“In the course of developing agents of chemical warfare, some of the chemicals created in the laboratory were found to be lethal to insects. The discovery did not come by chance: insects were widely used to test chemicals as agents of death for man.” — Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
It’s troubling enough that Myron Ebell, who’s leading President-Elect Trump’s environmental transition team, denies the existence of climate change. But now, as Tom Philpott at Mother Jones reports, Ebell’s ties to SafeChemicalPolicy.org, a pro-pesticide group, could signal a pre-Silent Spring era of agrochemical use.
Ebell directs the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Group. Those organizations also publish SafeChemicalPolicy.org, which pooh-poohs the deleterious effects of pesticides, including neonicotinoids and atrazine. The main author of SafeChemicalPolicy.org posts is Angela Logomasini. She is not a scientist, but holds a doctorate in American government and is a “wine educator” and “real estate investor.”
Backed by its extensive knowledge of merlots and balloon mortgages, Ebell’s group dismisses any scientific connection between neonicotinoids, also known as neonics, and bee kills. In fact, the Center for Energy and Environment claims bees “thrive” in them.
However, mounting scientific evidence shows that neonics, a type of insecticide, harm bees, either killing them outright at high doses or weakening their immune systems at lower ones. The chemicals also leach into surface and groundwater, harming aquatic life. Based on these findings, the EPA is considering further regulations on neonics.
Meanwhile, at the urging of Toxic Free NC, the state Pesticide Board is also weighing whether to restrict the use of neonics in North Carolina to only licensed pesticide applicators. Currently, neonics, often branded as “complete insect killers,” can be sold to general consumers.
This month, the board began holding meetings for a hand-picked group of scientists to present their findings on the effects of neonics on fish and other stream life. NC Department of Environmental Quality has randomly tested streams throughout the state for pesticides, but not neonics.
David Penrose, a retired NC State University environmental scientist, told the board 10 days ago that even if future stream monitoring shows low levels of neonics, the chemicals can still threaten aquatic life. “We are seeing adverse effects where detections aren’t made,” Penrose said. “It’s a scary thought. If I were on the pesticide board, I would want to know more about this.”
Ebell’s groups also cheerlead for a widely used weed killer, atrazine. Made by Syngenta, it is used primarily on corn, sorghum, even Christmas trees. But it is also applied on golf courses, lawns and landscapes. Atrazine is mobile and persistent, meaning it can leach from soil to water, or drift through the air, leaving behind its indelible chemical fingerprint.
Even at low doses, over time atrazine can jumble hormonal signals in people, fish, birds and animals. Exposure can cause reproductive problems. Although the herbicide was first registered in the U.S. in 1958, the EPA is also re-assessing atrazine for potential cancer-causing properties.
The CEG even implies resurrecting DDT. The insecticide has been shown to cause cancer, developmental delays and nervous system damage in humans. Plus, it harms wildlife, thinning the eggshells of bald eagles. To the chagrin of the chemical industry, Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, galvanized opposition to DDT and other insecticides.
For conservatives like Ebell, Carson, who was as scientist, is the latest bogeywoman. (She died in 1964 of breast cancer). They have labeled her as a “radical environmentalist” and Silent Spring as “anti-pesticide alarmism.” Many conservatives have even attributed the emergence of Zika — and the persistence of malaria, dengue and other mosquito-borne diseases — to the EPA’s ban of DDT.
Yet, the chemical is still used in Africa, where roughly 395 000 people died of the disease on that continent in 2015. However, there have been sharp declines in deaths and infection rates there and worldwide — and not because of DDT. More effective medications, diagnostics and the use of bed nets, sprayed with an insecticide, but not DDT, have been attributed to the decline.
Under a Trump presidency, Carson’s observations are as relevant now as they were when she wrote them in 1962:
“It is also an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged.”