New York Times Calls for Return of DDT

Published February 1, 2003

By virtually all accounts, the New York Times is one of the most liberal mainstream newspapers in the United States. That is why a house editorial in the December 22 edition has created quite a stir.

“The world is losing the war against malaria,” states the Times‘ unnamed editorial writer. “Malaria today kills more than a million people a year in Africa alone. One reason is that wealthy nations have limited the use of one of the best weapons, a pesticide that once saved hundreds of millions of lives.”

That weapon is DDT.

“Very little DDT is needed to spray houses twice a year,” added the Times. “The evidence about DDT’s effects on humans is inconclusive. The uncertainties must be weighed against a demonstrated effectiveness in fighting a disease that now kills 1 in 20 African children. DDT also costs one-quarter the price of the alternative, pyrethroids.”

Until an effective substitute for DDT is found, argues the Times, “wealthy nations should be helping poor countries with all available means–including DDT.”

A Life-Saving Chemical

During World War II, American scientists adapted a Swiss moth-killing chemical into the single most effective weapon ever invented in the war against mosquitoes. The development and widespread use of DDT saved millions of lives worldwide and won its inventor a Nobel Prize.

In the 1960s and 1970s, however, public relations campaigns launched by anti-chemical activist groups scapegoated DDT for such alleged harms as cancer in humans and weakened egg shells and declining bird populations. Scientific research discredited those claims. An EPA administrative law judge held as much shortly before the agency nevertheless gave in to special-interest pressure and banned DDT in 1972.

“DDT is not a carcinogenic hazard to man,” concluded the judge after seven months of hearings and 9,000 pages of testimony. “DDT is not a mutagenic or teratogenic hazard to man. … The use of DDT under the regulations involved here does not have a deleterious effect on freshwater fish, estuarine organisms, wild birds, or other wildlife.”

The EPA judge’s conclusions followed directly on the heels of a report by the National Academy of Sciences, which concluded: “To only a few chemicals does man owe as great a debt as to DDT. … [I]n a little more than two decades, DDT has prevented 500 million deaths due to malaria that otherwise would have been inevitable.”

DDT Still Needed

Although the use of DDT effectively eliminated malaria in the United States and other developed countries before falling victim to environmental activist groups, the children of third-world countries have not been so lucky. With DDT use limited by pressure from environmental activist groups, 1 in every 20 children dies from malaria in sub-Sahara Africa, according to Steven Milloy, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.

Malaria and other previously defeated diseases are returning to the U.S. in the absence of DDT spraying. “About 1,200 cases of malaria are diagnosed in the U.S. each year,” noted Henry Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, “and it won’t be long until West Nile virus infections far exceed that level.”

“The practices of environmental advocacy groups are seriously degrading public health capabilities in the United States. Our public health threats are real, and growing,” said Donald Roberts, professor of tropical public health at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.

It’s one thing for scientists to rebut the claims of anti-pesticide activist groups; it’s quite another for the New York Times to do so.

“Today, malaria control relies mainly on insecticide-treated bed nets and drugs, most of which have lost effectiveness as malaria grows resistant,” states the New York Times. “DDT, which is sprayed on the inside walls of houses twice a year, is used in only about 24 countries. Wealthy nations that banned DDT at home will not pay for its use elsewhere. But the poorest nations depend on such donations. America used DDT to eradicate malaria, as did southern Europe and India.”

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.

For more information …

on DDT and malaria, see articles in back issues of Environment & Climate News, including “DDT Key to Third World’s War on America” and several others in the July 2001 issue; and “West Nile Death March Heads West” in the October 2002 issue.

or use PolicyBot to search Heartland’s extensive collection of research and commentary on the issue. Point your Web browser to, click on the PolicyBot icon, and select the Environment – Pesticides and DDT topic.