How the Environmentalist Ban on DDT Caused 50 Million Deaths from Malaria

How the Environmentalist Ban on DDT Caused 50 Million Deaths from Malaria



This is a story of triumph and tragedy. The triumph occurred in the middle part of the 20th century, when the larger part of mankind finally succeeded in overcoming the ravages of malaria, the deadly infectious disease that had afflicted the human race since the dawn of time (and which, by one estimate, had killed approximately half the people who had ever lived on earth). But within three decades, the triumph would give way to tragedy when leftist ideologues, professing concern for the integrity of the natural environment, collaborated to ban the use of the pesticide best known by the acronym DDT—the very substance that had made it possible to vanquish malaria from vast portions of the globe. By means of that ban, environmentalists effectively ensured that, over the course of the ensuing 30+ years, more than 50 million people would die needlessly of a disease that was entirely preventable.

Malaria is spread by protozoan parasites that are transmitted from person to person by female mosquitoes of the Anopheles genus. Symptoms of the disease include high fever, shaking chills, joint pain, headaches, muscle aches, fatigue, vomiting, anemia, hemoglobinuria, retinal damage, and convulsions. Malaria also has been found to cause cognitive impairments and neurologic damage, especially in children. And in 1 to 2 million cases each year, it results in the death of the victim.

According to Dr. Robert Desowitz, professor of tropical medicine at the University of North Carolina: “From colonial times until the 1940s, malaria was the American disease”—annually afflicting as many as 7 million Americans and killing several thousand. In 1936, for instance, some 3,900 U.S. residents died of malaria. But these casualty figures were dwarfed by those of other countries. In India during the 1930s, for example, approximately 100 million people contracted malaria each year, and at least a million of them died as a result. In Africa, hundreds of millions of people per year became infected, and several million of them lost their lives as well.

By the time World War II began, people worldwide were essentially powerless in the face of this dread disease, just as they had been throughout most of human history. Then in 1939, everything changed. The Swiss scientist Paul Müller developed the synthetic pesticide DDT (Dichloro-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane), which proved to be a remarkably effective means of killing the mosquitoes responsible for malaria’s transmission (and killing also pests like flies, aphids, and potato beetles that carry such infectious diseases as bubonic plague, typhus, yellow fever, and encephalitis).

The Müller and the Geigy Corporation subsequently patented DDT in Switzerland (1940), England (1942), and the United States (1943). In 1943 Merck & Company produced and delivered 500 gallons of DDT to Italy in an effort to put down a raging epidemic of louse-borne typhus. Later that year, the U.S. Army supplied its troops with rations of 10-percent DDT dust to kill lice. Throughout the course of the Second World War, DDT protected millions of Allied troops from contracting malaria and other infectious diseases like typhus and the plague. Moreover, the pesticide saved the lives of recently liberated concentration-camp survivors by killing off typhus-carrying lice.

Wherever DDT was used in significant quantities, the incidence of malaria declined precipitously. In South America, for example, malaria cases fell by 33 percent between 1942 and 1946. In 1948, there was not a single malaria-related death in all of Italy. After DDT was sprayed widely in India’s Kanara district (where some 50,000 people had typically contracted malaria in any given year during the pre-DDT era), the number of newly diagnosed malaria cases dwindled to about 1,500 per year by the late 1940s—a 97 percent decrease. Throughout the entire Indian nation, the number of malaria cases fell from about 75 million in 1951 to 50,000 in 1961. In Sri Lanka, DDT spraying was initiated in 1946, at which time approximately 3 million new cases of malaria were being diagnosed each year. By 1956, that figure had fallen to 7,300; eight years after that, in 1964, a mere 29 Sri Lankans contracted malaria.

Encouraged by DDT’s unmatched success in killing the carriers of infectious disease, in May 1955 the World Health Organization, at its Eighth World Health Assembly, initiated a Global Malaria Eradication Campaign (GMEC). Funded mostly by the U.S. government, the GMEC focused heavily on the use of DDT as a means of combating malaria in North America, southern Europe, the Caribbean, and much of eastern and southern Asia. By 1961, malaria had been nearly eliminated from each of those regions. In South Africa, malaria rates plummeted by 80 percent in just 18 months as a result of spraying small amounts of DDT on the walls and eaves of traditional mud and thatch huts twice a year. Similarly, the incidence of malaria declined by 60 percent in Ecuador and by 90 percent in Madagascar.

DDT use reached its zenith in 1962, when a total of 80 million kilograms of the pesticide were used around the world. The National Academy of Sciences summarized the efficacy of DDT as follows: “To only a few chemicals does man owe as great a debt as to DDT. It is estimated that, in little more than two decades DDT has prevented 500 million human deaths, due to malaria, that would otherwise have been inevitable.”

Unfortunately, tropical Africa was, for the most part, unable to share in the great benefits of DDT because: (a) with only a few exceptions, the nations of that region did not possess infrastructures capable of disseminating the pesticide in an effective and comprehensive manner; and (b) Africa’s Anopheles mosquitoes and malaria parasites differed slightly from their counterparts on other continents and thus were more resistant to eradication campaigns. But the scientific community was working—and with promising signs of progress—to overcome those obstacles. For example, in a 1959-1960 pilot project in the Kigezi district of Uganda, DDT was sprayed twice per year and it virtually eliminated malaria from the region. Indeed, there was good reason to be confident that before long, DDT would successfully drive malaria from every part of the globe, including Africa.

Tragically, however, this confidence would be derailed by a series of events that were triggered initially by the September 1962 publication of biologist/zoologist Rachel Carson’s bestselling book, Silent Spring, which warned of the dangers that DDT allegedly posed to all manner of plant, animal, and human life. These threats were so great, said Carson, that on balance they more than negated whatever benefits were to be gained from using the pesticide to prevent malaria.

Receiving immense media coverage, Carson’s book enjoyed immediate critical acclaim and spent 30 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It was the subject not only of congressional discussion and debate, but also of consideration by the presidential Science Advisory Committee. The book’s popularity was boosted to some extent by the wave of fear that had recently swept through the American public with regard to concerns over: (a) the physical effects of radioactive fallout from nuclear-weapons testing, and (b) birth defects resulting from the pregnancy drug thalidomide.

In Silent Spring, Carson stated that the overall rise in U.S. cancer rates between 1940 (the dawn of the DDT era) and 1960 proved that DDT was a carcinogen. She predicted that DDT and other pesticides would spark a cancer epidemic that would wipe out “practically 100 percent” of the human population within a single generation. As Carson saw it, a race of super-insects, immune to the effects of pesticides, would infest the crops grown on American farms. Desperate farmers, she said, would respond to these infestations by using much greater quantities of DDT. In this way, Carson explained, the pesticide would eventually poison the entire food chain, killing off, in sequence, bugs, worms, birds, fish, and finally mankind.

Carson also claimed that the atmospheric presence of DDT and its metabolites, DDE (Dichloro-Diphenyldichloro-Ethylene) and DDD (Dichloro-Diphenyl-Dichloroethane), caused the shells of bird eggs to become thinner, thereby leading to an increased incidence of egg breakage and/or embryo death. This, Carson postulated, would severely interfere with bird reproduction and ultimately would lead to a “silent spring” bereft of the familiar sounds of birdsongs. Citing a 1956 study that Dr. James DeWitt published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, Carson reported: “Dr. DeWitt’s now classic experiments [on quail and pheasants] have now established the fact that exposure to DDT, even when doing no observable harm to the birds, may seriously affect reproduction. Quail into whose diet DDT was introduced throughout the breeding season survived and even produced normal numbers of fertile eggs. But few of the eggs hatched.”

Activist organizations like the Sierra Club and the World Wildlife Fund quickly jumped aboard Carson’s bandwagon of doom; within a few years, they would be joined by other, likeminded groups such as Greenpeace and the Environmental Defense Fund (the latter of which asserted that “[c]hronic low dose DDT exposure is associated with premature birth and low birth-weight in babies who were exposed before birth, and with decreased duration of milk supply in nursing mothers”). Some of these groups initiated lawsuits seeking to ban the use of DDT and pressuring the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to hold hearings on the subject.

Also echoing Carson’s nightmarish prognostications was the biologist Paul Ehrlich, who wrote: “The Department of Health, Education and Welfare announced studies which showed unequivocally that increasing death rates from hypertension, cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer, and a series of other diseases has resulted from the chlorinated hydrocarbon load. They estimated that Americans born since 1946 [when DDT usage was becoming widespread] now had a life expectancy of only 49 years, and predicted that if current patterns continued, this expectancy would reach 42 years by 1980, when it might level out.”

Notwithstanding the warnings of people like Ehrlich, Carson, and spokesmen for the aforementioned environmentalist organizations, DDT continued to be used widely to combat malaria throughout the 1960s. By 1967 the disease was eradicated from all developed countries where it previously had been endemic—most notably large regions of Latin America and tropical Asia. Typical was the case of Taiwan, where the incidence of malaria plummeted from more than a million cases in 1945, to a mere 9 cases in 1969.

Despite spectacular success stories such as these, Carson and her fellow environmental activists continued to warn of DDT’s dangers and to make a case for a worldwide ban on the pesticide’s use. Their persistence eventually paid some dividends when DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972. That ban was due, in large measure, to the influence of then-EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus, an attorney with close ties to the Environmental Defense Fund.

It is noteworthy that two years before he outlawed the pesticide, Ruckelshaus (in an August 31, 1970 U.S. Court of Appeals hearing) had stated unequivocally that “DDT has an amazing an exemplary record of safe use, does not cause a toxic response in man or other animals, and is not harmful. Carcinogenic claims regarding DDT are unproven speculation.”

Yet by the time he delivered a May 2, 1971 address to the Audubon Society, Ruckelshaus was professing considerable skepticism about the safety of DDT: “As a member of the Society, myself, I was highly suspicious of this compound, to put it mildly. But I was compelled by the facts to temper my emotions … because the best scientific evidence available did not warrant such a precipitate action. However, we in the EPA have streamlined our administrative procedures so we can now suspend registration of DDT and the other persistent pesticides at any time during the period of review.”

After the Environmental Defense Fund and the Audubon Society jointly filed a lawsuit demanding that the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the EPA place a ban on DDT, Ruckelshaus ordered a hearing to consider precisely that course of action.

After seven months of hearings in 1971, which produced 125 witnesses and 9,362 pages of testimony, EPA Judge Edmund Sweeney concluded that according to the evidence: “DDT is not a carcinogenic hazard to man … is not a mutagenic or teratogenic hazard to man … [and the] use of DDT under the regulations involved here do not have a deleterious effect on freshwater fish, estuarine organisms, wild birds or other wildlife.”

But Ruckelshaus, who had never attended even a day of the EPA hearings and had never (by his own admission) read any of the transcripts of those hearings, overruled Sweeney and formally banned DDT on January 1, 1972. His decision was chiefly a consequence of his close ties to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and others in the green movement.

The DDT ban was subsequently appealed, but to no avail, as Ruckelshaus had appointed himself as the appeal judge. After the appeal had been squelched, Ruckelshaus’ obvious partisanship was on display for all to see. He began soliciting, on his personal stationery, donations on behalf of EDF: “EDF’s scientists blew the whistle on DDT by showing it to be a cancer hazard,” he gloated, “and three years later, when the dust had cleared, EDF had won.”

In an April 26, 1979 letter to American Farm Bureau Federation President Allan Grant, Ruckelshaus acknowledged that his decision to ban DDT had been rooted in concerns that were more political than environmental: “The ultimate judgment [on DDT] remains political. Decisions by the government involving the use of toxic substances are political with a small ‘p.’ In the case of pesticides in our country, the power to make this judgment has been delegated to the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.”

The American environmental movement’s campaign against DDT paved the way for other, similar efforts all over the world. In 1975, for instance, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) jointly called for a greater emphasis on alternatives to the use of DDT and other insecticides for the control of vector-borne diseases such as malaria.

Four years later the WHO announced a global strategy de-emphasizing vector-control measures for combating malaria, and focusing instead on improvements in case-detection and treatment. That is, efforts to kill the mosquitoes that transmitted malaria would be scaled back; the new approach would allow people to become infected in whatever numbers nature might dictate, and would focus chiefly on the development of more effective treatments for the disease.

In 1980 the WHO and UNEP helped create the Panel of Experts for Environmental Management for vector-borne disease control. Shortly thereafter, the WHO’s vector biology and control program (whose centerpiece had been the use of DDT and other insecticides) was eliminated entirely—for reasons of so-called “environmental” import.

During Silent Spring’s heyday in American bookshops, few readers were aware that the book was replete with errors and misrepresentations and was based, in large measure, on shoddy science. Ruckelshaus, by contrast, knew this quite well—a fact which makes his decision to ban DDT particularly worthy of condemnation.

Among the inaccuracies in Carson’s book was the author’s contention (mentioned above) that DDT had contributed significantly to the overall rise in U.S. cancer rates between 1940 and 1960. Yet Carson’s claim is definitively refuted by Centers for Disease Control data showing that cancer rates had already been rising long before the introduction of DDT in the early 1940s. Indeed, between 1900 and 1960 Americans’ cancer rates spiked mostly as a result of an increase in the use of tobacco.

Carson also contended (again, as noted above) that according to Dr. James DeWitt, the atmospheric presence of DDT and its metabolites was having a destructive effect on bird eggs and the embryos contained therein. But this was a gross misrepresentation of DeWitt’s actual findings, which were that: (a) among quail which had been fed 200 parts per million of DDT, 80 percent of their eggs hatched, compared with a nearly identical 83.9 percent of the eggs of the “control” quail that had received no exposure to DDT; and even more significantly, (b) among pheasants that had been fed high levels of DDT, more than 80 percent of their eggs hatched, as compared to a mere 57 percent among the “control” pheasants. Because these facts offered no support whatsoever for Carson’s thesis about DDT’s allegedly harmful effects on bird reproduction, she omitted them from her book.

Over the course of time, an increasing number of Americans—including many former believers—came to realize that Silent Spring contained at least as much fiction as fact. San Jose State University entomologist Dr. J. Gordon Edwards, for one, at first supported Carson but later changed his mind after discovering that she had relied heavily upon “very unscientific sources.” Edwards (who once wrote a book published by the Sierra Club) also found that even in those places where Carson had cited research of genuine scientific merit (as in the case of Dr. DeWitt’s work), she had commonly misrepresented the findings with what Edwards characterized as a “false” narrative. Said Edwards:

“They [Carson’s conclusions] did not support her contentions about the harm caused by pesticides. She was really playing loose with the facts, deliberately wording many sentences in such a way as to make them imply certain things without actually saying them, carefully omitting everything that failed to support her thesis that pesticides were bad, that industry was bad, and that any scientists who did not support her views were bad. It slowly dawned on me that Rachel Carson was not interested in the truth about those topics, and that I really was being duped, along with millions of other Americans.”

Carson’s duplicity was manifested further in her assertion that the Audubon Society’s annual bird census from 1940-1961 showed that bird populations had declined widely and precipitously. Reasoning that because these declines supposedly had begun at roughly the time when DDT spraying became widespread, she concluded that DDT itself was the cause. But as the aforementioned Dr. Edwards points out, Audubon census figures from 1940-1961 actually show the reverse of what Carson claimed; i.e., at least 26 kinds of birds became more numerous during that period. In May 1967, the Virginia Department of Agriculture Bulletin explained why:

“The phenomena of increasing bird populations during the DDT years may be due, in part, to (1) fewer blood-sucking insects and reduced spread of avian diseases (avian malaria, rickettsial-pox, avian bronchitis, Newcastle disease, encephalitis, etc); (2) more seed and fruits available for birds to eat after plant-eating insects were decimated [by DDT]; and (3) Ingestion of DDT triggers hepatic enzymes that detoxify carcinogens such as aflatoxin.”

In congressional testimony, Charles Wurster, a biologist for the Environmental Defense Fund (and someone whose sympathies, therefore, were clearly with the anti-DDT coalition), likewise noted the general abundance of birds during the DDT years—referring specifically to “increasing numbers of pheasants, quail, doves, turkeys and other game species.” Similarly, the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association of Pennsylvania noted dramatic increases in most kinds of hawks; national forest studies from Wisconsin and Michigan reported a nearly sevenfold increase in nesting osprey productivity from 1965 to 1970; and the herring gull population reportedly grew from 2,000 pairs in 1941 to 35,000 pairs in 1971. Some birds, such as blackbirds and redwings, multiplied so rapidly that they became “pests.”

Experiments on caged birds repeatedly found that exposure to DDT—at levels that were hundreds of times greater than those which birds in the wild might encounter—did not lead to significant thinning of their egg shells. A slight degree of eggshell thinning was observed among some birds that had been exposed to mega-doses of DDT, but that thinning was much less pronounced than what had been found in many natural habitats around the world where DDT had not been used. Nor was there any solid evidence that the eggshell thinning among the DDT control group was in fact due to the pesticide. Eggshell thinning can result from such variables as high levels of oil, lead, or mercury in a bird’s environment; or from phosphorus deficiency, calcium deficiency, dehydration, temperature extremes, decreased light, and stress.

Other studies have shown no correlation whatsoever between DDT exposure and eggshell thickness in pelican populations. Moreover, it was found that red-tailed hawks and golden eagles during the DDT era produced eggs whose shells were thicker than those of the eggs that these bird species had produced before the creation and use of DDT.

Just as empirical evidence discredits the notion that DDT led to a decline in bird populations, so do the facts contradict claims that the pesticide is harmful to humans and other animals. Said the director of the World Health Organization in 1969 (three years prior to the EPA’s 1972 ban on DDT):

“DDT is so safe that no symptoms have been observed among the 130,000 spraymen or the 535 million inhabitants of sprayed houses [over the past 29 years of its existence]. No toxicity was observed in the wildlife of the countries participating in the malaria campaign. Therefore WHO has no grounds to abandon this chemical which has saved millions of lives, the discontinuation of which would result in thousands of human deaths and millions of illnesses. It has served at least 2 billion people in the world without costing a single human life by poisoning from DDT. The discontinuation of the use of DDT would be a disaster to world health.”

According to Dr. Philip Butler, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Sabine Island Research Laboratory, “92 percent of DDT and its metabolites disappear” from the environment within 38 days after they have been sprayed.

In 1985 the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that “DDT has had no significant impact on human cancer patterns and is unlikely to be an important carcinogen for man at previous exposure levels, within the statistical limitations of the data.”

In 1997 the New England Journal of Medicine stated, “Our data do not support the hypothesis that exposure to [DDT] and PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyls] increases the risk of breast cancer.”

In August 1998, the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine reported: “Data from three studies in four Midwestern states [Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas] showed no strong consistent evidence for an association between exposure to DDT and risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”

In June 1999, the journal Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention stated, “Even after 20 years of follow-up, exposure to relatively high concentrations of DDE or PCBs showed no evidence of contributing to an increased risk of breast cancer.”

One long-term study examined 35 workers who, for periods ranging from 9 to 19 years, were exposed to DDT levels that were 600 times greater than those to which average Americans were exposed; no ill effects were observed.

In another study of male subjects who voluntarily ingested 35 milligrams of DDT daily for nearly two years, the subjects “developed no adverse effects.”

According to the Journal of Cancer Research and Clinical Oncology, when primates were exposed to quantities of DDT that were more than 33,000 times greater than the average daily human exposure to the pesticide (as estimated in 1969 and 1972), the results were “inconclusive with respect to a carcinogenic effect of DDT in nonhuman primates.” Another study found that exposure to DDT reduced the size of tumors in animals.

“The scientific literature does not contain even one peer-reviewed, independently replicated study linking DDT exposures to any adverse health outcome [in humans],” said Dr. Amir Attaran, a malaria expert formerly employed by the World Health Organization and currently affiliated with Harvard University’s Center for International Development.

Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Harold M. Koenig said, “As far as I know, there is no known association between DDT or any other insecticide and cancer. To categorize [Rachel] Carson’s work as research is a big stretch. It was really just hysterical speculation.”

“DDT is the best insecticide we have today for controlling malaria,” said malaria expert Dr. Donald Roberts of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. “DDT is long-acting, the alternatives are not. DDT is cheap, the alternatives are not. End of story.”

Notwithstanding such testimonials to DDT’s unparalleled effectiveness in combating malaria, the Green lobby—led by such stalwarts as the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Physicians for Social Responsibility—waged a tireless campaign aimed at banning the pesticide not only in the U.S. but everywhere on earth, all in the professed interest of protecting the natural environment.

The World Wildlife Fund, for instance, identified DDT as part of a “cocktail of highly toxic chemicals” by which animals and people could become “contaminated.” Greenpeace warned that “measurable quantities” of DDT and its metabolite DDE “are present” in human fatty tissue, blood and breast milk, and that “some researchers think DDE could be inhibiting lactation because of its estrogen-like effects and may therefore be contributing to lactation failure throughout the world” [emphasis added]. Physicians for Social Responsibility, urging “holistic” alternatives to DDT, announced that studies “suggest that DDE and possibly other organochlorines can weaken the immune systems of children, increasing their risk of developing asthma and certain infections [emphasis added].

Insisting that DDT could be replaced by alternative pesticides and by procedures such as “integrated vector management” (treating, with “environmentally sensitive” pesticides, the water sources where mosquitoes breed), environmentalists pressured countries around the globe to discontinue their use of DDT and to cut off government funding for DDT projects.

The environmentalists were joined in this effort by such entities as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the European Union, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Environment Program, and UNICEF. These aid bureaucrats warned impoverished countries whose populations were at high risk of contracting malaria, that if they continued to use DDT as the lynchpin of their anti-malaria programs, grants to their governments would be withheld.

Additional support for the environmentalist crusade against DDT came from a coterie of powerful and immensely wealthy leftist foundations, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Turner Foundation, and the Heinz family philanthropies. Like the aid bureaucrats listed in the preceding paragraph, these foundations threatened to withdraw their grants to impoverished nations if their governments were unwilling to forego the use of DDT.

Only a few nations—among them Ecuador, Mexico, and South Africa—possessed the financial resources necessary to fund their own DDT programs without the help of the aforementioned foundations and organizations. And for as long as they continued to use DDT, they remained malaria-free.

Eventually, however, a number of these nations bowed to pressures from the environmental lobby. In the 1990s, for instance, the Clinton Administration stipulated that the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement would be contingent upon Mexico’s willingness to stop its production of DDT. When Mexico ultimately agreed to abandon its DDT programs, its malaria rates increased exponentially.

South Africa, like Mexico, was able to resist the mounting pressures of the environmental lobby until 1996, at which time its Department of Health (DOH) finally relented; this DOH decision to comply with environmentalist demands was greatly influenced by the United Nations, which was threatening to cut off funding for the country’s public-health programs.

Shortly after South Africa had discontinued its use of DDT and replaced it with synthetic pyrethroid insecticides, a highly efficient malaria vector, Anopheles funestus (which had been completely eradicated from the country in the 1970s), reappeared. Within just a few years, the incidence of malaria nationwide increased more than tenfold (from 6,000 cases in 1995, to 62,000 cases in 2000). Desperate to scale back this re-emerging crisis, the South African government resumed its use of DDT in 2001 (disregarding UN warnings against such a course of action), and within months the malaria rate dropped by four-fifths.

In other nations, too, mosquitoes that previously had been vanquished by DDT quickly developed resistance to alternative pesticides; vector-management efforts failed dismally wherever they were tried. When Bolivia, for instance, yielded to international pressure and banned the use of DDT in favor of bed nets and other measures, its infection rate soared by 80 percent between 1993 and 2005. Zanzibar, Sri Lanka and other countries had similar experiences.

Notwithstanding the mountains of evidence demonstrating that there were no effective alternatives to DDT for controlling the spread of malaria, the environmental lobby continued to call for the pesticide to be outlawed everywhere in the world. UNICEF and USAID, for instance, made their loans to Eritrea—where malaria was responsible for 50 percent of all deaths—contingent upon that nation’s pledge to use the money not for DDT projects but rather for insecticide-treated bed nets, “environmental assessments,” and other “effective alternative[s]” to DDT that “could be used safely” under strict World Health Organization protocols.

Supporting this approach, the World Bank likewise demanded that Eritrea discontinue its use of DDT entirely, in favor of “chemicals or techniques that are safer for the environment and human health.” As a result of these restrictions, malaria retained its status as Eritrea’s leading cause of death.

Similarly, the Canadian government gave Ethiopia (where nearly 150,000 people were dying of malaria each year) $1.5 million to fund a “national implementation plan” compliant with the International Stockholm Convention resolution to eliminate “persistent organic pollutants” such as DDT. But this plan proved to be entirely ineffective, and Ethiopians continued to die of malaria in enormous numbers. As journalist Paul Driessen aptly put it: “In effect, then, this effort to eliminate DDT pays Ethiopia about $10 for each dead Ethiopian.”

In February 2005 the European Union (EU) warned Uganda (where up to 100,000 people were dying of malaria each year) that EU member nations would stop importing Ugandan fish, flowers and cereals if that African country were to implement a DDT program to combat the disease.

Citing environmental concerns, USAID announced that it would only promote DDT as a “measure of last resort”—a position that, according to Roger Bate (co-founder of Africa Fighting Malaria), gave the agency “carte blanche never to support” the pesticide, since it could “always claim that other methods of malaria control [had] not yet been tried.” Bate elaborated:

“While some misplaced concern for the environment and human health may be part of USAID’s reasons for refusal to fund IRS, the more significant reason is likely to be the vested interests that influence its spending plans. In 2004, USAID’s budget for malaria control stood at around … $80 million. However, the agency provides no documentation that it spends a single cent buying either insecticides or effective artemsinin drugs for malaria control. The vast majority of the agency’s budget is directed towards US-based consultants who ‘advise’ malaria control programs and conduct nebulous projects that have no clear deliverables. USAID, like most other donor agencies, is far more comfortable directing its funding to its own consultants, rather than the departments of health in the countries they are supposed to be assisting.”

A similar tendency surely guided the policy decisions of other donor agencies as well.

In 1998 the World Health Organization launched a “Roll Back Malaria” (RBM) campaign, where a consortium of aid agencies, international institutions, and environmentalist groups collaborated in an effort to reduce or eliminate the use of DDT around the world—in favor of pesticides and drugs that were known to be far less effective than DDT in terms of preventing malaria, but were reputed to be more “environmentally friendly.” Predictably, RBM was a colossal failure; the incidence of malaria infections and deaths worldwide increased by nearly 10 percent over the next seven years.

One conclusion is inescapable: the environmental movement’s insistence on banning DDT from every part of the world in the latter decades of the 20th century led to a dramatic resurgence of malaria in many places where it previously had been eradicated. Moreover, the anti-DDT campaign prevented most of Africa, where the pesticide had never before been deployed on a scale grand enough to make a difference, from taking the measures necessary to save the multitudes of people who ultimately would die of malaria on that continent year after year.

As of 2005, 500 million people around the world (approximately one-twelfth of the earth’s population) were contracting malaria on an annual basis; and each year, 2 to 3 million of them died as a result. Since the 1972 U.S. ban on DDT, more than 50 million people—about 90 percent of whom resided in sub-Saharan Africa, and most of whom were children younger than five—have died of malaria.

Said a 2002 piece in the scientific journal Nature, “more people are now infected [with malaria] than at any point in history,” with “up to half a billion cases [being reported] every year.” Anywhere from 1 to 2 million of those people died from the disease.

“The resurgence of a disease that was almost eradicated [many] years ago is a case study in the danger of putting concern for nature above concern for people,” said Nizam Ahmad, a Bangladeshi analyst who focuses on the problems that affect developing countries.

“It’s worse than it was 50 years ago,” lamented University of North Carolina malaria expert Dr. Robert Desowitz.

In the words of former Surgeon General Harold M. Koenig, “[Rachel] Carson and those who joined her in the crusade against DDT have contributed to millions of preventable deaths. Used responsibly, DDT can be quite safe for man and the environment.”

On the subject of the longstanding U.S. ban on DDT, Koenig added:

“[M]ost politicians today are more concerned about getting re-elected rather than doing what is right. [M]any of them have very poor scientific backgrounds and do not understand the impact of the policy decisions they are making [and] are not able to teach their constituents that there will be severe consequences to their decisions…. These poor public policies [i.e. prohibiting use of DDT] are being implemented because it is easier for politicians to go along with the noise coming from the hysterics rather than to learn the whole story and educate the general electorate that there are ways agents like DDT can be used safely…. [B]anning DDT worldwide is beyond ignorance, it is just plain stupid.”

The ban on DDT had enormous implications not only in terms of lives lost (and all the human misery that attended those deaths), but also in terms of the economic viability of the populations affected by the disease. Prior to the ban, DDT, by causing infectious-disease rates to decline so dramatically, had enabled developing countries to make economic strides that would not have been possible if malaria had continued to decimate their populations. As the U.S. Centers for Disease Control once put it: “The unparalleled benefits stemming from [public health] programs [in developing countries] are due almost entirely to the use of DDT. DDT provides the only safe, economically feasible eradication measure available today [that helps to promote economic development].”

According to the Dr. Roger Bate:

“Malaria perpetuates poverty by debilitating people. Unable to work, its victims cannot afford to feed themselves or their children. Sick and malnourished, they are prone to a vicious cycle of future infection and debilitation…. To break the cycle, to save lives, it is imperative that we have all the tools, including DDT, that work to help control malaria, protect health and ensure development….

“Malaria kills a few million every year,” added Bate. “Each life lost is a potential Mandela, Shakespeare, or Edison, and nothing is less reversible than death, nor more tragic than the death of a child. Hundreds of millions suffer chronic illness, which creates a painful economic burden and perpetuates poverty. This may not be the intention of those who are debating a DDT ban, but it surely will be the outcome.”

Environmental leftists traditionally have viewed the people killed by malaria as unfortunate, collateral victims of mankind’s highly necessary efforts to protect the natural environment from the alleged ravages of DDT. Some environmentalists, however, take their rationalizations in favor of the DDT ban much farther: That is, they view malaria as nature’s way of imposing a necessary check on the potential problems associated with overpopulation, and therefore as something that is not wholly undesirable.

For example, former (1969-1985) Sierra Club director Michael McCloskey said (in 1971) that his organization “wants a ban on pesticides, even in countries where DDT has kept malaria under control … [because by] using DDT, we reduce mortality rates in underdeveloped countries without the consideration of how to support the increase in populations.”

In a similar spirit, Club of Rome director Alexander King wrote in 1990: “My chief quarrel with DDT in hindsight is that it greatly added to the population problem.”

Because international aid agencies, environmentalist groups, and charitable foundations were unyielding in their refusal to advocate the use of DDT, around the turn of the 21st century several African nations that were being ravaged by malaria finally began to launch their own private efforts to combat the disease. For instance, a privately funded Indoor Residual Spraying program in the Zambian Copperbelt Province began using DDT to combat malaria. After just one spraying season, the incidence of malaria in the region had declined by half.

The success of the Zambian program influenced national malaria-control policies elsewhere in Zambia, as well as in nations like Swaziland, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Madagascar. In addition, it helped persuade South Africa to reinstitute its own (aforementioned) DDT program (in 2001).

Subsequently, these and other African nations begged the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO) to help finance similar programs on their behalf. Reluctantly the UN, which had been pushing for a worldwide ban on DDT, agreed to permit DDT spraying for health purposes; the UN also encouraged aid organizations to loosen their restrictions against the financing of such DDT programs. Even so, it would take another five years (and millions of deaths) before bureaucratic obstacles could be hurdled and DDT programs were effectively instituted. in 2000, meanwhile, the WHO approved DDT as one of 12 insecticides safe for use in indoor residual spraying.

In September 2006 the WHO announced that it would thenceforth actively support indoor spraying of the chemical “not only in epidemic areas but also in areas with constant and high malaria transmission, including throughout Africa.” “The scientific and programmatic evidence clearly supports this reassessment,” said Dr. Anarfi Asamoa-Baah, WHO assistant director-general for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. “DDT presents no health risk when used properly.” Elaborating on this theme, the WHO issued a statement asserting that DDT “provides the most effective, cheapest, and safest means of abating and eradicating” infectious diseases like malaria and typhus, which “may have killed half of all the people that ever lived.”

In short order, environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club, the World Wildlife Fund, Environmental Defense, and Greenpeace likewise accepted the stubborn reality that DDT, on balance, could help alleviate a great deal of human suffering. As Greenpeace spokesman Rick Hind told the New York Times, “If there’s nothing else [besides DDT] and it’s going to save lives, we’re all for it. Nobody’s dogmatic about it.”

This change of heart was too little, too late. The longstanding, uncompromising, inflexible dogmas of Mr. Hind’s organization and others on the environmental Left had already condemned at least 50 million innocent people to death in three-and-a-half decades.

Author: John Perazzo, 2009

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