Our Stolen Futurea book by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers
 
 

 

 

The one thing we can be grateful for about Steven Milloy, publisher of the aptly named "junkscience.com," is that his confident ignorance knows no bounds.

Milloy is the web incarnation of that fool described by Josh Billings: "It's not what we don't know that gets us in trouble. It's what we know that just ain't so."

Milloy, a sort-of Anne Coulter for the chemical industry, has just proposed (16 August 2002 and also 25 August 2002), that in the face of the West Nile Virus we should bring back DDT. He argues: "No harm, no foul."

Milloy either doesn't stay up with the scientific literature, or chooses to ignore it. I suspect it is a combination of both. Milloy is probably too busy reading his instructions from the tobacco and chemical industries to pay attention to anything coming out of scientific laboratories. That's convenient for him, because if he did it would be difficult--or at least inconvenient--for him to write ignorant columns like this one. Instead he would have to acknowledge that what he "knows" about DDT just ain't so.

Before Milloy so avidly wishes DDT upon the American public, he should read a research article about DDT published in 2001 by scientists from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the US Centers for Disease Control. This study, conducted 3 decades after DDT was banned in the US, opened an astounding new chapter in the toxicology of that compound.

It also offered an important and more general lesson about the need to precautionary action to prevent harm from chemical exposures even when the science is not yet certain. No, we didn't have all the goods on DDT when it was banned, but we knew enough. Now with decades' additional research we know more, and can be thankful today for the willingness to act on a precautionary basis.

This new study, led by Matthew Longnecker at NIEHS, focused on mothers' blood samples that had been stored upon babies' births during the '50s and '60s. They used some new chemical techniques to make what then would have been impossible measurements of DDE levels (DDT is converted to DDE in people), and then looked at the relationship between DDE cord blood levels and the likelihood of pre-term birth.

Bingo. They found a very strong association, strong enough to conclude that during that time period the US experienced "an epidemic of pre-term birth" due to DDT use.

More on the Longnecker study...
A related study on DDE and male birth defects
A 2003 analysis of DDT's adverse effects on infant mortality

And what consequences does pre-term birth have? Well first of all, pre-term babies are much more likely to die, period. In fact, Longnecker estimated in an interview in the New Scientist that up to 15% of infant mortality in the US during the hey-day of DDT use may have been attributable to DDE exposure. Second, pre-term babies that survive often suffer from a host of maladies that pursue them throughout their lives.

Perhaps Milloy hasn't done the numbers. He is proposing to use DDT to kill mosquitoes to combat a disease that has killed fewer than 30 people in the US over the past 3 years. Two-hundred fifty-one cases have been reported as of August 2002. Most people don't know they have it when they are infected.

How does that compare to the impact of DDT on infant mortality related to pre-term birth? There were a bit more than 4 million births in the US in 2001. The infant mortality rate is on the order of 11%, or approximately 440,000 infant deaths. If Longnecker's estimate is correct, DDT use could lead to some 66,000 pre-term deaths* in one year alone. Even if Longnecker is wrong by one-hundred fold, that's 660 deaths. Add to that the health burdens imposed on those who survive. Not a pleasant option.

Pre-term birth is not something you purposefully wish on anybody, as Milloy appears to be doing with his desire to bring back DDT for use against West Nile Virus. I have to assume that Milloy is doing this out of ignorance, although his work for the tobacco industry demonstrates that he is willing to advocate the sale and use of materials that kill millions of people world-wide.

Incidentally, Milloy offers another scientific whopper in his essay. He writes: "Claims that mosquitoes eventually would develop resistance to DDT are off-base," ignoring volumes of research conducted by industry, government and academics on the ways that pests evolve in response to exposure to pesticides and develop pesticide resistance. There is no scientific doubt about this. None. If Milloy wants some bedtime reading perhaps he should start with the US National Academy of Sciences' weighty tome: Pesticide Resistance Strategies and Tactics for Management.

Why does Fox News, where Milloy published this piece, allow such ignorant, harmful advice and scientific bloopers on its website?

 

 

 
 

*This number is a correction of an erroneous calculation initially posted. Corrected 26 August 2002. The correction does not alter the qualitative conclusion: Deaths likely averted by cessation of DDT use in the US are many times greater per year than those caused by West Nile Virus in the US.

 
     

 

 

 

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