DDT vs. Death by Malaria

Robert J. Cihak, M.D.
April 28, 2004

The pervasive superstition that DDT is utterly noxious remains immune to scientific evidence to the contrary. These myths are much more persistent in some minds than DDT is in the environment.

That DDT prevented 500 million deaths by 1970 and that the banning of its use in poor countries has resulted in millions of unnecessary deaths holds no sway with true believers in this doctrine.

Where did this myth originate?

In 1962 Rachel Carson published "Silent Spring," arguably the most important American book since "Uncle Tom's Cabin" kicked off the Civil War. "Silent Spring," with its apocalyptic claims of the effects of the insecticide DDT, became a founding tract of the environmentalist movement.

Many of her claims are now known to be the result of sloppy science, or worse. But the superstition that DDT is always and forever evil persists in too many minds, along with murderous disregard for its life-saving properties.

In a remarkable article in the April 11 New York Times Magazine, "What the World Needs Now Is DDT," Tina Rosenberg, a Times editorial writer, describes how DDT should be used more extensively in Africa, and points out why it is not. She writes:

"... South Africa is beating the disease with a simple remedy: spraying the inside walls of houses in affected regions once a year. ... [S]prayed in tiny quantities inside houses - the only way anyone proposes to use it today - DDT is most likely not harmful to people or the environment. Certainly, the possible harm from DDT is vastly outweighed by its ability to save children's lives."

So, why is DDT not being used in this benign manner, let alone more aggressively against malarial mosquito breeding areas? The answer: Wealthy Western funders won't allow it. And they won't allow it because of a combination of outdated science and pseudo-science, coupled with a truly breathtaking faux morality.

Ms. Rosenberg notes "wealthy countries' fear of a double standard" and quotes E. Anne Peterson, assistant administrator for global health at the U.S. Agency for International Development:

"For us to be buying and using in another country something we don't allow in our own country raises the specter of preferential treatment. We certainly have to think about 'What would the American people think and want?' and 'What would Africans think if we're going to do to them what we wouldn't do to our own people?'"

What would Americans want? If millions of Americans were dying from malaria, we'd be spraying DDT furiously.

This current "beggar thy neighbor" approach reflects a kind of Western imperial arrogance - and ignorance - that would rather let people suffer and die than face the fact that some secular pieties may be wrong.

But a deeper hypocrisy is involved. A wetland, it has been said (not entirely in jest), is a swamp that certain elites care about. Apparently, this holds true even when the swamp is a breeding ground for a disease that kills millions of people and when the problem can be cured without hurting the swamp; there's no limit on the ability to ignore suffering as long as banning DDT provides the swamp-lovers with their jollies.

Ms. Rosenberg notes her surprise when she reread "Silent Spring" in preparation for writing her article: "In her 297 pages, Rachel Carson never mentioned the fact that by the time she was writing, DDT was responsible for saving tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of lives."

This would be equivalent to writing a book about the horrors of penicillin poisoning, without mentioning the good it does. Carson's silence about DDT's life-saving power was irresponsible.

Even today, true believes ignore the testimony and scientific evidence presented by real scientists. J. Gordon Edwards, Ph.D., Emeritus Professor of Biological Sciences at San Jose State University, testified at the 1971-1972 EPA hearings on DDT when the EPA was considering its dreadful blanket DDT ban. He has been telling the truth about DDT ever since. For many more scientific facts and demystified myths (see 100 things you should know about DDT ).

Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" launched the modern environmental movement by spinning tales about the intricacy and inter-connectedness of ecosystems in a way that laypersons could grasp. This might have been good if it hadn't been linked with false dogmas that have proven utterly disastrous, such as the myth that human beings are destroying the planet with DDT.

The truth is that discriminating use of DDT kills mosquitoes and eradicates malaria wherever it's adequately used. It does not destroy our environment; it saves lives. It's time to let go of a phony belief system lethal to millions of less-affluent humans elsewhere.

Robert J. Cihak, M.D., is a Senior Fellow and Board Member of the Discovery Institute and a past president of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons.

Reproduced with the permission of All rights reserved.

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30 apr 2004