Each year, malaria ravages the lives of 500 million people worldwide, causing more than a million deaths, most of them children, mostly in Africa. But not in the United States. We suffer only a handful of malaria deaths each year. That wasn't always the case, though.
In the early years of the last century, there were counties in the U.S. with higher rates of malaria mortality than Freetown, Sierra Leone in Africa. Then, in the late 1940s, a chemical agent called dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane — or DDT for short — was used inside millions of American homes to eradicate malarial mosquitoes, the no-good critters that carry the disease. Malaria is no longer a significant problem in our country.
Now, each year, the U.S. government spends $200 million to help prevent malaria in the rest of the world, primarily in Africa and Asia. That's mighty nice of us. But none of the money goes for the inside residential spraying of DDT that allowed Americans to get a handle on the spread of the disease.
This summer President Bush announced a new five-year $1.2 billion effort to prevent malaria abroad. But, again, no money for DDT.
DDT was banned in the United States by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) back in 1972. Rachel Carson's 1962 book, Silent Spring, argued that agricultural use of DDT was harming birds and other wildlife. The book touched off the environmental movement and served as the key catalyst in banning DDT, giving junk science one of its first big victories. (By the way, you can get a copy of Carson's book with a spiffy introduction from former Vice-President Al Gore.)
The problem is that Carson's scary conclusions are not backed up scientifically.
The scare-mongering on DDT led to extensive hearings on the chemical agent in 1971 and 1972. After the hearings, EPA Administrative Law Judge Edmund Sweeney concluded, "DDT is not a carcinogenic hazard to man . . . DDT is not a mutagenic or teratogenic hazard to man. . . . 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."