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."
But Judge Sweeney was summarily overruled by Nixon EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus, who, after not attending a single hour of the hearing and reportedly not reading the transcript either, nonetheless decided to ban DDT. Perhaps the Nixon Administration thought the ban would get the environmentalists off their backs. Instead, junk science was emboldened and millions would be put on their backs by diseases — malaria top among them — that are best controlled through DDT.
Not surprisingly, the U.S. ban led to a de facto worldwide ban, with USAID and the World Health Organization moving away from DDT to more expensive insecticides and drugs to treat malaria. These other methods do not work as well and their expense is a not unimportant factor for impoverished countries in Africa.
Now, European countries are even threatening to embargo agricultural products from countries that use DDT to control malaria. This has Ugandans debating whether to risk losing much of their international market for agricultural products in order to use DDT, or whether to let more people die of malaria in order to keep that market open.
"Even if we do not use DDT," said Agriculture Minister Janat Mukwaya, "Uganda might lose the international market to China as our people continue to die from malaria."
Dead men don't raise crops.
DDT use in South Africa and other African countries has been controversial, but the results have not — reductions of 75 and 80 percent in the number of malaria cases and deaths. Author and physician Michael Critchton told San Francisco's Commonwealth Club in 2003 that the de facto ban on DDT use in malaria control "has killed more people than Hitler."
Yes, DDT can save lives. But it isn't politic. So while the U.S. and Europe have escaped the ravages of malaria through the internal residential spraying of DDT, some continue to promote policies that deny DDT use to Africans and Asians. In effect, it is a death sentence for millions, made for political reasons, without any basis in science.
If U.S. taxpayers are to fund programs ostensibly designed to save lives, those programs ought to use methods that actually work. That's just common sense.
Your Senator has the power to mandate that our aid include the use of indoor residential spraying of DDT, which would save millions of lives. But time is limited: the congressional decisions on the allocation of funds for malaria control must be made in the coming weeks. Furthermore, the treaty on Persistent Organic Pollutants signed by the Bush Administration in 2001 has not yet been ratified by the U.S. Senate. That ratification should not come without explicit legislation tying our aid monies to the use of DDT to kill and repel malarial mosquitoes.
Please take just a moment right now to contact your Senators (and the President) if you agree that this money should go to saving lives — and not be squandered on the altar of junk science or the cowardly politics of 30 years ago.
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