DDT Updated

Michael R. Fox Ph.D.
August 28, 1998

The widely distributed recent article by Scripps-McClatchy Western Service regarding the "endangered" peregrine falcon, continues to spread 25 year old. The article misrepresents the DDT issue, the Endangered Species Act, and critical data regarding the peregrine falcon itself.

The pesticide DDT was banned in the United States in 1972 after a long hearing on the risks and benefits of the material. DDT controls more than 20 serious human diseases including bubonic plague, yellow fever, encephalitis, and malaria, typhus, and plague. It has also been used beneficially to control a wide number of insects harmful to the agricultural and forestry industries.

The DDT hearings were ordered by then EPA administrator William Ruckelshaus, appointing Judge Edmund Sweeney as the hearing examiner. After 125 witnesses and 9,362 pages of testimony, some of Judge Sweeney's findings included:

1. DDT is not a carcinogenic hazard to man.
2. DDT is not a mutagenic or teratogenic hazard to man.
3. The use of DDT under the registrations involved does not have a deleterious effect on fish, estuarine organisms, wild birds, or other wildlife.

In a better world this would have been good news. It was met instead with journalistic hysteria across the nation.

Scientists were not the only ones to give the exonerating testimony that DDT used properly presented little harm to man, beast, or bird. The World Health Organization also pleaded at the EPA hearings that DDT was very beneficial in fighting malaria in many parts of the world and should not be banned. The WHO said in part "The withdrawal of DDT would be a major tragedy in the chapter of human health." That certain people would actually oppose something so beneficial to human life is shocking to many. But that cruel attitude is reflected in many statements from environmental groups opposed to DDT. In her book Environmental Overkill Dixey Lee Ray cites a past chief "scientist" of the Environmental Defense Fund, Dr. Charles Wurster. When describing the EDF opposition to DDT he stated that in his opinion there were too many people in the world anyway and "this was as good a way for getting rid of them as any". These and other statements indicate that other environmental agendas were at work here, far beyond the issues of public health or wildlife. These agendas have rarely been discussed in the mainstream press since DDT was banned a quarter century ago. For the record today an estimated 270,000,000 people worldwide are infected with malaria and several million dies. Those who don't die are chronically weakened and fall prey to other diseases, because of weakened livers. William Ruckelshaus, overriding the nation's and world scientists, ignoring the findings of his own hearing examiner, without reading the voluminous evidence of presented at his own hearing, banned DDT June 2, 1972.

The issue is garbled more. On close inspection even the oft-repeated eggshell thinning threat to bird life held little validity. DDT opponents alleged then and now that DDT caused eggshells to be thinned/softened for certain types of birds, causing failure to hatch and populations to decline. A well-known fact among poultry farmers is that eggshell thinning is a common problem with an easy solution, increase dietary calcium. No one ever established a background rate for eggshell thinning among falcons, so when a few were found, opponents blamed the falcon decline on DDT.

A simpler cause of falcon population decline and far less artful than the eggshell thinning scenario is falcon hunting and eggs collection. As reported by Thomas Jukes and others the hunting of falcons and the destruction of their nests were widely practiced in the eastern United States. People were encouraged to shoot the adult falcons and destroy their nests. Meanwhile studies of peregrine falcons in Alaska and Canada show that peregrines are thriving despite relatively high levels of DDT in their fat. The case for DDT having anything to do with the decline of peregrine falcons is very weak, given the numbers of falcons who have thrived in Alaska and Canada.

All of this information notwithstanding, the recent article also claimed that the Endangered Species Act was the reason for the return of the falcons. The authors were misled. On May 5, of this year Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt claimed that the Endangered Species Act of 1973 was the reason for "delisting" 34 species (i.e. removed from the list of endangered or threatened species). Of the 34 claimed successes of the ESA, not one had recovered because of the ESA. Five species were already extinct, one should not have been delisted for technical reasons (it flourishes in many places), and 12 should not have been listed in the first place (because of "data" error. The remaining 16 improved in ways having nothing to do with the ESA (such as ceasing to shoot falcons and destroying their nests).

As we've recently learned at CNN, The Boston Globe, Philadelphia Enquirer, ABC, NBC, there are serious integrity problems in the media, print, television, and radio. These problems center around failed attempts for accuracy, an aversion for homework, and a breezy tendency to fabricate quotes, data, and events to suit individual prejudices. In this case its been 26 years since the ban on DDT, and precious little is known about the sordid tale of junk science behind the banning of this beneficial material.

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