Flemming: Public policy informed by science, not Nixonesque fear-mongering

By David Flemming

Last fall, the Vermont Department of Health (VDH) announced that it was considering adding new chemicals to Vermont’s Safe Product Act, a change that gives Vermont the chance to make its list of banned chemicals more scientific. Unfortunately, activists continue to demand blanket chemical bans, essentially stigmatizing chemicals before their effects can be truly known.

Some Vermonters might not see the harm in being a bit overzealous regarding which chemicals are banned and which are legalized, for human health and environmental reasons. After all, isn’t it better to be safe than sorry?

What follows is a cautionary tale regarding how the scientific method can be crushed by political power.

In 1971, the Environmental Protection Agency spent seven months interviewing 125 expert witnesses regarding DDT’s toxicity. The National Academy of Sciences testified that “DDT has prevented 500 million deaths due to malaria that would otherwise have been inevitable” (since DDT kills malaria infected mosquitoes.).

Judge Edmund Sweeney pooled the testimonies to determine that “the uses of DDT under the registration involved here do not have a deleterious effect on freshwater fish, estuarine organisms, wild birds, or other wildlife…. DDT is not a carcinogenic hazard to man.” Judge Sweeney fairly ruled that DDT should remain a legal pesticide.

Unfortunately, the head of the EPA, William Ruckelshaus overrode Sweeney in 1972, despite not attending any of the investigative hearings or reading Sweeney’s report. Ruckelshaus was acting on orders from President Richard Nixon, who had already demanded to “phase out (America’s) use of DDT” back in 1970, a year before DDT’s guiltlessness was shown. The 1971 investigation was a just a front to satisfy a court requirement.

Nixon bowed to pressure that had been building since 1962, when extremist Rachel Carson published the environmentalist manifesto “Silent Spring.” Carson claimed, without bothering to conduct scientific studies, that DDT caused birth defects, premature births, leukemia and liver disease. Ironically enough, Carson’s claim inadvertently caused an uptick in preventable disease on a massive scale.

While malaria infection rates in the U.S. grew after DDT ban, they exploded in third-world countries as mosquitoes bred incessantly. In Ceylon/Sri Lanka, DDT spraying had sliced malaria cases from millions annually in the 1940’s, down to just 17 by 1963. DDT was banned in 1964 after Carson’s book was published, and those 17 infections climbed to half a million victims per year by 1969  Though malaria is not always fatal, pregnant women can have a mortality rate of 50%.

Thankfully in 2006, the World Health Organization reversed its three-decade-long warning against DDT and approved it for indoor spraying.

Still, it is better to not to supplant science with politics in the first place. Vermonters can create this separation of science and politics by requiring that a public health authority review all available scientific evidence before banning any chemical. Such a scientific decision-making process would align nicely with Congress’ 2016 Toxic Substances Act that passed 398-1. That bill received our own Rep. Peter Welch’s vote and President Barack Obama’s signature of approval.

If such a system was adopted, chemicals being considered for a ban by the VT  Department of Health, like D4, would likely pass with flying colors. D4 can be found in items like sportswear, sealants and spatulas. It has recently undergone lab tests in the state of Washington, Canada and Australia. Each government concluded that D4 is not entering the environment at high levels and does not pose a risk to human health.

Of course, banning chemicals in our small state of Vermont will not have the same catastrophic consequence as banning DDT. From the perspective of the scientific search for truth however, the consequences would be just as dire. While some Vermonters are less susceptible than most Americans into believing the decidedly unscientific views that vaccines cause autism or that climate change isn’t happening, we can all too easily fall under the sway of ideas that don’t pass scientific muster.

The only way we ensure a truly scientific process for identifying toxic chemicals is to pass off such decisions to actual scientists who don’t have to look over their shoulder at politicians who are trigger happy and ill-equipped to make such decisions.

The chemical formulation of DDT was one of the greatest scientific and public health breakthroughs of the 19th century. The subsequent banning of DDT was one of the worst instances of politics triumphing over science in the 20th. While it may not be in Vermonters’ power to change the sad history of DDT, we can demand that all future chemicals be given a fair chance to prove their value to humankind.

Treating chemicals with respect instead of fear will encourage future chemists and biologists to develop health policy and environmental solutions that will give us a cleaner and safer world.

David Flemming is a policy analyst for the Ethan Allen Institute. Reprinted with permission from the Ethan Allen Institute Blog.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/CGP Grey

One thought on “Flemming: Public policy informed by science, not Nixonesque fear-mongering

  1. yes please less fear mongering and data manipulation to fit a agenda would be nice

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