August 26, 2009

Law of Unintended Consequences: Banning DDT

The Law of Unintended Consequences stems from the idea that, when you try to manipulate a system to achieve a certain outcome, whether the consequence(s) you intended to create happen or not, things you did not intend to happen, will happen. These unintended consequences can be trivial or inconsequential, or they can be catastrophic and counter-intuitive. In many cases, the opposite of the intended result turns out to be the true result. Think of the Law of Unintended Consequences as a variant of Murphy's Law. The typical application of the idea of unintended consequences is with respect to government actions. Whether a government takes an action based on best intentions or not, does not matter - unintended consequences will still arise.
If you think about it for a moment, it makes perfect sense. Anything anyone does could lead to a virtually infinite number of possible outcomes. Anything can happen. That's because in the real world there is no such thing as a closed system. In a country the size of the United States, with 307 million citizens, there's about 307 million interpretations of the sentence "Change we can believe in." That means there's a possibility of 307 million different internalized reactions to it. Which means there are millions of possible outcomes that result from the statement.
Why is it important to think about the Law of Unintended Consequences? Because the government is adding new legislation every year. In the United States there are likely hundreds of thousands of laws enacted by various levels of government - if not millions. Each law has it's own set of consequences, intended or otherwise. That means that inevitably some laws are going to work well, and others, horribly. It should be incumbent upon legislators to explain not only the intended consequences of legislation they propose, but also how well thought out their proposals are. In other words - have they addressed as many of the 'what if' scenarios as they can before enacting the legislation?
Taking a more concrete example and analyzing it might leave you with a feeling of dread because it forces you to look at things not from the perspective of the heart (the liberal approach) but rather the head (the conservative approach). While thinking with the heart - wanting to do good and feel good about doing good - seems noble, what really matters is the results of that action.

The DDT Example

Take a look at what happened as a result of banning the use of the pesticide DDT. DDT was banned in the United States on December 31, 1972. According to the EPA website, William D. Ruckelshaus, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, concluded there were unacceptable risks associated with the pesticide;

The cancellation decision culminated three years of intensive governmental inquiries into the uses of DDT. As a result of this examination, Ruckelshaus said he was convinced that the continued massive use of DDT posed unacceptable risks to the environment and potential harm to human health.
The press release goes on to state;

DDT was developed as the first of the modern insecticides early in World War II. It was initially used with great effect to combat malaria, typhus, and the other insect-borne human diseases among both military and civilian populations.

A persistent, broad-spectrum compound often termed the "miracle" pesticide, DDT came into wide agricultural and commercial usage in this country in the late 1940s. During the past 30 years, approximately 675,000 tons have been applied domestically. The peak year for use in the United States was 1959 when nearly 80 million pounds were applied. From that high point, usage declined steadily to about 13 million pounds in 1971, most of it applied to cotton.
While this addresses the numerology of the ban, it does not address the specifics of the risks.According to the Malaria Foundation International, in 2000, the toxicity of the pesticide was actually quite small.

In summary, DDT can cause many toxicological effects but the effects on human beings at likely exposure levels seem to be very slight. However, the perceived rather than the calculated risks from DDT use are an important consideration in maintaining public confidence. Thus it would seem prudent that if its use was continued for antimalarial campaigns and the benefits of use outweigh the risks, tight control should continue and the effects of spraying DDT should be closely monitored.
The organization argues that toxicology tests proved that there was very little impact in humans, and where impacts were found they were either weak, or very rare. With respect to environmental impact, the chemical is not particularly soluble in water but is so in oils, including animal fats, which might help explain the low levels of toxicity in humans. DDT was also blamed for impacts on bird populations although the claims were dubious at best.

So if the environmental impacts were small, and the human impacts were smaller still, why was it banned? According to the website, Ruckelshaus ignored the findings on DDT and went ahead with the ban, in support of his own environmentalist views;

The environmental movement used DDT as a means to increase their power. Charles Wurster, chief scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, commented, "If the environmentalists win on DDT, they will achieve a level of authority they have never had before.. In a sense, much more is at stake than DDT." [Seattle Times, October 5, 1969]

Science journals were biased against DDT. Philip Abelson, editor of Science informed Dr. Thomas Jukes that Science would never publish any article on DDT that was not antagonistic.

William Ruckelshaus, the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who made the ultimate decision to ban DDT in 1972, was a member of the Environmental Defense Fund. Ruckelshaus solicited donations for EDF on his personal stationery that read "EDF's scientists blew the whistle on DDT by showing it to be a cancer hazard, and three years later, when the dust had cleared, EDF had won."

Extensive hearings on DDT before an EPA administrative law judge occurred during 1971-1972. The EPA hearing examiner, Judge Edmund Sweeney, concluded that "DDT is not a carcinogenic hazard to man... DDT is not a mutagenic or teratogenic hazard to man... The use of DDT under the regulations involved here do not have a deleterious effect on freshwater fish, estuarine organisms, wild birds or other wildlife." [Sweeney, EM. 1972. EPA Hearing Examiner's recommendations and findings concerning DDT hearings, April 25, 1972 (40 CFR 164.32, 113 pages). Summarized in Barrons (May 1, 1972) and Oregonian (April 26, 1972)]

Overruling the EPA hearing examiner, EPA administrator Ruckelshaus banned DDT in 1972. Ruckelshaus never attended a single hour of the seven months of EPA hearings on DDT. Ruckelshaus' aides reported he did not even read the transcript of the EPA hearings on DDT.
[Santa Ana Register, April 25, 1972]

After reversing the EPA hearing examiner's decision, Ruckelshaus refused to release materials upon which his ban was based. Ruckelshaus rebuffed USDA efforts to obtain those materials through the Freedom of Information Act, claiming that they were just "internal memos." Scientists were therefore prevented from refuting the false allegations in the Ruckelshaus' "Opinion and Order on DDT."
It would seem to be agenda driven, as so much of government legislation is. And what consequences resulted from the banning of DDT in the United States and many other countries? If the intended consequence was to save lives, the banning had a deleterious effect on that result. Why? Because people are dying of malaria.

Malaria remains the world's most devastating human parasitic infection. Malaria affects over 40% of the world's population. WHO, estimates that there are 350 - 500 million cases of malaria worldwide, of which 270 - 400 million are falciparum malaria, the most severe form of the disease. Malaria kills in one year what AIDS kills in 15 years. For every death due to HIV/AIDS there are about 50 deaths due to malaria. To add to the problem is the increasing drug resistance to the established drug.
The solution should be DDT;

The best method of protection against malaria, in use for 50 years, is indoor residual spraying (IRS), which consists simply of spraying insecticide on the interior walls of houses. And the most effective, safest, cheapest, longest-lasting insecticide for this job is DDT—it crucially deters mosquitoes from entering a building where it has been sprayed. DDT eradicated malaria from the U.S. and Europe and its careful use led to dramatic declines in many other parts of the world. But over the last four decades environmental activists have persuaded public health professionals against using insecticide sprays, especially DDT.
The reason DDT is not the solution is because people have felt good about banning it, counting best intentions above actual results. The unintended consequences is that 2.7 million people per year die from malaria about 90% of which are pregnant women or children under 5 years of age. That equates to approximately 100 million malaria related deaths since 1972.

If DDT could have saved merely 50% of those deaths, that means roughly 50 million people have died who could have been able to live. 50 million and likely DDT could have saved far more. That's roughly the number of deaths in all of WW II. Unlike most of the deaths of WW II, these deaths were entirely preventable.

Liberals love throwing around labels about their detractors, but it would seem to me that based on the decisions of a cabal of empowered environmentalists around the globe, 50 million plus deaths occurred as an unintended consequence that, since the decisions were never reversed, could arguably be called one of the worst genocides in human history.


  1. DDT was manufactured in this country until at least 1085 when over 300 tons were exported. Its sale and use were banned but not its manufacture. At this time China and India both manufacture use and export DDT to a variety of African countries. Whether or not these countries use it purely against disease vectors or as a general agricultural insecticide I do not know.
    In any event the notion that millions died of malaria in Africa because US banned the use of DDT here is quite simply hyperbole.

  2. Not hyperbole:

    There are lots of other links I can provide.

  3. ________________________________________
    Robert Zubrin is a New Atlantis contributing editor. This essay is adapted from his new book — the latest volume in our New Atlantis Books series — Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism.
    This is from the site you posted as evidence that the comments about Rachel Carson were not hyperbole. Amazing! The title is enough to frighten little children. What follows is a brief excerpt of one reviewer’s comment on Zubrin’s rant:

    Zubrin: He claims that DDT bans in Sri Lanka led to many unnecessary deaths, and he concludes: "A great many studies...over many decades have failed to show significant evidence of cancer as a result of exposure to DDT."

    Oreskes: "There is now strong scientific evidence that many pesticides carry serious risks to humans. (Recall that Silent Spring was not just about DDT; it was about pesticides in general. [Zubrin misrepresents Carlson's argument]...A recent review in the Lancet--the world's leading medical journal--concluded that when used at levels required for mosquito control, DDT causes significant human impacts, particularly on reproductive health...A few years ago, medical researchers realized that there was a shocking flaw in previous studies that investigated DDT exposure and breast cancer [in humans]...In a remarkable piece of medical detective work, Dr. Barbara A. Cohn and her colleagues...showed a fivefold increase in breast cancer risk among women with high levels of serum DDT or its metabolites...DDT does cause cancer...and it does cost human lives."
    There is also no response to the fact that China and India have been manufacturing and exporting DDT for years. I see no reason to continue this because we are just on different pages.


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