Amazingly, there's no evidence that all this spraying hurt people. It killed mosquitoes. (DDT also kills bedbugs, which are now making a comeback.) It did cause some harm, however. It threatened bird populations by thinning eggshells. In 1962, the book "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson made the damage famous and helped create our fear of chemicals. The book raised some serious questions about the use of DDT, but the legitimate nature of those questions was lost in the media feeding frenzy that followed. DDT was a "Killer Chemical," and the press was off on another fear campaign. DDT was banned.
But fear campaigns kill people, too. DDT is a great pesticide. The amount was the reason for the DDT problems. We sprayed far more than is needed to prevent the spread of malaria. It's sprayed on walls, and one spraying will keep mosquitoes at bay for half a year. It's a very efficient malaria fighter. But today, DDT is rarely used. America's demonization of it caused others to shun it. And while the U.S. government spends tax money fighting malaria in Africa, it refuses to put that money into DDT. It might save lives, but it might offend environmentalist zealots and create political fallout.
DDT was banned in America after we started celebrating Earth Day. Environmentalists made a lot of claims then -- I have an amusing clip of an environmentalist exclaiming, "You are breathing probably the last of the oxygen!" Soon after that the environmentalists mounted their campaign against DDT. The result? A huge resurgence of malaria, more than 50 million dead, mostly children.
"If it's a chemical, it must be bad," said scientist Amir Attaran. "If it's DDT, it must be awful. And that's fine if you're a rich, white environmentalist. It's not so fine if you're a poor black kid who is about to lose his life from malaria."
Attaran is leading a campaign of hundreds of scientists urging the use of DDT to combat malaria. It's needed especially in Africa, he says, because malaria kills thousands there every day. "If I were to characterize what USAID does on malaria," he said, "I'd call it medical malpractice, I would call it murderous."