Bugged out by DDT: Matthew Green Trips into the Culture Wars

DDT is so controversial, given its status within the ideological culture wars, that it became the focus of the story, displacing the human interest story Green really wanted told.

By Sean Hurley
Published November 24, 2014

I can't imagine what was running through the mind of Matthew Green when he read the CBC Hamiton headline, "New councillor wants to look at repealing DDT ban to fight bed bugs".

Bed bug nymph feeding (Image Credit: Flickr/AFPMB. Licenced under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Bed bug nymph feeding (Image Credit: Flickr/AFPMB. Licenced under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Green is the rookie councillor-elect for Ward 3, having just been elected this past October. While on the campaign trail, he became acutely aware of Hamilton's bed bug problem. Being the activist that he is, he immediately wanted to do something about it.

At about the same time, a video was released, purportedly from the Internet hactivisit group, Anonymous, alleging that Matthew Green was a "New World Order" candidate belonging to the secretive Freemasons.

The CBC contacted Green about that video in early October and quoted his response:

"It's kind of kooky, and I really wish that we could focus on...we have serious issues," he said. "We have (buildings with a) 70-per cent infestation of bed bugs. We have massive inequality and people living in poverty."

It is clear bed bugs were on his mind. Seven weeks later, though, when CBC reporter Samantha Craggs contacted Green to follow up, she asked him about DDT and that interaction became the story. The Spectator followed the next day with a headline reading, "New Hamilton councillor wants to fight bedbugs with banned DDT".

Poverty, Stigma, Isolation

The Internet was all over Green. Perhaps because he has a wide base of support within the community, the criticisms, with a few notable exceptions, were mild and constructive. Social media users educated Green as to the reasons the chemical was banned.

In his defense, on both Facebook and Twitter, he asked people to read past the headlines - he was doing an interview on bed bugs not DDT, he said - and recognize the quotes where he said "I'll defer to the science".

Green makes the point, strongly, that this isn't a story about DDT or even about bed bugs. It is a story of the many people who have to suffer with bed bugs.

Even though the insects are found all along the socio-economic curve, they are most commonly associated with poverty and high density apartment buildings. As such, there is a stigma attached to bed bugs.

Those who get them often find themselves even further isolated from friends, family, and social engagement and if they're unable to assist in prepping their living spaces for spraying, they face eviction.

It is reasonable Green would want to tell that story. It seems he was entirely unaware of the political and scientific minefield into which he was being led.

Science and Ideology

DDT is not just a banned pesticide. Like climate science, tobacco, the ozone layer and acid rain, it is woven into the fabric of the ideological culture wars fought between free market advocates and, well, everyone else.

In their book Merchants of DOUBT: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway devote a chapter to DDT.

In it, they detail how Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, the book that led to the investigation and eventual banning of DDT, was caricatured by certain scientists as another "Hitler", "Stalin", and "mass murderer".

These critics cited tens of millions of deaths attributed to Malaria as a result of the ban. But it is not true. The authors deconstruct this argument by showing that deaths in rich countries from malaria were already on the decline before DDT was introduced. Where DDT was used, insects developed resistance.

Where DDT is still used (in poor countries where malaria is still a scourge), DDT has been proven effective, but only because: a) it used indoors where "it doesn't produce resistance" (because spraying is limited to a small number of the insect population); and, b) because a single application lasts a year.

In other words, the very persistence that made DDT so damaging to nature also makes it a good treatment of bed netting to fight malaria.

Bed Bugs Resistant to DDT

Bed bugs, however, are an indoor pest, have been exposed to DDT in the past, and have already developed resistance. According to an article published on the University of California, Berkeley website:

Bed bug populations have been primed with the right sort of genetic variation by their evolutionary history - a history which includes extensive exposure to a different insecticide, DDT. Like pyrethroids, DDT kills insects by acting on the sodium pores in their nerve cells - and it just so happens that many of the same mutations that protect an insect against DDT also happen to protect it from pyrethroids.

When DDT was first introduced, such mutations were probably extremely rare. However, with the widespread use of DDT in the 1950s and '60s, such mutations became much more common among bed bugs through the process of natural selection. Though DDT is rarely used today because of its environmental effects, these mutations have stuck around and are still present in modern bed bug populations.

Because of the action of natural selection in the past (favoring resistance to DDT), many bed bug populations today are primed with the right sort of genetic variation to evolve resistance to pyrethroids rapidly.

This is all acknowledged in a follow-up article on CBC Hamilton, where Craggs quotes a local pest control operator who tells her bed bugs are resilient, quickly develop immunity, and "every 10 years, we have to find something new to kill them."

The Controversy is the Story

So if it isn't even an option, why was DDT the story?

DDT is so controversial, given its status within the culture wars, that it became the focus of the story, displacing the human interest story Green really wanted told.

Matthew Green being Matthew Green, though, has already employed some political judo to get the message back on track, at least on social media. He has asked Twitter and Facebook followers to send him their experiences with bed bugs and to copy Craggs.

The unfortunate aspect to this is that the news story may have been lost while reporting the controversy. And the story, as Green continues to emphasise, is about human isolation, stigma, suffering, and in some cases eviction.


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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted November 24, 2014 at 08:27:32

The lesson, as always, is not to discuss specifics if you don't know the specifics.

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted November 24, 2014 at 13:26:56 in reply to Comment 106426

I'll disagree because at the end of the day, people are engaged in a conversation. Because Matthew Green asked a question, we've all learned a lot about bed bugs and the history of DDT. I learned about this as well. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beauveria_b... and Matthew has started this Google Doc collaboration

Comment edited by lawrence on 2014-11-24 13:46:54

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By Fake Name (anonymous) | Posted November 24, 2014 at 12:37:04 in reply to Comment 106426

Amen. Politics is not a good field for thinking out loud - Bratina is proof of that.

Consult with the experts, then make your proposal.

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By TnT (registered) | Posted November 24, 2014 at 10:10:28

I find it refreshing actually having a councillor take an interest in his community.

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By ItJustIs (registered) | Posted November 24, 2014 at 16:56:12 in reply to Comment 106427

"I find it refreshing actually having a councillor take an interest in his community."

I'm going to assume that this wasn't a sarcastic comment. (If it was, nice one.)

What a city we live in where this sentiment seems to be indicative of how cynically residents see their Ward reps at Council.

Now that the election (job interview process) is over, it's time to get down to the real work. (You know, we as 'employers' supervising them, our 'employees'.)

Comment edited by ItJustIs on 2014-11-24 16:56:36

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By TnT (registered) | Posted November 24, 2014 at 21:32:05 in reply to Comment 106436

I guess it was a two level comment. I've lived in the city for nearly 40 years and I can't recall anything but cheap pandering and self promotion from my ward representative. Looking over at Ward 2 and 1 with their progressive agendas fills me with hope that we are turning a corner in Ward 3.

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By williamMehlenbacher (registered) | Posted November 24, 2014 at 11:41:37

Thanks for clearing that up Ryan, was no need to jump all over Matthew when his heart was in the right place. Once you become a public figure, you are open to abuse. Matthew will represent Ward 3 very well.Lost in translation

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By BedBug Observer (anonymous) | Posted November 24, 2014 at 12:35:21

His problem is mentioning something especially that controversial without doing the homework. And then not admitting any error but trying to make it as if everyone else had it wrong. Sure it may have been the spin the media took but his unwillingness to admit his error and instead try to pass it off as on purpose in order to enlarge the conflict is troubling but very much a political move.

His critics have been quite easy and I think this less a story than some impassioned folk think.

The main controversy is between Mr. Green and some poverty activists who not so long ago held an event on this very subject. An event he did not seem to have heard about.

So he got some heat from them as they are very passionate and rather hot-headed. the rest seem rather reasoned and there were a lot of under-informed in Hamilton who jumped on the DDT bandwagon.

It would have all gone so much better had he not simply tried to pass off a poorly researched solution and instead tell media he was looking into best practices.

To me, playing and inflaming such media games is not such a good start. But he is strong and popular enough to ride this well.

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By scrap (anonymous) | Posted November 24, 2014 at 23:02:10 in reply to Comment 106429

There seems to be some discrepancy about the fact the Mr Green was unaware of the bedbug forum held by HCAP, since Mr Green would of received that information as a person who at least liked their page.

Why would you deem people who have done some good research as hotheaded because you mat disagree with their politics?

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By Agent Orange (anonymous) | Posted November 24, 2014 at 13:18:24

He spoke out of turn. He then tried to pass the buck.
He is well on his way as a career politician.

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By Steve (registered) | Posted November 24, 2014 at 16:08:19

I thought it was a great play by MG.

He is very popular in the Hamilton Housing Corp buildings (see campaign controversy regarding the tenant with MG signage on mobility scooter), where bedbugs are a big issue (at least so I've heard). By lobbing, or lobbying, for the return of DDT to combat the issue, he can show he went to bat for those suffering and it was quashed by others.

All that remains to be a perfect play is for Matt to get a few smaller wins. More attention, money action, etc.

Here's the one-to-one conversation, "I tried to get DDT back which would fix the problem. The province (or other councilors) said no, so I got all this other stuff to make the problem more livable. Hey, I'm on your side."

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted November 24, 2014 at 17:17:50 in reply to Comment 106435

See above. Agent Orange has summed up your post:

He is well on his way as a career politician.

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By Steve (registered) | Posted November 25, 2014 at 10:16:20 in reply to Comment 106440

Yes, career politician part summed it up. The speaking out of turn did not.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted November 25, 2014 at 17:48:10 in reply to Comment 106448

The speaking out of turn did not [sum it up].

He wanted his name in the news, he got it. Guessing he will chalk up his lack of understanding to how the media will emphasize something he didn't, or the "gee shucks, I'm the starry eyed newcomer to council" will let him get away with it this time. He wanted airplay, he got it. He's just like every other politician - any press is good press. Look at how much chatter his comments have made!

Comment edited by DowntownInHamilton on 2014-11-25 17:48:24

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted November 24, 2014 at 17:10:07


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By St. Matthew (anonymous) | Posted November 24, 2014 at 21:03:07

I like Councilor-Elect Green. If he says use DDT, then by George we should use DDT and the devil take the hind-most!

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By Take Me Seriously. Seriously! (anonymous) | Posted November 25, 2014 at 07:43:55

Not yet inaugurated and he is already making news with his behaviour. The only immunity that will be developed in his bed bug ravaged Ward 3 will be his to criticism. Expect yet another career politician, just more arrogant. If that is at all possible.

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By Poindexter (anonymous) | Posted December 07, 2014 at 01:33:19

Many Ward 3 homes are co-infested with bedbugs AND head lice brought home from elementary schools. The lice are already resistant to pyrethrin insecticides, like Nix shampoo. DDT was used for lice in WWII to prevent typhus, so they've already had plenty of exposure to it. We need to find out what DDT would do to the lice now. Would it produce another resistance? It might be possible to limit resistance in single family dwellings, but in high-rises, libraries, schools, and other public spaces?

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