Commentary: Public Policy Informed by Science, Not Nixonesque Fear Mongering (May, 2019)

May 10, 2019

By David Flemming

Last fall, the Vermont Department of Health announced that it was considering adding new chemicals to Vermont’s Safe Product Act, giving Vermont the chance to make its blacklist of chemicals more scientific. Unfortunately, activists are trying to stigmatize many of these chemicals before their effects can be scientifically tested.

Some Vermonters might not see the harm in being a bit overzealous regarding which chemicals are blacklisted and which are legalized, for 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 the 1960’s, the US took steps to limit DDT after Rachel Carson’s now debunked book Silent Spring caused a nationwide panic. In 1971, the Environmental Protection Agency spent seven months interviewing 125 expert witnesses regarding DDT’s toxicity. The National Academy of Sciences testified that spraying “DDT has prevented 500 million deaths due to malaria (from infected mosquitoes) that would otherwise have been inevitable.”

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, 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 that America should “phase out the 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.

After the US began stigmatizing DDT in the 1960’s, other countries followed suit. While malaria infection rates in the U.S. grew after the DDT ban, they exploded in Third World countries. In Ceylon/Sri Lanka, DDT spraying had sliced malaria cases from 2.8 million in 1946 to just 17 cases by 1963. DDT was banned in Ceylon/Sri Lanka in 1964, 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. Vermont should emulate the scientific decision-making process mandated by Congress’ 2016 Toxic Substances Act. That bill passed 398-1 and received our own Rep. Peter Welch’s vote and President Obama’s signature of approval. Vermonters can create this separation of science and politics by requiring that a public health authority review all risks of a chemical before listing or banning it.

If such a system was adopted, chemicals like D4 that are being considered for a blacklist by the Vermont Department of Health would likely pass with flying colors. D4 is used to make sportswear, sealants and spatulas. It was recently assessed in Washington state, Canada and Australia. Each government concluded that D4 is not dangerous to human health.

Of course, blacklisting chemicals in 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 in 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 can 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 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 at the Ethan Allen Institute

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Deanne June 5, 2019 at 2:07 am

If the mainstream medical establishment says something is safe, I tend to suppose the opposite. I am referring to vaccines/immunizations, which I have been paying attention to for almost 25 years. The first book I read on the subject was “What Every Parent Should Know About Childhood Immunizations.”

Here are some respected health care researchers and practitioners that tell a different story about whether or not vaccinations are safe and effective:

Dr. David Brownstein (blog posts for lots of info)

Dr. Sherry Tenpenny

Dr. Rashid Buttar

Mary Tocco

Dr. Zach Bush

I could go on and on.

Also check out the Flexner Report what happened to the medical establishment in this country over 100 years ago.


Deanne June 5, 2019 at 3:17 am

“Scientific consensus” is that “climate change” is due to human activity, specifically in regard to man’s use of fossil fuels. Maybe we should all just accept that this is a fact and jump on the bandwagon to tax carbon dioxide and support whatever other methods may be devised to discourage “carbon footprints.” Those scientists who disagree with the media-promoted consensus either keep their mouths shut or are ridiculed or discredited. The same is true in other areas as well – for example, evolution. Just because there appears to be a scientific consensus does not mean something is true.


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