October 5, 2006


The Revival of a Notorious Solution to a Notorious Scourge (TINA ROSENBERG, 10/05/06, NY Times)

DDT was the most important insecticide in the eradication of malaria in the United States, and in malaria control in southern Europe, Asia and Latin America. With DDT, malaria cases in Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, dropped from 2.8 million in 1946 to 17 in 1963.

But Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring” documented how DDT, sprayed over crops and over cities, built up in the ecosystem, killing birds and fish. William Ruckleshaus, the first head of the Environmental Protection Agency, banned DDT in 1972 for all but emergencies.

This was the right decision — for the United States. Malaria was no longer an issue, and Washington needed to ensure that it would not be used on crops. But the decision had deadly consequences overseas. “If I were a decision maker in Sri Lanka, where the benefits from use outweigh the risks, I would decide differently,” Mr. Ruckleshaus told me in 2004. “It’s not up to us to balance risks and benefits for other people.”

Yes, except that Africa’s malaria programs are financed by donors and vetted by the world’s health establishment, which is dominated and financed by the United States and Europe, where DDT is also banned. People in rich countries felt it would be perceived as hypocritical to push a product in poor countries that they had banned at home. Even malariologists who knew DDT could be used safely dared not recommend it.

The United States, which used DDT irresponsibly to wipe out malaria, ended up blocking much poorer and sicker countries from using it responsibly. Under American pressure, several Latin American countries that had controlled malaria stopped using DDT — and in most of them, malaria cases soared.

Meanwhile, environmentalists are so anti-human that it's hard to accept on faith that they didn't see maintaining malaria as a means of population control.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 5, 2006 7:55 AM

First hand account that DDT isn't banned in France, at least in Montpellier and surrounding beaches.

Posted by: erp at October 5, 2006 10:04 AM

This is really misleading. DDT was extremely effective in Sri Lanka through 1963 (and beyond, in fact), as mentioned. Subsequently, the bugs developed resistance and malaria returned in force, despite continued spraying with DDT through the early 1970s. The new epidemic was beaten back only when the authorities switched to the more expensive malathion. The worldwide "ban," such as it was, was completely irrelevant in Sri Lanka, as it was in many other locales.

The situation may have been different in Africa, where large-scale DDT spraying wasn't pursued as systematically as it was elsewhere, and so resumption of DDT spraying there may be effective today. But when the reporting is so uninformed and/or dishonest in at least one respect, I have little trust in the others.

As always, the argument is about scoring political points, and hasn't even a peripheral relationship to the reality on the ground.

Posted by: M. at October 5, 2006 10:17 AM

The reality being that it's effective with no side effects.

Posted by: oj at October 5, 2006 11:21 AM

Massive overdosage -- 100X the needed amount or more -- mainly happened in the US. It does not absolve Carson's misinformed/dishonest reporting nor its impact on generations of African children.

Bans in US/Europe create de facto bans in 3rd world countries (current example: GM crops).

Posted by: Gideon at October 5, 2006 1:26 PM

How many people overdosed on DDT?

Posted by: oj at October 5, 2006 1:32 PM

Back in the 50's we used to ride our bikes behind the trucks spraying the stuff so we could ride through the fog. Probably explains a lot of things :-)

Posted by: jdkelly at October 5, 2006 2:56 PM

jd, my boys did that too and they seem not to have suffered by it.

Posted by: erp at October 5, 2006 5:25 PM