Since Silent Spring?

    The Sacramento County public health officer's bizarre August 9, 2007 report before the Sacramento City Council conjured up some images from the past, prompting our renewed interest in Frank Graham Jr.'s book Since Silent Spring.  In this report Glennah Trochet stated: "Even with DDT they did not find major problems for humans . . .  It was lots of problems with birds and other things but not with humans." Many years later we also ask the question Graham raised: how far we have come on pesticide issues since Rachel Carson's warnings in Silent Spring

    Frank Graham did not think we had come far since Silent Spring on pesticide issues relative to the use of DDT for Dutch elm disease. At the time of Since Silent Spring, 1970, DDT was already known to pose problems, yet official entities across the country, including those in our supposedly independent universities who should be looking out for the well-being of the populace, aggressively promoted the use of DDT, strongly influenced by the chemical companies.

    As to the situation in 1970, Graham begins Chapter 20, The Spray's The Thing, by discussing the climate surrounding the use of DDT to control Dutch elm disease in Iowa (pp. 235-236), which we reproduce here:

    "I believe our greatest problem in the state is the policy of Iowa State University at Ames,” writes Mrs. Darrel M. Hanna, a conservationist who lives in Sioux City, Iowa.  She refers to a local campaign (eventually successful) in 1967 to establish a sound program for the control of Dutch elm disease. 

    "The University has actively promoted the use of DDT for Dutch elm disease all over the state and they have unlimited outlets for their propaganda,” she continues. “They have come out with a brand new film which advocates the use of DDT and they are booking it all over the state. The worst part of it is that the people of our cities and towns believe and accept their advice."

    The men who direct state agriculture departments, extension services, and agricultural colleges often share the . . . zeal for preparedness. These men offer advice throughout their state to anyone who wants to grow green things – from thousands of acres of corn to small garden of roses. And their advice is spray! Be careful, of course, but spray. Spray before the plants emerge; spray at this stage of growth; spray at the first sign of a bug. Inevitably, the spraying conforms to the calendar rather than to need.

    Here, on the local level, where they most concern the majority of people, we are apt to find pest control programs at their worst.  These programs usually are based not on scientific principles but on pork barrel politics and an aggressive sales pitch.  Arboriculturists and professional spray applicators have been saturated by chemical industry literature . . . The applicators, in turn, exert pressure on town managers before each "spraying season."  . . .  Town officials, in their turn, shop around to find the most spray for their money. 

    "The greatest advocates of promiscuous spraying are the boys coming out of school, and their knowledge is usually confined to what their professors told them," one city forester says. "I think that some of these professors either must be lazy or too close to the chemical companies to give their students proper views of the control of plant diseases and insects. I heard one young graduate tell a group that you did not have to know much about disease and insects – just contact a chemical company and they would set up a [spray] program for you."

    Indeed they will!

    The programs thus conceived are carried out haphazardly, and with no notion of their ultimate effect on the environment.

    That is quite a litany: the greatest problem is the state university; there are unlimited outlets for propaganda; the programs are based on pork barrel politics and an aggressive sales pitch; the programs are not based on scientific principles; the professors are too close to the chemical companies; there is no need for students to know much about diseases and insects; and there is no notion of the ultimate effect on the environment.

    The sexist language (the men who direct, these men, the greatest advocates are the boys) reflects the timing of this publication.  Despite the knowledge of DDT posing health/environmental problems official entities across the country, including those in our supposedly independent universities, hopped on the bandwagon advocating spray, even leading the charge.

    As we look at the situation here in 2007 and West Nile virus, the CDC says spray (as a last resort). The California Department of Public Health says spray.  Vector control officials insist that state, county, and local health departments across the United States say spray, though many do not. UC Davis entomologists on the SYMVCD Board say spray, make false statements on public radio, and refuse to produce data to support the statements. Glennah Trochet, whose sentiments about using pesticides had just been exposed, and who does not even seem concerned about the dangers to humans of the potent pesticide DDT, said spray. The list goes on and on. Yet, the stunning lack of evidence supporting the spray for West Nile virus seems just as glaring as were the known dangers of DDT nearly 40 years ago. Therefore, we do not think we have come far since Silent Spring on issues relative to the indiscriminate spraying of adulticides for WNv.

    It sounds as if the "credentials game" was being played in Iowa in 1970 – with pronouncements from agriculture departments, extension services, and agricultural colleges – just as it is playing out in this region now.  The game goes like this – "my experts have better credentials than yours, so everybody should listen to what I say about this issue."  For their experts local vector control officials cite the people and/or agencies who say we should spray, but they fail to cite actual evidence.  An ex-mayor of Davis cited her secret panel of distinguished experts, who have handed down the truth to her behind the scenes, in addition to the formal agencies. Even though these experts were not identified and again no evidence was offered, we were expected to accept the mayor's conclusions as the final word because she insisted that the experts had top credentials.  In absence of any evidence we would hope the public would not find such an argument convincing.

    However, we know one of the ex-mayor's experts on this issue: our discussions with this expert and the mayor leave us with the conclusion that though he understands that adulticiding is not effective, he supported it on political grounds rather than scientific ones and continued to advise the mayor to support it. He was keenly aware of the political pickle politicians find themselves in when an issue like the spread of WNv has been badly sensationalized to the public and then perceived by the public to be a priority. Aerial adulticiding is highly visible; whereas water management, larvaciding, etc., are almost entirely hidden. Indeed, because we have openly asked for decisions based on the science and the facts, he explicitly advised us that we simply "did not get it." Perhaps not, from a political perspective, but we still have hope that the facts and science will prevail in the end and policies involving safe and effective means of mosquito control will be implemented.

    In other words, the "credentials game" is typically very successful for public officials but very hard to overcome even when a citizens' group is right on the issues and is supporting its position with evidence. Because of their "credentials" and/or official standing, SYMVCD officials are given tons of newspaper, radio, and television time; they are able to address town and county councils; their moves are covered extensively by the media; all of which sensationalizes the issue to the hilt. Events such as finding one infected dead egret make the main headline in the local paper; officials are given far more time in public meetings to make their case than are spray opponents; etc.  Then, when opponents of the spraying can manage to wangle some time out of a newspaper for an op-ed, spray proponents are given equal time to be sure there is "balance."  In actual fact, it would take many months of regular coverage for spray opponents alone before there would be any semblance of overall balance.

    What is the upshot of all of this? Because most news reports assume spraying slows the transmission of WNv to humans, organizations and citizen groups urging caution and alternative means to combat West Nile virus are portrayed as unsympathetic or heartless whenever WNv-related deaths occur. This portrayal is very far from the truth. In fact, we advocate for vector control officials to implement very effective and very safe means to combat the virus.

    Unfortunately, reporters also assume that the spraying is safe and fail to investigate the truth. They focus on immediate effects for healthy individuals, ignoring the special susceptibilities of at-risk groups in the population and the long-term effects on all of us.

    Puzzling over the apparently widespread acceptance of the assertions of vector control and public health officials based on a paucity of good scientific evidence, some words of George Bernard Shaw come to mind:

There is no harder scientific fact in the world than the fact that belief can be produced in practically unlimited quantity and intensity, without observation or reasoning, and even in defiance of both, by the simple desire to believe.

    Surely we all desire to have trust in and believe our public officials, many of whom are dedicated public servants, and it is painful to do otherwise. Perhaps the time has come on this issue, however, that officials no longer deserve the public trust.