An Environmental Failure: Restrictions on DDT

Posted: Apr 22, 2008 2:40 PM
An Environmental Failure: Restrictions on DDT

I might take the environmental movement seriously if it weren’t responsible for millions of deaths. On Tuesday, the world observed Earth Day—a celebration of the movement’s alleged successes, one of which is worldwide restrictions on the insecticide DDT.

Environmentalists in the U.S. and Europe might be congratulating themselves for nearly ridding the Earth of DDT, but the people of South America, Asia and Africa are not celebrating. They need DDT to ward off malaria, a mosquito-borne infection that thrives in tropical climates and is often lethal, especially to children and pregnant women. One million inhabitants of third-world countries die of malaria every year thanks to environmentalist junk science.

When DDT was first mass-produced in 1939, it was regarded as a miraculous life-saver on the level of penicillin. Malaria—which had once plagued Europe and the U.S. as well as the tropics—was well on its way to being eradicated. During World War II, soldiers and concentration camp survivors were doused with it. DDT was considered so essential that its first producer, Dr. Paul Muller, won the Nobel Prize in 1948. As the National Academy of Sciences declared, "To only a few chemicals does man owe as great a debt as to DDT...In little more than two decades, DDT has prevented 500 million human deaths, due to malaria, that otherwise would have been inevitable."

But this life-saving chemical had yet to face the environmental movement. In 1962, Rachel Carson (whom Al Gore counts among his inspirations), wrote a book titled Silent Spring, which blamed DDT for killing birds and causing human diseases. The book launched a massive propaganda campaign against DDT.

The environmentalists were determined not to let facts stand in their way. Although several studies showed that DDT had no harmful effects on humans and was not responsible for wildlife deaths (in fact, several endangered bird populations flourished during the years when DDT was most widely used), an EPA bureaucrat who had not attended a single hearing on DDT decided to ban it anyway. Environmental groups then pressured the government to ban exports from countries that continued to use DDT—which has brought about a malaria epidemic in the third world, especially in Africa, where 90 percent of infections occur. These countries are facing mass death and economic devastation because environmentalists in the West are worried that DDT will cause cancer and kill the birds.

Under threat of trade sanctions from the West, African nations have been forced to use less effective and more expensive methods to fight the malaria epidemic, such as mosquito-repellent bed nets—which, according to World Health Organization estimates, have about a 50 percent success rate. (Countries that have reintroduced DDT, such as South Africa, have found it has a 90 percent success rate.) In any event, the DDT alternatives don’t seem to be doing much good: Every year, up to 300 million Africans get malaria, and it costs the continent’s economies billions in medical expenses and lost work days.

The situation was so dire that, in 2006, the World Health Organization announced its support for indoor DDT spraying in countries ravaged by malaria, saying the chemical had “a clean bill of health” and any possible negative effects of DDT did not outweigh its benefits. The usual suspects went nuts. As the environmentalist group the Sierra Club whined, “Studies have linked widespread reproductive disorders in animals to DDT exposure—including reproductive failure in the American Bald Eagle.” This is what happens when people start rating wildlife more worthwhile than human life.

As for DDT’s effect on humans, the claim that it causes cancer has never been proven. Some studies show a link, especially in agricultural workers who were exposed to large amounts of DDT as well as other chemicals. Others, such as one conducted by Dr. David J. Hunter of the Harvard Medical School, have found none at all. One study by the National Cancer Institute found that DDT actually reduced tumors in animals.

Others, such as writer Paul Driessen, describe the fear of DDT as a “country club anxiety,” a luxury of rich Westerners who can afford organic foods and all-natural cosmetics and clothing. They will never contract malaria. Meanwhile, Africans—many of whom are lucky to afford any food at all—have made it clear that they’re willing to accept the risk of potential side effects if it means avoiding the very real threat of malaria. Two weeks ago, Uganda initiated a program to spray houses with DDT, even though it will probably hurt their trade with the U.S. and the European Union. As Ugandan businesswoman Fiona Kobusingye told reporters, “I lost my son, two sisters and two nephews to malaria. Don’t talk to me about birds. And don’t tell me a little DDT in our bodies is worse than the risk of losing more children to this disease. African mothers would be overjoyed if that were their biggest worry.”

I’m not saying the environmental movement is entirely without merit. Nor am I a “global warming denier” or a person who believes in messing up the environment just for fun. But a movement that values a bird’s life over a human life is hard to accept and even harder to respect.