Something stinks over at National Geographic…

18 06 2007

Update the 1st: In the interest of being accurate, I’ve posted what the article actually says below. I didn’t have it with me when I originally wrote the post, although there is little different from what I said. Expect a more in-depth post this week when I’ve finished Carson’s book and make sure I understand just what DDT and DDE is doing to people. The author of the article, Michael Finkel, writes;

Soon after the [malaria eradication program collapsed, mosquito control lost access to its crucial tool, DDT. The problem was overuse-not by malaria fighters but by farmers, especially cotton growers, trying to protect their crops. The spray was so cheap that many times the necessary doses were sometimes applied. The insecticide accumulated in the soil and tainted watercourses. Though non-toxic to humans, DDT harmed peregrine falcons, sea lions, and salmon [emphasis mine]. In 1962 Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, documenting this abuse and painting so damning a picture that the chemical was eventually outlawed by most of the world for agricultural use. Exceptions were made for malaria control, but DDT became nearly impossible to procure. “The ban on DDT,” says [Robert] Gwadz of the National Institutes of Health, “may have killed 20 million children.”

Straw man, anyone?

As I mentioned this past weekend, the new issue of National Geographic features a cover-story on malaria. Reading over the story last night, the author makes some jabs at Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (which I should finish tonight) and claims that not only did DDT only effect sea lions, salmon, and peregrine falcons, but that it has no harmful effects to humans, either. The author also included a quote from a researcher (I forget their name, I will include it when I do the final write-up) that says the ban on DDT may have killed 20 million children. I was quote outraged that National Geographic would print such drivel without any further clarification or facts to back up the assertions, so I decided to start looking through the technical literature to see what is known about DDT and organochloride toxicity. I’m going to do a longer write up tonight or tomorrow, but if you’re interested here are some resources you can check so you don’t have to wait for me.

Bug Girl has an entire serious of posts taking on recent attacks on Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and environmentalists in general. They serve as wonderful primers and are well-worth the time to read;

DDT, Junk Science, and the attack on Rachel Carson
New York Times, DDT, and an asshole
Rachel Carson and Chemical News
DDT, Junk Science, Malaria, and the attack on Rachel Carson
Malarial Drug Resistance: exciting new development!

Wikipedia- Organochlorides: Toxicity
Wikipedia- DDT
[Note: The Wiki DDT page is a bit of a muddle, and you can definitely see the influence of people who do not consider DDT to be harmful at all. I’d skip down to the Effects on Human Health section, although I’d check the sources for the information there as well.]

Also, beware the so-called “100 things you should know about DDT” page (by the contemptible J. Gordon Edwards and Steven Milloy), which is crass enough to show a photoshopped picture of Rachel Carson wearing a shirt that says “DDT: A weapon of mass survival.” What this page is doing on the Wikipedia entry under “Toxicity” I don’t know.

Here is the Scorecard entry for DDT as well, but it seems to be out of date and does not list its sources.

PubMed Abstract – Chronic nervous-system effects of long-term occupational exposure to DDT.
The paper suggests that there are long-term neurological effects among those who have applied the chemical.

PubMed PDF- Concentration of Organochlorines in Human Brain, Liver, and Adipose Tissue
Autopsy Samples from Greenland

Not about DDT specifically, but it does contain interesting information about organochlorines (DDT is one) and how they accumulate in marine mammals and people who eat those mammals.

1999 NJ DEP Fact Sheet – Historic Pesticide Contamination
This page is old, but it does suggest that up to 5% of my home state may still be affected by past use of pesticides like arsenic and DDT

Undated PDF – Peregrine Falcon’s in New Jersey
This page does not list its sources, but it states that DDT was banned in New Jersey in 1968, but use of the product caused a major crash in predatory-bird populations in the state (I also know of anecdotal evidence from an ecologist who helped re-establish ospreys in the Barnegat Bay area)

PubMed Abstract – In utero p,p’-DDE exposure and infant neurodevelopment: a perinatal cohort in Mexico.
Study suggests that DDE exposure during the first trimester of pregnancy may affect developing human children.

Abstract – The human health effects of DDT and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and an overview of organochlorines in public health
Very general abstract, but does note that some organochlorides do have effects on liver and neurological functions.

PDF Paper – Association of DDT and DDE with Birth Weight and Length of Gestation in the Child Health and Development Studies, 1959–1967
The study did not appear to come up with any strong correlation for male infants, advising that more study is needed.

PDF LEtter – Invited Commentary: Why DDT Matters Now
Summation of two paper appearing in a 2005 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology. While the letter (and papers) are far from being iron-clad evidence, I did find this admission interesting; “…almost no data are available on the health effects of DDT exposure at the levels experienced by those living in sprayed homes.” In places where malaria is still a threat, the insides of homes are sprayed with DDT and people ingest DDE (either through metabolizing DDT themselves or the environment metabolizing it, which is then ingested). This brings up an interesting point; given the propensity of DDT to concentrate in tissues and be passed along in mother’s milk, over the course of various generations will DDT concentrations in humans go up, and if so, what effect will this have on health?

Paper PDF – Reduced Seminal Parameters Associated With Environmental DDT Exposure and p,p9-DDE Concentrations in Men in Chiapas, Mexico:A Cross-Sectional Study
This Journal of Andrology paper echoes what seems to be the case with DDT and reproductive effects, summed up by the authors as follows; “…nonoccupational exposure to DDT, as assessed by plasma p,p9-DDE concentrations, is associated with poorer semen parameters in men, indicating adverse effects on testicular function and/or the regulation of reproductive hormones.” The percentage of motile sperm went down, tail defects went up, and some suffered incomplete DNA condensation.

While the abstract states that there is “no convincing evidence that organochlorines cause a large excess number of cancers,” the section on DDT has some interested correlations between DDT exposure and some kinds of cancers.

JSTOR Paper 1st page – DDT and Wildlife
A pre-Silent Spring (1946) paper that seems to dismiss claims of conservationists that DDT is dangerous to wildlife and humans.



15 responses

18 06 2007
Bug Girl

National Geographic. Where does it end?

Sigh. I totally picked the wrong decade to stop drinking. 😦

(and thanks for the link.)

18 06 2007

You’re quite welcome, and thank you for spending so much time to correcting many of the misconceptions surrounding DDT and malaria. In reading Carson’s book, Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle the more I realize that we haven’t solved many of the problems that the author’s exposed. Technology was supposed to come along and save all of us, “better living through chemistry,” but instead I feel like we’re moving back to a mindset where if something doesn’t have an economic importance, then why worry about it?

18 06 2007

I’m dismayed to see something like that appearing in Nat’l Geo, but not shocked, I’m sorry to say.

18 06 2007
Keith Schneider

Check out I’ve posted two pieces on the attack on Rachel Carson and am preparing this week to write a third. See and search Rachel Carson. Best, Keith Schneider

19 06 2007
Setting the record straight on Rachel Carson, malaria and DDT « Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub

[…] Laelaps, “Something stinks over at National Geographic;” […]

19 06 2007

Thanks for the comments and links everyone!

Carel – I agree; as I read over many popular science magazines, I become more and more disheartened with what they’re telling people about science. What bothers me most is that they don’t include a list of references or sources at the end of the article, so dubious “facts” are just allowed to stand as if they were common knowledge.

Keith – I’ll definitely check out your posts and link to them when I write the whole article. I’ve been very encouraged by the reaction of the blogosphere to criticisms of Carson, and hopefully the good articles and posts will become more widely read than those who are more concerned with “free enterprise” and making money.

7 07 2007
Kevin Wohlmut

I’ve been following this story on Deltoid and I thank Bug Girl for her hard work. The National Geographic article mentions how quickly Malaria adapts and becomes immune to prophylaxis, virtually in the next sentence after mentioning DDT. Hmmmmm, I wonder if acquired natural resistance might be a factor in DDT use as well? Gee, the article is silent on that point.

I should mention, also earlier this week (around Monday or Tuesday, July 2nd or 3rd) Sean Hannity of Fox News discussed virtually the same thing in a closing monologue — pretty much the same quote as the National Geographic article, about how Carson’s research was shoddy and the fact that DDT is “hard to obtain” is responsible for millions of deaths… I guess his staff must have noticed that the DDT ban contains loopholes explicitly intended for public health use, so he was careful not to blame the ban itself, just the worldwide genocidal environmentalist conspiracy.

Hannity’s star is no longer on the rise but he still reaches millions of people, some of my relatives among them. I suspect that we’ll be hearing still more of this meme in the coming two years, and I suspect that’s intentional. Some group of Hannitys and Crichtons and Lindzens were probably sitting around in the lounge of the Cato Institute or the CEI one evening, over cigars and brandy, said “we need to make the public trust the chemical industry again”, and decided to push this cockamamie story through their limited channels simply to strike a blow at environmentalists. It probably has little to do with DDT in particular nor Carson herself, she’s just the biggest/most famous target they could set their sights on. As you can read at Rockridge Institute, conservative political pundits like these are usually far less concerned about the actual merits of the issue than the symbolism of what the issue portends for society — they believe that getting the public to trust the chemical industry unquestioningly again, (“better living through chemistry”), and besmirch the warm fuzzy public image of environmentalists, is a goal in itself, worthy of manhandling the truth a bit until it fits into a preconceived narrative. To these people, it’s worth damaging Rachael Carson’s true role in history because the chemical industry will bring prosperity and health to millions of people around the world if only we let them make money unfettered.

7 07 2007

Thank you for the in-depth comment Kevin! I actually am fairly new to the whole DDT debate (until last month I had never read Silent Spring and all I knew about DDT was that it was detrimental to the environment). I’m still meaning to write about a larger post about the health effects of DDT and similar chemicals (the studies about the current in-home spraying in Africa seems to be lacking), but Bug Girl has certainly done a fantastic job at responding to cranks and critics. Like you mentioned, and like Chris Toumey alluded in the book God’s Own Scientists, Americans in general have a trivial understanding of science where (like you said) “better living through chemistry” is the goal. I even had a relative become somewhat irate that scientists don’t do “real” work, and whatever work her taxes fund should have immediate economic benefits. This is the larger problem that needs to be overcome, in addition to our efforts to fight creationism, AIDS denialism, Anti-Carsion propaganda, etc. Thanks again for stopping by!

7 07 2007
Bug Girl

Toumey’s books on science are -wonderful.-
Make sure to read his first one, “Conjuring Science” too.

(and thanks for the kind words. *blush*)

8 07 2007
Kevin Wohlmut

Oh, you’re welcome to the both of you — I saw the National Geographic article just a couple weeks after explaining this DDT myth to my parents, and thought to myself, “Oh God, I have to go through this all again with everyone else I know who reads National Geographic. I wonder if anyone has noticed the National Geographic article, or do I have to do a write-up myself?” So I just Googled and got your article, thanks for writing this up so that I don’t have to. Laelaps, if you’re new to the discussion, be sure to check Deltoid,, where Bug Girl is also quoted.

8 08 2007
Curioser and curioser… AFM wants me to blog about DDT « Laelaps

[…] study should make for interesting reading. I assume I was added to the list because I mentioned how National Geographic made some errors in their cover story on Malaria over a month ago, although Bug Girl and Ed Darrell are probably much more capable bloggers to […]

14 07 2010
work at home income738

Magnificent site, I have not noticed before in my web searches

scrambled brains think alike:
I am sorry, that has interfered… But this theme is very close to me. I can help with the answer.

14 10 2011
Burt Folsom’s blog distorts history of DDT « Millard Fillmore's Bathtub

[…] “Rachel Carson and Chemical News;” “New York Times, DDT, and an a–hole“ Laelaps, “Something stinks over at National Geographic;” Deltoid, “Hundreds of Millions Killed by Rachel Carson;” “Creationists Claim Rachel […]

19 05 2012


[…]Something stinks over at National Geographic… « Laelaps[…]…

1 08 2012

I thought National Geographic pegged the death toll closer to 100 million? I’ll have go back to that issue.

Yes, because of the religious fervor of Environmentalists, Rachel is one of the most prolific killers of all time.

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