, ranging from mosquito-eating Mexican free-tail bats in Texas, through fish in Oklahoma, to osprey, peregrine falcons, brown pelicans and bald eagles in the rest of the U.S. Unknown at the time EPA acted, DDT has been shown to be an endocrine disruptor of the sort that scrambles the sex organs of fish and amphibians in the Potomac and Susquehanna Rivers in the U.S.  Also unknown in 1972, EPA now is listed by the American Cancer Society as a “probable human carcinogen,” though it is thought to be a weak carcinogen to adults directly exposed.
  4. Malaria deaths have been cut by 75% since DDT was indicted as a harmful substance. Perhaps more surprising, without DDT, health workers around the world have sharply reduced malaria incidence and especially malaria deaths.  Nearly four million people died from malaria, worldwide, at the height of DDT use in 1959 through 1961.  Today that death toll has been cut to under 900,000, through wise use of curative pharmaceuticals, careful use of prophylactic nets and home improvements, and the development of new, better-targeted pesticides.  Malaria fighters especially are redoubling efforts to make the disease at least rare, now encouraged by the dramatic strides made without relying on DDT.  Ironically, India has a growing malaria problem, despite its being the greatest user of DDT today.  (Even more ironic:  Roberts claims about half the death rate WHO does — a 90% reduction in malaria deaths.)
  5. No preventable death to malaria has been tied to a lack of DDT. No nation has ever had difficulty getting DDT if it wanted it.  The fight against malaria was hampered when the malaria parasites developed resistance to traditional pharmaceuticals used to treat the disease in humans, but the promulgation of artemisinin-based combination therapies made up the gap. Nations have difficulty developing a health care system that can quickly and accurately diagnose malaria, and which form of malaria, and then deliver the necessary therapeutic regimen of pharmaceuticals to cure humans.  DDT cannot make up for that difficulty, partly because DDT use itself now requires rather extensive testing to make sure it works.  As Jonathan Weiner noted in his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Beak of the Finch, nearly every mosquito on Earth today carries at least one of two alleles which make them resistant or wholly immune to DDT.  DDT cannot be used without first testing to be sure the mosquitoes are killed by it.
  6. No otherwise noble European or “western” business groups nor environmental groups work against the minor use of DDT for indoor residual spraying (IRS). For example, the Environmental Defense Fund was one of the groups that lobbied the Bush administration to allow USAID money to buy DDT for IRS in Africa, a use the Bush administration inexplicably had not allowed.  Opposition to this minor DDT use in Uganda was organized by Uganda businessmen who sued to stop it, not by European groups — generally.  BAT, British-American Tobacco, did organize opposition to use of DDT, on specious grounds — highly ironic since the people who run the pro-DDT publicity machine are, several of them, former tobacco propagandists whose organizations go seed money from tobacco companies.  Generally, DDT use for IRS in Africa is supported by everyone involved, including environmentalists and the U.S. government.

Four sentences and six grievous errors of fact from the American Enterprise Institute.  And this is just the first paragraph of their “background” paper.

James Roberts may have tried to pluck an example from a history he does not understand.  There may be a problems with trade and pharmaceuticals and pesticides — but none of the problems he cites for DDT is accurate and true.  He may have fallen for the hoaxes perpetrated by others.

Watch:  A hundred others will cite the hoax conclusions Roberts lists, claiming American Enterprise Institute as the source.  Likely they will assume AEI had its facts straight, and wasn’t the victim of a hoax.

And that’s how hoaxes get started, big time. This is how no-think tanks wage the War on Science.

Will AEI issue a correction?

Does anyone take such publications as authoritative?  May God forbid.

With such a sloppy start, can the rest of the paper be any better?

(Oy, now I scan down the document, and I see Roberts cited Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring as saying DDT use would lead to extinction of birds, “offering no proof.”  Since Carson made no such direct claim, and since the book was loaded with citations to the studies that proved her points, that is it was loaded with “proof,” we must conclude that Roberts did not bother to actually open the book, let alone read it.  That doesn’t speak well for the chances of getting a correction.)

2 Responses to Annals of Hoaxes: American Enterprise Institute sends out hoax backgrounder on DDT and trade barriers

  1. I went on a short driving trip in the central part of Iowa today. While on that trip I saw three bald eagles. They have returned to this state.
    I grew up in this state. I was in high school and college in the 1970s and would not have ever expected to see an eagle in the wild in this state.
    Why did they disappear and why did they come back? The consensus is that they disappeared because of DDT and they came back a few decades later because DDT was banned. Certainly there were other factors, but DDT is the biggest one.


  2. Ellie says:

    You can give all the facts in the world, Ed, and there will still be people sticking their fingers in their ears and chanting, “LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA I can’t hear you!”


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