From The New York Times
Public Beliefs, Global Politics And Pesticides
BYLINE: By John Tierney
DATELINE: September 16, 1999, Thursday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section B; Page 1; Column 1; Metropolitan Desk
BYLINE: By JOHN TIERNEY
HOW many deaths does it take to justify assaulting the environment with
pesticides? Not many, if they're in New York City. As soon as three people died
from encephalitis, public officials and environmentalists generally agreed that
any risks from malathion were negligible compared to the threat from
Beyond the city limits, though, the answer seems to be more complicated. While
helicopters have been spraying pesticide all over town, negotiators at the
United Nations have been debating a proposed global ban on the use of DDT. The
ban is opposed by doctors and researchers who warn that millions of people could die from malaria in countries that can't afford alternatives like malathion.
Environmentalists say DDT should be banned because it poses special risks, and there's no question that it remains in the environment and in body tissues much longer than malathion. But many scientists doubt that DDT is much more hazardous than malathion is. In fact, the debate over the chemicals may turn as much on
public relations and politics as on science.
The proposed DDT ban is the result of a long crusade by journalists,
environmentalists and public officials, most of them living in New York and
other malaria-free environments along the East Coast. It began in 1962,
New Yorker serialized Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring."
Ms. Carson had little scientific expertise -- she edited publications for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service -- but she had a flair for the dramatic.
The book began with "A Fable for Tomorrow," which was about a town blighted by
an "evil spell," and the rest of the book was riddled with unintentional fiction.
Ms. Carson contrasted the evil DDT with farmers' traditional insecticides made
from "naturally occurring minerals" -- and then, without a trace of irony, went
on to list two potent poisons, lead and arsenic, among the ingredients of the
good old-fashioned compounds. She mistakenly claimed that DDT causes cancer,
which wasn't proved then -- and still hasn't been.
"There's never been any good evidence that DDT is harmful to humans," said
Ames, the toxicologist who directs the National Institute of Environmental
Health Sciences Center at the University of California at Berkeley. "There's
some evidence that it hurts birds, but even that's iffy."
DDT might have contributed to the decline of populations of some birds, like
eagles and falcons, although some scientists have long attributed the declines
to other factors. When DDT was banned in the United States in 1972, the
Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency overruled a subordinate
who, after hearing months of testimony, concluded that DDT, used properly, did
"not have a deleterious effect on freshwater fish, estuarine organisms, wild
birds or other wildlife."
Except, of course, for mosquitoes. In 1970, the National Academy of Sciences
estimated that DDT had prevented 500 million human deaths worldwide from
malaria. Since then, as a result of the pressure from environmental groups and
international agencies, the use of DDT has been reduced overseas.
Environmentalists maintain that malaria can be controlled by other means, even
in poor countries, but the disease rate has soared in many places since DDT
spraying stopped. Defenders of DDT have tried to dramatize the situation with
letters, petitions and an Internet Web page (www.junkscience.com/ ddtfaq.htm)
featuring "Rachel Carson's Legacy of Death," presented as a malaria clock that
adds a new fatality every 10.5 seconds.
"The great thing about DDT, for poor countries, is that it's dirt cheap and
lasts a long time," Dr. Ames said. "The United States doesn't need it, because
we have better alternatives. Malathion is clearly preferable for us because it
degrades so quickly in the environment and in the body. But not everyone can
Dr. Ames, incidentally, had some reassurance for the New York residents who are
convinced that even malathion is harming them. "When they were spraying
malathion to stop the medfly from invading California," he recalled, "hundreds
of people in Palo Alto reported suffering symptoms from the chemical. But they
reported these symptoms before the town had even been sprayed."
He advised everyone to stop fretting about either malathion or DDT. "New
would do better to concentrate on not getting hit by a taxicab," he said. "And
people overseas ought to worry about mosquitoes with malaria."
Webmaster's Note: Malaria control usage of DDT is exclusively indoors
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