Commentary: DDT Is the Only Real Weapon for Combating Malaria

Published December 1, 2005

During the few minutes you spend reading this article, malaria will kill six Africans and sicken about 3,000 more, mostly children and pregnant women–a rate of more than one million deaths annually and 500 million illnesses overall among the 2.2 billion people who live in malarial regions, such as much of Africa.

There’s legislation moving through the U.S. Senate right now intended to reduce this tragic toll.

Current Approaches Fail

U.S. taxpayers spend about $200 million annually on malaria control efforts. Ironically, almost none of this money is spent to kill or repel the mosquitoes that spread disease. The money is instead spent on anti-malarial drugs and insecticide-treated bed nets that aren’t very effective.

Bed nets are often torn. They are uncomfortable on hot African nights and may get kicked off. Anti-malarial drugs are in short supply. The U.S. Agency for International Development hopes to have 55 million pediatric doses for 2006–leaving the other 445 million people on their own to battle against malaria without any drugs.

Although researchers are working to develop an anti-malarial vaccine, there is little prospect for one in the next 10 years.

It’s a grim reality, but it doesn’t have to be. We have the technology to make a large dent in this tragedy, if only we could rid ourselves of the most infamous environmentalist myth of all time, our irrational fear of the insecticide DDT.

“Getting rid of malaria in Africa is just as critical to [the continent’s] future as eradicating malaria, yellow fever, and hookworm was vital to economic progress in the Southern United States,” Paul Driessen, senior policy advisor at the Congress of Racial Equality, said. “If people are sick, they can’t work, attend school, or cultivate their crops and certainly can’t be at 100 percent. If other people have to stay home to care for them, they can’t be productive, either.”

Fears Unwarranted

As discussed in’s “100 Things You Should Know About DDT,” the Rachel Carson-Silent Spring-inspired campaign against DDT was utterly detached from reality. Contrary to Carson’s claims, DDT did not cause declines in populations of great birds such as the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon. These bird populations were threatened before DDT had even been invented, thanks to over-hunting, habitat destruction, and egg collectors.

The bird populations rebounded, in fact, during the period of the greatest use of DDT.

No scientific experiment has ever shown that typical levels of DDT found in the environment cause the thinning of bird egg shells–a mechanism by which DDT was alleged to have harmed birds. While a host of natural and artificial factors have been scientifically identified as potentially contributing to egg shell-thinning, typical environmental levels of pesticide residues aren’t among them.

DDT also has never been credibly linked with cancer or non-cancer health effects in humans.

What really drove that point home to me was a recent visit to the Imperial War Museum in London, where I saw a display about the DDT delousing that was done to liberated World War II concentration camp victims. DDT was used to save their lives, and despite the extremely fragile state of their health during such use, no ill effects among the survivors have been attributed to DDT in the medical literature.

Politics Trumps Science

DDT was ultimately banned in the United States in 1972 because of politics, not science. For no stated reason, EPA Administrator William Ruckleshaus overruled a finding of DDT’s safety by an EPA administrative law judge. Evidence was later discovered identifying Ruckleshaus as a fundraiser for the Environmental Defense Fund–the activist group spearheading the anti-DDT campaign.

Of course, by the time Ruckleshaus banned DDT, malaria in the United States and Europe had essentially been eradicated, so the insecticide was no longer needed. Although DDT also was used–some say overused–in U.S. agriculture, economical substitutes could be had.

But there is no economical substitute for DDT when it comes to preventing malaria in poorer regions of the world. Other chemicals are too expensive and don’t work as well for the sort of widespread spraying needed to control mosquitoes in Africa. While DDT has not been officially banned in Africa, its use is discouraged by limited production and cumbersome environmentalist-designed rules on use and handling.

The European Union, which environmentalists often lead by the nose, has even threatened a ban on agricultural imports from countries that use DDT.

DDT Results Spectacular

But when DDT is available, the results are nothing short of spectacular. Indoor spraying with DDT, for example, reduced malaria cases and deaths by nearly 75 percent in Zambia over a two-year period and by 80 percent in South Africa in just one year. DDT works like nothing else–there’s simply no doubt about it.

A bill in Congress (currently it’s known as the Senate version of H.R. 3057) would reform the U.S. Agency for International Development so that insecticides like DDT could be added to the arsenal for fighting malaria. President Bush announced in July that U.S. taxpayers would spend $1.2 billion for world malaria control over the next five years.

Rather than wasting that money on ineffective bed nets and anti-malaria drugs, and then repeating such futility in another five years, let’s spend it on DDT and get the job done now.

Steven Milloy publishes and is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. This article first appeared on Milloy’s Web site and is reprinted with permission.