One Cheer for DDT

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The ur-liberals over at the Washington Monthly are finally catching on, with this very well-done feature by Alexander Gourevitch on how obsessive opposition to DDT is killing people in the Third World. He explains how the scare-science behind opposition to DDT is falling apart, and how Western agendas are influencing Africans who really ought to be using the chemical to curb rampant malaria. An op-ed I did on the subject back in March 2000 is here.

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  1. Isn’t everything in this magazine an op-ed?

  2. The use of DDT as a public health alternative definitely deserves reconsideration, although I hope Gourevich is right in his claim that those favoring such use do not propose resurrecting it for common agricultural use.

    I am very leery of petrochemical pesticides myself. Gourevich does not say much about the SOURCE of all that scientific research, which is usually heavily influenced by corporate money. And he seems to miss the distinction between acute toxic reaction to large-scale exposure, and chronic reactions resulting from the cumulative storage of synthetic chemicals in our bodies.

    It’s interesting he mentioned the “organic” pesticide pyrethrin. I’ve done some organic truck farming, and that stuff gives me the creeps. It may be biodegradable, but you’d better be wearing lots of protection when you use it.

  3. Kevin,
    What difference does it make if the research was funded by corporate money?

  4. organic truck farming?

    the only thing this conveys to my mind is, ‘growing biodegradable trucks’.

  5. I would like to respond to Kevin’s points. Every single person I spoke to, including Tanzanian and Ugandan health ministers, the director of South Africa’s spraying program, and all the American experts, said they absolutely did not want to resurrect DDT for agricultural use. That is a panic that some anti-DDT groups have stirred up or failed to clarify; and was in part responsible for the rumor-threat that Uganda’s products would be banned in Europe if it sprayed with DDT.

    Kevin is worried about the source of the scientific research I use. There are numerous studies conducted by scientists and published in peer review journals showing DDT to be safe. Peer review, of course, is the best measure of what should count as objective science that we have. Whoever funded it is irrelevant if peer-review scientists found it to be science, although in this case I understand that much of the funding either came from universities or the government. I recommend to anyone interested in DDT science a literature review written in Lancet February 2000. The author notes that DDT is one of the most extensively studied chemicals in the past 50 years. The review makes the distinction Kevin points to between acute toxic reaction and chronic reactions. For the prior, it notes that even people who tried to commit suicide by eating lots of DDT didn’t die. And studies of chronic exposure (discussed in the Lancet piece and elsewhere) have never been able to show anything conclusive. One study has attempted to draw a connection between DDT and low-birth weight/premature birth for pregnant women. But there was a confounding variable — PCBs. In addition, in terms of chronic effects, one would really expect to have seen them by now considering anybody who ate fruits or vegetables — that is to say, every man, woman and child in the US — grown in the US before 1972 was absorbing quantities of DDT as large if not larger than would be absorbed from public health spraying. Yet none have been discovered, and not for lack of trying. Besides which, nearly 2 million Africans are dying of malaria a year and there are so few effective tools right now that DDT’s cheapness and effectiveness surely outweighs the faint possibility of chronic effects.

    Kevin is right to be concerned about pyrethroid. It is more dangerous than DDT. DDT does not require the kind of protective gear that pyrethroid does because DDT is not harmful to human beings. That is yet another reason why DDT makes a better insecticide for public health use than one of its most popular alternatives.

    As for corporate money, that is simply a cheap shot on Kevin’s part. Not to mention, it gets the whole thing backwards. Chemical companies were quite happy to see DDT banned because it was so cheap that it was hard to turn a profit, even when sold in the gigantic quantities for agriculture. (Forget about profit windfalls for public health use). The chemical companies, however, were quite happy to provide the more expensive DDT alternatives. There are even rumors that the company currently providing carbamate to Mozambique has bribed ministers there to keep them from using DDT. And there are substantial commercial interests in some of the other DDT alternatives — like bednets and drugs. I kept these last points out of the article even though one Ugandan source mentioned frustration with the influence of bednet and drug companies because I do not find smear by association a very productive line of thinking, nor do I think these associations explain either the science nor the panic surrounding DDT. It is cynical to think that science is simply a product of the interests that fund it, or that scientists cannot be objective. Pessimism is unwarranted. Rather, we should be happy that DDT has proved our preconceptions wrong, and that there is a cheap, safe, and effective way for Africa to control malaria.

  6. Laz, you’re tempting me to say shut up again. But I won’t.

    Please let us know what a brainiac you are and explain why a corporation funding research would allow it to be made public if it was at cross-purposes to its economic interest. i.e. if there were 10 studies, one of which they liked and nine they didn’t, which one do you think they would allow to be published?

  7. Alex,

    Bravo.

    Kevin,

    What exactly is truck farming anyway?

    Just curious.

  8. Lefty : the presumption that a company that provided funding for research could not “allow it to be made public” is confused. That would be if a company ACTUALLY PERFORMED research internally. A company that simply provided funding for research produced externally can’t stop the publication of research with unpalatable results — unless the researchers are corrupt, in which case they might be able to bribe them into suppression whether they provided the original funding or not.

    The taint of the source of funding is more likely to be indirect, similar to the expected election of politicians. Scientists, like politicians, are likely to have certain biases. They are more likely to get support from people who agree with those biases. However, a good part of science is the attempt to exclude the biases from the results, so it really comes down to the quality of the scientists and their methodology, not the source of funding.

  9. Lefty:

    If research funded by corporations is bad, then research funded by government is good?

  10. Concern over biases in research is legitimate but it must be remembered that it goes both ways. Private non-profit and charitable organizations, like businesses, employ people who are desparate to keep their jobs. Issue orientated groups (like environmentalists, for example) get their funding largely based on how bad they can make the situation they are concerned with sound. Thus, no news is good news because people are less inclinded to donate money when they hear that the air quality levels have been improving (for example).

    As Jens points out, the researchers themselves have biases and personal beliefs that can influence the results.

    Ultimately, bias may explain why people lie or create biased studies (where the deck of cards is selectively stacked by the methodology) but it in and of itself cannot be used to invalidate an argument. Only assessment of the logic and evidence can do that. And, even if someone has a bias in favor of a certain result, that does not a priori prove that they are wrong.

  11. Wrong, jens. It’s common practice for the company funding a project to contractually bind the researcher to the corporation’s approval before they publish their findings. People have lost their jobs and been sued for trying to go around that type of agreement.

    I’m not saying all corporate research is bad but you better get your bullshit antenna up when you see one.

  12. Here’s a link if you want to look further.

    http://www.infactcanada.ca/research.htm

  13. Thanks Lefty. The link is to a non-profit, so it must be completely unbiased.

  14. Truck farming is just small-scale horticulture for local markets. I grew mainly for my own use, but occasionally sold my surplus to a roadside stand or out of my car. The local natural foods coop wouldn’t buy it because it wasn’t certified organic, and I refused to jump through the government’s hoops.

    Alex Gourevich:

    Thanks for pointing out that the state capitalist interests were predominantly on the side of the ban. That is usually the case of the regulatory state’s so-called “progressive” measures, as both Rothbard and the New Leftists pointed out–just cartelizing devices of one sort or another.

    But I don’t believe that raising money questions about research is a “cheap shot” or that cynicism is an unwarranted assault on the sacrosanct domain of science. It’s certainly no more a “cheap shot” than the automatic cries of “junk science” when research findings violate the corporate party line. For an admittedly biased (but useful as a corrective) study of the effect money and institutional interests have on the science, I recommend Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, “Trust Us, We’re Experts!” One example in the book of the phenomenon Lefty talked about was the vilification campaign against Arpad Pusztai.

    And Jim is correct–qui bono is a legitimate question to ask in ALL cases. In most cases, the goo-goos and liberals are acting as useful idiots to pass cartelizing regulations (under cover of the “public interest”) that benefit big business interests. That’s true of most of the “progressive” era regulations that NPR liberals get a hard-on about, as Gabriel Kolko demonstrated.

  15. Definition: Truck Farming is the growing of high value fruit, like cherries, apples, etc.

    Hey Lefty, the thing about “studies” is they’re supposed to be scientific. That means others can look at the papers or articles and see the numbers and equations. So, if there are errors, everyone can see them, if they know their scientific butt from a hole in the ground. Granted, some “studies”, mostly in the social “sciences” are garbage, but one can see that too, by reading the paper in question.

    I don’t see a problem in who funds the study, so long as the info. is published. Internal, unpublished studies are necessary, of course, but an outsider shouldn’t believe the results without question.

  16. Lies, damn lies and statistics…

  17. It doesn’t matter who funded the studies-

    and smoking doesn’t cause cancer.

  18. It was called “truck farming” because rather than consuming the produce on your farm, you “trucked” it to a more urban area where non-farmers bought it.

    In 19th century, the state most known for “truck farming” was New Jersey, which had Philadephia on one side and New York City on the other.

    Thus the license plates which everyone snickers at, which declare New Jersey “The Garden State.”

  19. That should have said, “In the 19th century, the state most known for ‘truck gardens’ was New Jersey…”

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