May 24, 2010
The Excellent Powder: A Book Review
By Michael D. Shaw
The Excellent Powder: DDT’s Political and Scientific History
by Donald Roberts and Richard Tren with Roger Bate and Jennifer Zambone
Dog Ear Publishing, 432 pp., $25.00
It’s well past time that a comprehensive review of DDT should appear, and the authors—all connected with the organization Africa Fighting Malaria—have done a bravura job. Replete with footnotes, the work is accessible to the lay reader. The authors state in the book’s preface that “We are writing this book for several reasons, principally to set the record straight and to provide the public with another side to the DDT story.”
The book starts with a brief look at the origins of the chemical, and its remarkable success against insect vectors of disease, especially typhus and malaria. For this reason, Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Müller was awarded the Nobel prize for physiology or medicine in 1948 (“For his discovery of the high efficiency of DDT as a contact poison against several arthropods.”) The “excellent powder” designation comes from a radio broadcast by Winston Churchill.
Uniquely, this volume stresses the notion that there is widespread misunderstanding as to how DDT works to control malaria.
[DDT detractors] argue that if mosquitoes develop resistance to DDT and it no longer kills them, the chemical has no use for reducing malaria. They would be right if DDT were primarily a toxic agent, but in fact it is primarily a repellent that acts secondarily as an irritant and lastly as a toxic agent. This means it is still useful in malaria control even in the presence of resistance to toxicity. Thus, a lack of understanding of how DDT works has resulted in it not being used and lives being lost.
Of course, any discussion of DDT must include Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring. Central to Carson’s ill-fated anti-DDT screed is the robin story, tied in with spraying of trees at Michigan State University (MSU) in the 1950s and early 1960s. While Carson’s junk science on this matter has been attacked elsewhere, Excellent Powder takes no prisoners, and provides a detailed account.
The authors acknowledge that some robins died as a result of acute toxic exposure to DDT, and MSU felt that this was worth it, given their efforts to save thousands of trees from Dutch elm disease—a fungal condition spread by the elm bark beetle. As they refer to Carson’s take on the affair…
She described events on the MSU campus by giving the reader a nugget of truth followed by wildly unfounded and fearful speculation. Carson was implying that DDT was causing the extinction of the American robin.
Excellent Powder provides the simple facts:
Historical data on robin populations on MSU campus show that Carson’s description of an “ever-widening wave of death that spreads out, like ripples when a pebble is dropped into a still pond” following DDT was false. Proof of error in Carson’s assessments and analogy is documented through a 1979 nest census and review of historical data.
Contrary to Carson’s fearful predictions, numbers of adult robins present before nesting in the spring actually reached record numbers on campus during years of DDT spraying. Carson’s fear mongering of DDT as causing “something more sinister—the actual destruction of the birds’ capacity to reproduce,” was pure fiction. Nesting success returned to normal after spraying stopped in 1962.
Carson’s fantasy world did not end with the robin, however. She also claimed that DDT was behind the decline in bald eagle populations. The authors devastate this nonsense under the cold light of reason, with copious authoritative citations.
For those who wonder how misinformation and junk science about DDT could hold court for so long, a section in the book entitled “The Popular Press, Science Journals, and DDT” is quite enlightening. The authors are not afraid to name names, and go after Science magazine.
From 1968 to 1972, Science, widely considered to be the premier scientific journal in the United States, published seventy mostly antagonistic papers, letters, and editorials on DDT. Malaria-control scientists and others wrote letters to protest the many falsehoods in Science articles, but to no avail.
Elaborate detail is presented to support the politicization of science in this regard. Sadly, this phenomenon goes well beyond DDT, and numerous “scientists” have made careers of attacking politically-incorrect chemicals. My own explanation for the biased editorial policy of Science and others is that the journals are run by science nerds, who were likely unpopular in their youth, and feel that they can become popular and cool as adults by embracing fads of the in-clique.
Not well publicized—for obvious reasons—is that some of the voices against DDT were motivated not by the alleged toxicity of the compound, but rather by the notion that it might lead to better survival in the third world. Indeed, evil hacks like Paul Ehrlich were virtually pro-malaria, inasmuch as it limited what they termed “overpopulation.” As the authors put it…
Ehrlich shows no insight into the despair of a mother or father from the loss of a child. Perhaps he has never known of a woman who has watched as all her children and husband die from malaria. Regardless, it was against this background of hysterical concern about growth in human populations that the environmental movement carried out its litigation and publicity wars against any and all uses of DDT.
Excellent Powder will surely give you an understanding of what happened to a chemical proclaimed as a miracle in the late 1940s, but will also provide insight into how science can be destroyed by politics. Highly recommended.