Berlau: Saving Lives Requires Taking Risks

by David Bier on January 17, 2012

in Blog

In Eco-Freaks: Environmentalism Is Hazardous to Your Health, CEI’s John Berlau describes how environmentalists have intervened in the economy in ways that have caused many deaths. In this passage, he criticizes the precautionary principle, the idea that the government should wait to be absolutely certain before it permits the use of certain products.

Eco-Freaks was published in 2006

Today’s environmentalists wax eloquently about the Precautionary Principle. In green manifestos like the Wingspread Consensus, they argue that if there is any doubt about a certain chemical’s effects, it should not be introduced. Advocates liken it to the adage, “Look before you leap.” But, points out science writer Ronald Bailey, the principle goes against another wise adage, “He who hesitates is lost.”

Imagine if the army had followed the Precautionary Principle of today’s advocates. The military and drug companies did do some tests and found that DDT posed no harm to humans, but they could not be certain. But, had DDT not been used in World War II, millions of soldiers, civilians, and Holocaust victims would have died of insect-borne diseases. When talking to students, Gloria Lyon expresses a principle similar to that stated by University of Texas environmental law professor Frank Cross, that in protecting public health, “there is no such thing as a risk-free lunch.”

Chemical pioneer Joseph Jacobs was also critical of the Precautionary Principle. He noted that one of the products he helped develop saved many lives, but also “caused quite a few deaths.” But this substance was not DDT. It was penicillin, which has caused allergic fatalities. No deaths of humans, by contrast, have been linked to DDT. Yet “no one has ever bemoaned the discovery of penicillin or caused it to be banned,” Jacobs wrote. “If this had been given the Rachel Carson treatment, think of all the lives which would no t have been saved.”

And the initial DDT tests have turned out to be right. DDT, used as intended, poses no harm to human health. Even Rachel Carson had to square her apocalyptic warnings with DDT’s successful use in World War II. After all, the war had only ended seventeen years before Silent Spring was published, and DDT’s use in the battlefields would be in many readers’ memories. So she conceded in a line that during the war, “so many people came into extremely intimate contact with DDT and suffered no immediate ill effects.” But she never conceded that DDT saved lives. And she then tried to explain that DDT would have long-term effects that could not be known.

But now DDT’s benefits and risks—or lack of them—are known. And some perceptive journalists, even some who are liberal, are noting them. Alexander Gourevitch, a scribe for the pro-Democrat American Prospect, wrote in the liberal opinion magazine Washington Monthly, “But when it comes to the kinds of uses once permitted in the United States and abroad, there’s simply no solid scientific evidence that exposure to DDT causes cancer or is otherwise harmful to human beings. Not a single study linking DDT exposure to human toxicity has ever been replicated.” A 1971 study in particular demonstrated that DDT posed no hazards to people. In that long-term study, volunteers ate thirty-ounces of DDT for a year and a half. Sixteen years later, they had suffered no increased risk of adverse health effects.

As for DDT’s benefits, Malcolm Gladwell stated in the New Yorker, “Between 1945 and 1965, DDT saved millions—even tens of millions of lives—around the world, perhaps more than any other man-made drug or chemical before or since.”

After the war, DDT was used in a variety of applications, from combating insects that spread devastating diseases such as malaria to fighting pests that devastated crops and plants. Humans were not the only ones to benefit from DDT’s use—nor were they the only creatures of nature to suffer when DDT was banned.

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