Denialism at its best: “Greenpeace was never opposed to the use of DDT for malaria control.”

Patrick Moore – Rex Weyler Exchange about Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout: The Making of a Sensible Environmentalist

Rex Weyler announces to Patrick Moore that he is about to come out publicly with a critique of Patrick’s new book, Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout: The Making of a Sensible Environmentalist. Here is Patrick’s response:

RW: You make claims that have been refuted by the people you reference. This may be okay over a beer, but seems reckless in print. You say DDT was “discontinued for use in malaria control by the World Health Organization and USAID.” But surely you know that WHO and USAID representatives have already told George Monbiot that they never stopped using DDT for malaria control. (A Charming Falsehood, The Guardian). Why would you restate this, knowing that WHO and USAID have refuted it?

PM: I have provided you with a link to the UN media release titled, “Reversing Its Policy, UN Agency Promotes DDT to Combat the Scourge of Malaria,” UN News Center, September 15, 2006.” Here is the link again where the WHO announces that it is reversing its policy to discontinue the use of DDT after nearly 30 years.

USAID made the same decision in 2006. This reversal stemmed from the negotiations towards the Stockholm Convention on toxic, persistent, bioaccumulative chemicals which, in the end, despite strong opposition from Greenpeace and WWF, provided an exemption for DDT use for malaria control.

I realize there is a major effort at Greenpeace to rewrite the history on this subject as I have been informed by a Greenpeace spokesperson in the UK that “Greenpeace was never opposed to the use of DDT for malaria control.” This has to be one of the most blatant examples of historical revisionism I have encountered. Of course there are other examples, such as their contention that I “played a minor role in the early years” etc. I hope you are not buying into that one. Anyway, if you trust George Monbiot as a reliable source then you’ll get a lot of things wrong, although on nuclear power, he has come a long way in his understanding. Have you noted that George has come out in favor of nuclear energy this week?

And who knows, maybe the WHO and USAID are also trying to cover their tracks. After all it does not look good that health and aid agencies were implicated in the unnecessary deaths of millions of people because they caved into political pressure against DDT in the ’70s.

Update.
The historic record includes:

Ethical debate. BMJ VOLUME 321 2 DECEMBER 2000 bmj.com 1403

Doctoring malaria, badly: the global campaign to ban DDT The treaty on persistent organic pollutants—POPs—will be finalised at the United Nations Environment Programme meeting in Johannesburg, 4­9 December. One proposal is to ban DDT, still used by many countries for controlling the mosquitoes that spread malaria. It should not be banned, argue Amir Attaran and Rajendra Maharaj, specialists in malariology and also international development and law—there’s no evidence that spraying with DDT harms anyone. The issue is not straightforward, says Richard Liroff, director of the World Wildlife Fund’s alternatives to DDT project; the treaty raises a series of equity challenges.

DDT for malaria control should not be banned Amir Attaran, Rajendra Maharaj

Last year, deaths from malaria in Africa reached an all time high. Next year they will probably do so again,claiming around a million children. Yet in this deadly upward spiral, political pressure is building at the United Nations Environment Programme to pass a treaty by the end of 2000 to internationally ban or restrict one of the world’s best anti­malarial tools.
That tool is, of course, DDT—dichlorodiphenyl­ trichloroethane. The campaign to ban it, joined by 260 environmental groups, reads like a who’s who of the environmental movement and includes names such as Greenpeace, Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), and (ironically) the Physicians for Social Responsibility.Together, they are “demanding action to eliminate” DDT and its sources. (Ref 1 International POPs Elimination Network. Background statement and POPs elimination platform.)  (accessed 17 Nov 2000)

Balancing risks on the backs of the poor
AMIR ATTARAN,DONALD R. ROBERTS,CHRIS F. CURTIS and WENCESLAUS L. KILAMA
NATURE MEDICINE • VOLUME 6 • NUMBER 7 • JULY 2000 729

Data from the Pan-American Health Organization show a strong inverse correlation between malaria cases and rates of spraying houses (1959–1992) in South America, even after DDT resistance became widespread in the 1960s (Fig. 1). Here, ‘cumulative cases’ represent the population-adjusted, ‘running’ total of cases that exceed or fall short of the average annual number of cases from 1959 to 1979 (years in which World Health Organization strategy emphasized house spraying12). Cumulative cases increase considerably in later years, coincident with a sharp decrease in rates of spraying houses. This inverse correlation is readily understandable because it is so biologically plausible. For mosquitoes, DDT is a toxin, irritant and repellant all rolled into one chemical…

…African countries in particular lack the resources to dispatch health experts to the treaty negotiations, and although it provides financial assistance, the United Nations Environment Programme has declined to assist with this, or even to provide a translator when French- and English-speaking diplomats meet to discuss DDT. The resulting lack of knowledge suffocates debate. At worst, threats are used, as Belize learned when the US Agency for International Development demanded that it stop using DDT. Such arm-twisting is as lamentable as it is effective.

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David Tribe is an applied geneticist, teaching graduate/undergrad courses in food science, food safety, biotechnology and microbiology at the University of Melbourne.


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13 comments to Denialism at its best: “Greenpeace was never opposed to the use of DDT for malaria control.”

  • So much red text… eyes… won’t… forgive… easily

  • There has been a lot of bogus comments about DDT on both sides of the situation. I don’t think we need to fall into the mythology of “millions of deaths” promoted by certain factions. There were many reasons, including resistance, for the reduction in DDT use during the 1970s.

    The linked statement was as not a big of a change as some have presented it. DDT has continually been among the recommended control materials against Anopheles mosquitoes, primarily used as an Interior Repellent Spray. While recognizing the utility of DDT under specified conditions, the WHO is still working to reduce the use of DDT for vector control while striving to make its use until then is as safe as possible.

    March 2011 updated statement from WHO: “Strengthening malaria control while reducing reliance on DDT”

    Short version: DDT still has utility for vector control against malaria under conditions where alternatives are not readily or economically available and where resistance testing shows that DDT will be effective. However, care must be taken in its use to avoid unnecessary environmental contamination or diversion and, because of its documented environmental persistence, efforts are still underway to reduce and eventually, eliminate its use.

    • I’m adding this to the post:

      The historic record includes:
      Ethical debate
      BMJ VOLUME 321 2 DECEMBER 2000 bmj.com 1403
      Doctoring malaria, badly: the global campaign to ban DDT The treaty on persistent organic pollutants—POPs—will be finalised at the United Nations Environment Programme meeting in Johannesburg, 4­9 December. One proposal is to ban DDT, still used by many countries for controlling the mosquitoes that spread malaria. It should not be banned, argue Amir Attaran and Rajendra Maharaj, specialists in malariology and also international development and law—there’s no evidence that spraying with DDT harms anyone. The issue is not straightforward, says Richard Liroff, director of the World Wildlife Fund’s alternatives to DDT project; the treaty raises a series of equity challenges.

      DDT for malaria control should not be banned Amir Attaran, Rajendra Maharaj

      Last year, deaths from malaria in Africa reached an all time high. Next year they will probably do so again,claiming around a million children. Yet in this deadly upward spiral, political pressure is building at the United Nations Environment Programme to pass a treaty by the end of 2000 to internationally ban or restrict one of the world’s best anti­malarial tools.
      That tool is, of course, DDT—dichlorodiphenyl­ trichloroethane. The campaign to ban it, joined by 260 environmental groups, reads like a who’s who of the environmental movement and includes names such as Greenpeace, Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), and (ironically) the Physicians for Social Responsibility.Together, they are “demanding action to eliminate” DDT and its sources.(Ref 1 International POPs Elimination Network. Background statement and POPs elimination platform. http://www.ipen.org/pops_platform.htm (accessed 17 Nov 2000)

      And also:
      Balancing risks on the backs of the poor
      AMIR ATTARAN,DONALD R. ROBERTS,CHRIS F. CURTIS and WENCESLAUS L. KILAMA
      NATURE MEDICINE • VOLUME 6 • NUMBER 7 • JULY 2000 729

      Data from the Pan-American Health Organization show a strong inverse correlation between malaria cases and rates of spraying houses (1959–1992) in South America, even after DDT resistance became widespread in the 1960s (Fig. 1). Here, ‘cumulative cases’ represent the population-adjusted, ‘running’ total of cases that exceed or fall short of the average annual number of cases from 1959 to 1979 (years in which World Health Organization strategy emphasized house spraying12).
      Cumulative cases increase considerably in later years, coincident with a sharp decrease in rates of spraying houses.
      This inverse correlation is readily understandable because it is so biologically plausible. For mosquitoes, DDT is a toxin, irritant and repellant all rolled into one chemical…

      …African countries in particular lack the resources to dispatch health experts to the treaty negotiations, and although it provides financial assistance, the United Nations Environment Programme has declined to assist with this, or even to provide a translator when French- and English-speaking diplomats meet to discuss DDT. The resulting lack of knowledge suffocates debate. At worst, threats are used, as Belize learned when the US Agency for International Development demanded that it stop using DDT.
      Such arm-twisting is as lamentable as it is effective.

  • DDT is not a magic bullet to fight malaria. While is is still useful, as you can see through the WHO link I provided, it is not the wonder chemical that many proponents present it as.

    Once of the primary reasons DDT use for vector control fell through the 1960s and 1970s was resistance, not environmental pressure. DDT resistance is still an issue, that is why the WHOPES (WHO Pesticide Evaluation Scheme) recommendations for DDT use includes making sure that there is no local resistance to the material.

    I haven’t denied the misinformation used by those who were moving to ban DDT previously, that is why I prefaced my previous post the way I have. However, there has been just as much misinformation put forth by those that favor expanded DDT applications.

    DDT is currently one of about 12 different materials approved by WHOPES for IRS applications. These include different families of pesticides with different modes of action. Depending on location, DDT may be the best option currently available, while in many other places, other products are the best option.

    But as I stated before, DDT is not without problems because of its environmental persistence and in the long run, finding effective replacements for this first-generation organochlorine pesticide is the right thing to do.

    As with GM technology, the answer lies in looking forward, not in looking back.

  • Bug guy,

    Last I heard, mosquito resistance to DDT manifest as avoidance of the substance. Supposedly, they have evolved an instinct to avoid it. Proponents of DDT point to this and say, if it drives the mosquitoes away, that’s as good as killing them.

    Opponents of effective mosquito control have complained that mosquitoes and their larvae are important elements of an ecosystem, since there are ‘higher’ organisms which consume them. Making ducks and bats more important than people in some respects.

    As to your notion of the evils of “environmental persistence” — rocks and sand are environmentally persistent. More elegant criteria would appear to be in order.

    • Eric, DDT is sodium channel disruptor and the resistance is classic chemical resistance of the type first detected in Florida salt marshes in 1947. That is only four years after the first widespread testing of the material in the state.

      In the US, DDT use for vector control peaked in the late 1950s and by the time of the EPA ban, it use had declined to a tiny fraction of its peak – because of resistance. Resistance has been a serious issue throughout the world in places where DDT has been used for vector control.

      One of the advantages of DDT is that it also has a repellent effect, which is advantageous as an IRS. However, there is also a form of resistance now being noted in Anopheles mosquitoes that don’t rest inside dwellings, they fly in to obtain blood meals and then fly out, avoiding any IRS material applied.

      Eric, please don’t think that I’m supporting groups that have opposed mosquito control – I ran a county-wide program for three years. Oh, and mosquitoes constitute only a small proportion of the diet of bats while ducks tend to be benthic feeders and mosquito larvae tend to stay at the surface. ;)

      The problem of DDT persistence is that it can continue to effect susceptible organisms for years or even decades later. DDT is a broad-spectrum insecticide that harms many different beneficial insects, as well as being very toxic to many aquatic invertebrates.

      Bioaccumulation of DDT is also a well documented effect of its persistence.

      The environmental persistence of the material is why it was included in the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.

      I brought this up because, while I strongly disagree with the distortions presented by groups like Greenpeace about DDT and its use in Malaria control, I have just as little liking for groups that have spent the last decade or so trying to portray DDT as the answer to malaria and make hollow claims about restrictions on its using costing millions of lives.

  • Eric Baumholder

    Consider the moral magnitude of saving the planet.

    When the planet is at stake, literally everything done to save it is completely, unequivocally, permitted.

    This includes everything from lying, to decimation of vulnerable populations. This you must understand, if you wish to understand the greens.

    • Which doesn’t make the same behavior by others any better.

      That is my great frustration on the subject. Powerful lobbies on both sides of the debate lie and distort reality to fit their agendas. If we are going to correctly show the dishonesty of one side, we should not reinforce the dishonesty of the other side.

      Bug Girl’s (no relation) posts on malaria and DDT Bug Girl has a great series of articles on DDT and Malaria that takes on the many distortions about the chemcial.

    • On the overall subject, a great quote from Mary Berenbaum:

      “The truth is that DDT is neither superhero nor supervillain — it’s just a tool. And if entomologists have learned anything in the last half-century of dealing with the million-plus species of insects in the world, it’s that there is no such thing as an all-purpose weapon when it comes to pest management. DDT may be useful in controlling malaria in some places in Africa, but it’s essential to determine whether target populations are resistant; if they are, then no amount of DDT will be effective….

      Overselling a chemical’s capacity to solve a problem can do irretrievable harm not only by raising false hopes but by delaying the use of more effective long-term methods. So let’s drop the hyperbole and overblown rhetoric — it’s not what Africa needs. What’s needed is a recognition of the problem’s complexity and a willingness to use every available weapon to fight disease in an informed and rational way.”

      Quoted from this article

      We don’t need the greens distorting the facts about DDT and how it is still useful, and we don’t need DDT proponents overselling its effectiveness and making false claims.

  • Berenbaum is missing one part of the story. The DDT can be useful for indoor spraying of huts, even if the mosquitoes are resistant, by acting as a repellent (according to Roberts and Attaran). It is supplies of DDT for interior spraying in Africa that are a key reason for protecting DDT against a total ban in the 2000 Jo’berg conference on POP.

    I disagree that we don’t need to look back as well as forward. The past teaches us a lot. For example, I have a video of a Greenpeace staffer on UK TV on the Program “What the Greens got Wrong” saying they (Greenpeace) have nothing in their records showing they opposed deployment of DDT.

    At the very least, if they are not lying, they have very poor record keeping in Greenpeace head-office. Why then should we rely on other statements of an organisation with such poor corporate memory?

    The past effects of discontinuation of DDT use in Southern Africa are worth talking about. They included tens of thousands of unnecessary cases of malaria. This is history we should not forget, even if the deaths are only numbered in hundreds, not millions.

    • I addressed the use of DDT as a IRS (Interior Repellent Spray) previously in this thread and noted that its repellency is an advantage. I also noted that it has led to a behavioral change in some vector populations to avoid resting within houses, flying in only to obtain blood meals. That aspect has also been covered by one of Bug Girls posts that I linked to. While not covered in that article, Barenbaum has covered that aspect of DDT in other forums.

      Okay, you are correct, we can learn a lot by looking back. Actually, Barenbaum covered a lot of that exact point in her article and that is also what I have been stressing. DDT was not the primary answer to malaria in the 50s and 60s and it is not the primary answer today. A lot went wrong with the DDT-based programs of the past and it seems like many of the current crop of DDT proponents are ignoring that.

      I’ll repeat this again. DDT is one of twelve different materials recommended by WHOPES for IRS applications. It is one of many tools available. It is not, and has not, been the primary answer to malaria, despite the propaganda of certain pro-DDT organizations.

      Malaria involves four different species of parasite that is vectored by many different species of Anopheles mosquitoes in different climates, in different ecosystems and under different economic conditions. Malaria control requires the application of appropriate IPM (Integrated Pest Management) concepts to be effective, targeting to the local conditions.

      You bring up the number of deaths caused by not using DDT, but how do you feel about the number of deaths caused by the use of DDT when more effective methods were available? That is also the price being paid in this manufactroversy. For example, back in 2006, Dr. John Rwakimari, head of the national malaria program in Uganda was quoted the LA Times, “DDT is the answer to our problems.” Meanwhile, his program missing out on 1.8 million free bed nets, saying, “Oh, my dear, there are a lot of complications in procurement here.”

      It is time for us scientists to stand up and fight back against the lies and distortions of all political stripes and to stand up for the best management practices available. It is not time for us to continue erroneous tropes like “millions of deaths” or myths about DDT resistance being a good effect.

      I fully support you skewering Greenpeace on their lies, don’t get me wrong about that. But in return, please don’t propagate inaccuracies that look like they came from JunkScience.com. If we are to be taken seriously, we must be better than that.

      Also as a reference, Attaran is a law professor, an outspoken pro-DDT activist, but is not a vector control specialist. A quick search of Web of Science will turn up over 500 articles on DDT and Malaria. A search of those will help to show the vast complexity of this subject. And, please, read through the posts by Bug Girl, she has condensed the material down to a quality overview well worth reading.

  • Thanks for again drawing my attention to Bug girl. Please note that I personally made no comments about millions of deaths, and my remarks about thousands of cases in Southern Africa are based on specific familiarity with the statistics in peer-reviewed papers about South Africa. They are conservative.

    As far as the problems with DDT overuse and misuse (which I don’t dispute, and was silent about till now) , its clear that massive crop spraying was a disaster, and the role that’s defensible is limited use indoors. You are absolutely right to publicise issues of DDT misuse, and it’s fantastic that you supplied them here, but it’s not scientific logic to criticise me for what I did not say, or even for what I did not quote Patrick Moore as saying. Be careful putting your imagination into my silences. That said, obviously you are passionate about bug control and very well informed, and I admire that. We all gain from it. And yes, many Greenpeace critics, and pro-DDT commentators, especially in America, use inaccurate over-the top exaggeration and plain untruths, which is a mistake that I have already noticed well before this post.

    Bye the way, I didn’t actually say Greenpeace lied, the term was denialism of the past record of their activities. Maybe they are just careless about the historical record.

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