DDT Key to Third World’s War on Malaria

Published July 1, 2001

Some one million African, Asian, and Latin American lives could be saved annually by the substance blamed for the near-extinction of the bald eagle. The Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) Treaty, which the U.S. signed in Stockholm May 23, will ban a “Dirty Dozen” chemicals, but permit limited use of DDT. Given what Secretary of State Colin Powell calls the “dire humanitarian need for DDT,” he and other American officials should work to keep DDT available to malaria-plagued Third World nations.

The Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT, a powerful pesticide, in 1972. Scientists discovered that female bald eagles, ospreys, and peregrine falcons exposed to DDT laid eggs with thin shells that broke during incubation. Absent DDT, eggshells strengthened anew, and America’s national symbol—and other birds—slowly but surely flourished.

While the bald eagle has soared, mosquitoes buzz freely, thanks to environmentalists and foreign aid bureaucrats who have campaigned against DDT abroad. These less-charismatic flying creatures spread malaria, thus sickening and killing millions of people in underdeveloped nations. As the Tanzanian chairman of Malaria Foundation International, Dr. Wenceslaus Kilama, put it, malaria’s human toll “is like loading up seven Boeing 747 airliners each day, then deliberately crashing them into Mt. Kilimanjaro.”

Beyond these deaths, malaria contributes to Africa’s economic devastation. Medical anthropologist P.J. Brown coined the phrase “Malaria Blocks Development” to summarize the cost of employees too weak to work, relatives taking time off to care for them, and the expense of treating the sick and burying the dead. According to Harvard development expert Jeffrey Sachs, malaria cuts potential growth in half in some countries. Sachs further estimates that had malaria been eradicated in sub-Saharan Africa in 1965, the region’s economy would be one-third larger today.

DDT successfully battled malaria between the end of World War II and 1970, saving more than 500 million lives, the National Academy of Sciences reports. Malaria deaths in India, for instance, plunged from about one million in 1945 to a few thousand in 1960.

But a decade later, American and international environmental aid agencies pressured the African, Asian, and Latin nations to abandon DDT, fearing its widespread use would endanger wildlife. The U.S. Agency for International Development successfully pushed Belize not to dump DDT. Norway’s and Sweden’s aid agencies have done likewise in Mozambique, among other nations.

This DDT-phobia ignores two important points:

First, DDT is the cheapest and most effective method for killing mosquitoes. As environmental economists Roger Bate and Richard Tren estimated in a report for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, DDT substitutes cost between 67 percent more (for Deltamethrin) to 334 percent more (for Cyfluthrin). While wealthy countries like the U.S. can afford such insecticides, the destitute nations that compose malaria’s killing fields lack that luxury.

Second, there is no need to drop DDT from crop dusters on acres of farms, as Americans once did. Instead, small amounts of DDT applied in dwellings and indoor gathering areas will suffice. “You could spray all the at-risk homes in Guyana for a year with the same amount you would have used once on a 10-acre cotton field in the 1950s,” according to Dr. Bate.

Bate, chairman of the Save Children from Malaria Campaign, considers the POPs treaty “mildly harmful.” Nations permitted to use DDT must keep records and file reports on its deployment.

“The reporting requirements are not onerous by Western standards,” Bate says, “but for a country like Zambia or Mozambique—where the annual health budgets are less than $5 per person—anything that increases bureaucratic costs by even five cents becomes significant.”

DDT has suffered from environmentalists’ sincere concerns as well as the denunciations of eco-radicals, some of whom see disease outbreaks as cost-effective means of population control. In a museum-grade example of that mindset, the Environmental Defense Fund’s former chief scientist, Dr. Charles Wurster, once was asked if he worried that banning DDT in Sri Lanka might unleash a malaria epidemic.

“Probably—so what?” Wurster replied. “People are the cause of all the problems. We have too many of them. We need to get rid of some of them, and this is as good a way as any.”

The Bush administration deserves credit for avoiding a total global ban on DDT. It should encourage America’s allies to allow poor countries greater access to DDT so they can put malaria behind them and move on.

Deroy Murdock is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a senior fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in Fairfax, Virginia.

For more information . . .

on the economics and effectiveness of DDT versus alternative mosquito-fighting pesticides, visit http://www.fightingmalaria.org.