How the Battle Over a Pesticide Led to Scientific Skepticism

This story is adapted from How to Sell a Poison: The Rise, Fall, and Toxic Return of DDT, by Elena Conis.Bird lovers and ornithologists had reason to celebrate at the dawn of the new millennium. Across the US, after decades of decline, birds were coming back. Osprey were building their teetering twiggy nests all across Long Island. Pelican populations had rebounded in Florida. The peregrine falcon had made such a remarkable return that it was removed from the endangered species list, and wildlife experts predicted that the bald eagle would soon follow.At the same time, however, other birds were dying: crows, least bitterns, black-capped chickadees, mourning doves, mallard ducks, Canada geese, broad-winged hawks, great blue herons, and more. When West Nile virus appeared—for the second time—in New York in the spring of 2001, it spread from there to 10 states, killing thousands of birds and infecting dozens of people. When human cases appeared for the first time in Texas, they triggered panic and pesticide spraying. A writer old enough to remember said it all reminded him of 1949, when polio had devastated the city of San Angelo and the desperate city had saturated itself with the pesticide DDT.

“A bad dream was back,” he said.

In no time at all, his words seemed prophetic, not because West Nile virus shut down cities as polio once had but because, all of a sudden, people all across the country began calling for the return of DDT, which had been banned back in 1972.It’s time to bring back DDT, said a columnist in Washington, DC. Crank up production, if not for the people of New York, at least for the innocent children of the Third World, wrote a Colorado journalist. Thanks to DDT’s ban, which 1970s environmental groups had demanded, citing harms to wildlife, the environmental movement bore the blame not just for West Nile Virus but for millions dead worldwide from malaria, wrote a scholar named Roger Bate in the Los Angeles Times. In local papers from California to North Carolina, a former FDA official pointed out the irony that DDT was banned largely for toxicity to birds and now couldn’t be used to combat a mosquito-borne virus that was killing birds by the hundreds of thousands. Rachel Carson’s legacy, he wrote, was “lamentable.”But most of that season’s op-ed writers had a connection to the chemical they didn’t disclose. The Washington writer was the executive director of TASSC, an organization devoted to “sound science”—and created by tobacco company Philip Morris and its PR firm several years earlier. The former FDA official was a TASSC partner. The Colorado journalist was executive director of a “journalism center” directly funded by Philip Morris. Bate, the “scholar,” had founded an organization called the European Science and Environment Forum—which was funded by Philip Morris and British American Tobacco, and whose founding description exactly matched that of TASSC.DDT’s defenders, in short, were part of a campaign dreamed up by Bate, financed by tobacco companies, and designed to protect the global market for tobacco and cigarettes. Bate was a neoliberal think-tank leader with one objective: to advocate for free markets. The tobacco industry had a separate but related objective: to protect the cigarette market from encroaching regulation. They financed Bate’s operation because they were convinced it would serve their own. And DDT had a curious part to play in it all.