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Audubon's Fly-by-Night Pesticide Campaign

The Audubon Society once again is scaring the public about pesticides. Almost 30 years after its successful — but untruthful — campaign against the insecticide DDT, the Audubon Society is targeting lawn chemicals used to control grubs, fungus and weeds.

In a recent op-ed in Long Island's Newsday, Audubon Society staffers claimed that New York state wildlife pathologists determined pesticide poisoning was the "single leading cause of death among birds" in New York.

"Birds are well-known indicators of environmental perils. They warned about DDT in the 1970s. They warned us about West Nile [virus]. Now they're warning us again," the piece said.

We need to be warned to ignore such blather from the Audubon Society.

Here's the real story about the New York pathology report.

Because of West Nile virus, investigators at the state wildlife laboratory in Elmar analyzed 3,216 bird carcasses sent in by New Yorkers. In March 2001, the lab issued a report on the carcasses that the scientists had analyzed to that point. West Nile virus was blamed for 1,263 deaths. Other toxins were to blame in 1,953 deaths. The Audubon Society wants you to believe that the toxin-related deaths are due to pesticides used for lawn care.

The New York report indicated that pesticides were identified in 219 bird deaths. But that number is misleading. Thirty of those birds were killed by a product intended for eliminating nuisance birds such as starlings, and 100 of them were deliberately and illegally killed when someone laced bread with an insecticide not available to homeowners.

The report, in fact, indicates that lawn care pesticides might have been involved in only 27 bird deaths — less than one percent of the deaths investigated. Even accepting the report at face value, lawn care pesticides are hardly the leading cause of bird deaths in New York.

Ironically, the toxin identified as the leading culprit in 1,100 of the bird deaths was botulinum — the bacterium that causes the nervous system disease botulism. The source of the botulinum? Mother Nature, herself.  She slipped it to Lake Erie water birds through zebra mussels. Many tend to envision Mother Nature as a gentle lady. But sometimes she can be more like the Mommy Dearest described by Joan Crawford's daughter.

Such details, though, are of little concern to the Audubon Society, the early force behind DDT hysteria in the 1960s. Though the Audubon Society claimed that DDT was harming birds, its own bird census data from 1960 showed that bird populations were increasing during the years DDT was most heavily used.

DDT was blamed for declines in populations of bald eagles, peregrine falcons and brown pelicans. But all three-bird populations hit their all-time population lows before DDT was first used in 1943.

Bald eagles were on the verge of extinction in the 1920s.  Alaska paid over $100,000 in bounties for 115,000 bald eagles between 1917 and 1942. The bald eagle had vanished from New England a decade before DDT was used. There were 5,000 brown pelicans in Texas in 1918, but only 200 in 1941. As to peregrine falcons, Dr. William Hornaday of the New York Zoological Society referred to them in 1913 as birds that "deserve death, but are so rare that we need not take them into account."

When scientists brought the bird census reports to light during the DDT hysteria in the 1960s, the Audubon Society accused "certain paid scientist-spokesmen" of lying. After The New York Times recounted this accusation in August 1972, the scientists filed a libel suit against an official of the National Audubon Society and the Times.

During the pre-trial depositions, the founder of the Environmental Defense Fund, a spin-off of the National Audubon Society, said that discussions at the EDF with National Audubon Society officials centered around ways to silence and discredit opponents of their stand on DDT.

The jury returned verdicts against the Times and the National Audubon Society official. Both verdicts were subsequently overturned on appeal on legal, not factual, grounds. The appellate judge was Irving Kaufman, a close friend of Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger.

The overturning of the jury verdicts wasn't the first time in the DDT saga that the truth fell victim to other considerations.

An administrative law judge of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency presided over 7 months and 9,000 pages of testimony about DDT. The judge concluded, based on the evidence produced, that DDT did not present a threat either to wildlife or humans. Then-EPA Administrator — and Environmental Defense Fund member — William Ruckleshaus banned DDT anyway.

National Audubon Society skullduggery helped deep-six DDT — a chemical that was credited in a 1970 National Research Council report with saving hundreds of millions of lives. It makes you wonder what the odds are of lawn care chemicals surviving a similar campaign.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of the upcoming book Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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