An Abundance of Lies

In 1949 Karl von Frisch and his wife, Margarete, visited the United States for two months as guests of a number of Ivy League schools, and it proved to be a journey of mutual admiration.   Karl gave a number of talks, including his discovery of the language of the bee dances, and he was by all accounts a superb speaker.  He in turn was impressed by the country’s abundance, especially in the light of the dark backdrop of post-war recovery in Austria and Germany, and the sense of progress and optimism exuded by the people.  According to his biographer, Tania Munz, writing in The Dancing Bees, Karl saw a washing machine for the first time, and “a machine that could be filled in the evening with ground coffee and water and then set to begin brewing early in the morning.   When the coffee finished dripping into the carafe the device doubled as an alarm clock and woke its lucky owners to the smell of fresh coffee.” 

 Certainly there was a prevailing sense in  America that scientific advances had not only won the war against the Axis powers and Japan but were improving exponentially the daily lives of its citizens. With few exceptions, that optimism suppressed any  thought of the risks and costs that came with such advances, and when concerns were expressed,  many industries mobilized aggressively, and often dishonestly,  to counter them.

I offer three stories as evidence, the first of which is that of DDT.  Developed in 1939 and  initially used during World War II to clear malaria-causing insects from South Pacific islands for American soldiers, DDT was effective in that it killed hundreds of different types of insects rather than targeting only one or two.  In 1948, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to a Swiss scientist, Paul Müller, "for his discovery of the high efficiency of DDT as a contact poison against several arthropods.”

Meanwhile Rachel Carson, a Pennsylvania native, well educated and a former marine biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, received a letter from a friend who was concerned about the numbers of birds dying on Cape Cod as a result of DDT spraying. When her investigative articles were rejected by a number of magazines she spent four years writing the book that would become Silent Spring, detailing the process by which DDT entered the food chain and led to cancer and genetic damage.  She ended with an appeal  for further study  before making any decisions with potential environmental impacts. 

 

The book was first published 50 years ago this month and serialized in The New Yorker in 1962, initiating calls from readers for governmental action. In response the pesticide manufacturing companies devoted three million dollars (in today’s money) to discredit Carson, an attack spearhead by E.  Bruce Harrison, who will feature in next month’s column. An attempt  to sue the publisher to stop publication of the book failed.  One executive for the American Cyanamid Company complained that "If man were to faithfully follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth." Monsanto produced a parody of Silent Spring titled “A Desolate Year,” claiming that disease and famine would run amok in a world where pesticides had been banned. In a 1963 editorial entitled “The Myth of the ‘Pesticide Menace’” published in The Saturday Evening Post, a former science editor, Edwin Diamond, raised rhetorical questions such as why “an industrialist or a scientist…would poison our food and water — the same food and water he himself eats and drinks?”   

 

Many of the attacks, we now know, came from biostitutes - scientists who were rewarded handsomely by the chemical companies to write occasional articles casting doubt on Rachel herself and her work. Her integrity and her sanity were questioned; she was called ‘radical, unscientific, disloyal, and hysterical.’   In Time, for example, her argument was called ‘unfair, one-sided, and hysterically overemphatic,’ and she was claimed to have a ‘mystical attachment to the balance of nature.’ Some even questioned why she, an unmarried woman, would be concerned about genetics! The campaign against the book had an unintended effect: sales had reached one million by the time she died.

 

Eminent scientists rose to her defense and President Kennedy ordered the President’s Science Advisory Committee to examine the issue, leading to Carson’s eventual vindication. In 1980, President Carter posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

 

Sadly, in 1961 she had been diagnosed with malignant breast cancer which had metastasized and which she kept  a secret, knowing that the companies would use it against her. Rachel died in 1964 without seeing the fruits of her actions. In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was formed and two years later DDT was banned. And  the dialogue had shifted; the question was no longer if pesticides were dangerous, but rather, which ones.

 

In Silent Spring Rachel had described how DDT remained in the environment even after rainfall, a claim confirmed by a PSU research team that confirmed the presence of DDT in our soils almost 40 years after it had been banned. In 2007 samples collected from honey bee colonies affected by CCD showed  87 different pesticides found in the wax.  The average was 9 pesticides per sample and they ranged across the chemical spectrum of every category and type.  Last month at EAS In Ithaca, NY, Scott McArt mentioned that 17 insecticides and 10 pesticides were found in the apple blossoms of New York orchards, 20 in California almond orchards, and 35 in New England’s blueberry fields.   And, he added, there is a synergy between fungicides and pesticides - the former  interfere with the detoxification  process as enzymes in the bee gut break down the toxins. 

 

Rachel Carson’s research and her fears were well founded. 

Second story.   In 2011 a report on CBS confirmed public suspicions that for fifty years tobacco companies had known that cigarette smoke contained cancer-causing particles.  This places the industry’s initial awareness at the same time as Rachel was writing Silent Spring

The CBS report focused on a study  published in the September 27, 2011, issue ofNicotine & Tobacco Research,  in which UCLA researchers had examined dozens of internal tobacco industry documents made public after a 1998 court case.  "They knew that the cigarette smoke was radioactive (as early as 1959) and that it could potentially result in cancer, and they deliberately kept that information under wraps," wrote the study’s author Dr. Hrayr S. Karagueuzian, professor of cardiology at UCLA's cardiovascular research laboratory.  "We show here that the industry used misleading statements to obfuscate the hazard of ionizing alpha particles to the lungs of smokers and, more importantly, banned any and all publication on tobacco smoke radioactivity."

The radioactive particle in question - polonium-210 - is found in all commercially available cigarettes and inhaled directly into a smoker's lungs.  An independent study by the UCLA researchers found the radioactive particles could cause between 120 and 140 deaths for every 1,000 smokers over a 25-year period.  "We used to think that only the chemicals in the cigarettes were causing lung cancer," Karagueuzian said, but the research suggested these radioactive particles were targeting "hot spots" in the lungs to cause cancer.

Their study outlined how the tobacco industry was also concerned by polonium-210 and went so far as to study the potential lung damage from radiation exposure.The industry could have removed this radiation through techniques discovered decades previously  but chose not to, on the grounds partly that they would be “costly and dangerous for the environment,” but mainly, according to Karagueuzian, that the tobacco industry was concerned such techniques would make the absorption of nicotine by the brain more difficult, depriving smokers of the addictive nicotine

Indeed David Sutton, a spokesperson for Philip Morris, confirmed onABC News that the public health community had known about this particle for some time, justifying it on the grounds that   “… polonium 210 is a naturally occurring element found in the air, soil, and water and therefore can be found in plants, including tobacco.”  The FDA was not convinced - the resultant Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act gave it the power to remove harmful substances, with the exception of nicotine, from tobacco.  

It’s an old lawyer’s mantra that when losing the argument, attack the person. When E. Bruce Harrison labeled Rachel Carson as ‘radical, unscientific, disloyal, and hysterical,’  what was he saying?   That it was radical to put the health and well-being of the soil, water, air and all life ahead of a company’s bottom line?  That her methods were unscientific because they conflicted with the results of company-employed scientists who were being well paid to promote the welfare of the industry? That she was disloyal because she was incorruptible and refused to bend to industrial pressure?  And she was hysterical because she was a woman!

 

It is comforting to know that the ultimate victory was for science and public health in the face of corporate profits,  but the damage that was done in the meantime, both to the environment and to individuals world wide, is incalculable.   Nor, as the tobacco story shows, did the chemical industry learn any kind of ethical lesson from this experience. 

I will keep the final story for next month.  It is the most recent, and possibly the most outrageous, of all three and has long term consequences for us as well as for the bees. 

 

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