Is the DDT ban intended to control global population?

Published April 1, 2001

The number of malaria cases in Sri Lanka plummeted from 2.8 million in 1948 to just 17 in 1963, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. In India, deaths from malaria fell from 750,000 per year to 1,500 a year over that period.

The reason? Widespread use of the insecticide DDT.

In 1972, though, the Environmental Protection Agency banned all uses of DDT in the United States and in any nation receiving U.S. aid. Within just six years, 800 million cases of malaria and 8.2 million malaria deaths per year were reported in countries affected by EPA’s ban.

New drugs and pesticides have reduced the death toll to 2.7 million a year. The tens of millions who suffer from, but are not killed by, this brutal, debilitating disease experience relapses for years, draining not only their strength but their nations’ medical and economic resources as well.

In response, many countries are turning once again to DDT, prompting the World Wildlife Fund and other environmental groups to demand a permanent, inflexible, global ban on this life-saving pesticide. At best, their campaign suggests a painfully callous indifference to the devastating impact the ban would have on our world’s most destitute, most disease-ridden people.

No alternative as effective

The anti-DDT environmentalists claim countries with malaria problems can just use other pesticides. But the alternatives are far more expensive, and far less effective. As Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, South Africa, and other countries have learned from bitter experience, DDT is the only chemical that really works.

Malaria rates soared when Brazil and Peru stopped using DDT in the 1990s. (Peru is the same country that banned chlorinated drinking water, at EPA’s suggestion, only to suffer thousands of deaths from cholera.) Ecuador slashed its malaria rate by expanding its own DDT program during the same period. The disease reached epidemic proportions in South Africa; when it reversed its anti-DDT policy, it reversed that trend.

Environmental impact minimal

Contrary to what the WWF claims (and many journalists report), DDT’s environmental effects are minimal. No longer is the chemical sprayed over vast areas; simply spraying small amounts on the indoor walls of homes not only kills, but actually repels, malaria-bearing mosquitoes. All of the homes in an entire tropical country can be treated with the amount of DDT that once might have been used on a single farm.

Studies have also shown that, properly used, DDT does not pose serious health risks to humans. It breaks down under natural environmental conditions much more quickly than was once thought.

For healthy, wealthy countries like Europe and the United States, banning DDT has few detrimental effects–even if we still go into panic mode over a half-dozen deaths from the West Nile virus. But as PERC environmental policy expert Indur Goklany notes, a one-size-fits-all global policy makes absolutely no sense for countries where malaria is still epidemic.

One way to control population

Indeed, the proposed DDT ban would be a disastrous example of eco-imperialism at its lethal worst. It calls to mind Britain’s serial killer known as Dr. Death, who killed over 200 patients, because (in the words of the prosecuting attorney) it reinforced his “godlike belief that he had power over life and death.”

Dr. Charles Wurster, former chief scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, was once asked if he thought a ban on DDT might result in the use of more dangerous chemicals and more malaria cases in Sri Lanka. He replied, “Probably–so what? 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.”

His views are hardly atypical. According to Earthbound, a collection of essays on so-called environmental ethics, “Massive human diebacks would be good. It is our duty to cause them. It is our species’ duty, relative to the whole, to eliminate 90 percent of our numbers.”

Former National Park Service research biologist David Graber famously remarked, “We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth. Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.”

“If radical environmentalists were to invent a disease to bring human populations back to sanity, it would probably be something like AIDS,” reads a 1989 Earth First! newsletter. “It has the potential to end industrialism, which is the main force behind the environmental crisis.”

Lung diseases affect some 30 million people in developing nations every year, according to the World Health Organization; water-borne diseases like dysentery kill 10 million annually, half of them infants and children. These diseases are readily preventable, and unheard-of here in the West. They are due to the virtual absence of electricity and clean water–problems readily addressed by the construction of hydroelectric dams.

But radical environmentalists adamantly oppose this. Lisa Jordan, director of London’s Bank Information Centre, says dams “change the path of rivers and kill little creatures along their banks.” Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth, dismisses concerns about human deaths by saying “dams serve only greed,” and people in developing countries “simply cannot expect to have the material lifestyle of the average American.”

Recall too that these same environmental interest groups rail constantly about how global warming will cause an increase in malaria–itself a specious argument. For them to demand that DDT be banned is simply disingenuous and hypocritical.

Time for accountability

Earth First! founder David Foreman once offered this suggestion for dealing with famines in Ethiopia: “The worst thing we could do is to give aid . . . the best thing would be to just let nature seek its own balance, to let the people there just starve.”

Have such misanthropic views ever been condemned, repudiated, criticized, or even questioned by Foreman’s environmentalist colleagues?

The time has come for the environmental interest groups to be subjected to the same public scrutiny and accountability they demand from industry and private citizens.

Paul Driessen is principal of Global-Comm Partners, a Fairfax, Virginia public policy and public relations firm. He is also a senior fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow.