New Year’s Day 2003 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the Environmental Protection Agency’s ban on the pesticide DDT.
With malaria striking youngsters in the Washington, DC suburbs last summer, we should remind ourselves that DDT is the most potent weapon against the mosquitoes that spread the disease. The ban was a political decision made by the EPA administrator, acting against the best scientific advice of his own organization.
Today, the United Nations Environmental Program is considering plans to ban DDT in the rest of the world, where malaria annually takes well over two million lives. Worldwide, a child dies of malaria every 30 seconds. In a remarkable departure from its usual uncritical acceptance of extreme environmental positions, the New York Times in a December 23 editorial endorsed the plea of public health specialists not to eliminate this most effective weapon against malaria. The World Health Organization, too, opposes a DDT ban.
The history of the sorry decision to ban DDT starts with Rachel Carson and her 1962 book Silent Spring. That bestseller, distorting scientific data, galvanized the environmental movement and led to extravagant claims of ecological damage by the newly founded Environmental Defense Fund, long before EDF discovered global warming was a better way to scare the public.
EDF’s claim that DDT caused the eggshells of breeding birds to thin was effectively countered by noted biologist Prof. J. Gordon Edwards of San Jose State University. It is ironic, therefore, that the unchecked spread of the mosquito-borne West Nile virus is not only killing dozens of people now but wiping out entire populations of birds that are uniquely susceptible to the virus.
In 1972, EPA hearing examiner Judge Edward Sweeney determined DDT should not be banned. He based that decision on his review of 9,000 pages of scientific testimony. “DDT is not carcinogenic, mutagenic, or teratogenic to man,” wrote Sweeney. “[U]ses of DDT do not have a deleterious effect on fish, birds, wildlife or estuarine organisms.” Later research has confirmed Sweeney’s findings.
With DDT banned, U.S. authorities attempt to control mosquitoes by less-effective insecticides that are toxic, degrade rapidly, and require repeated applications. Poor countries in Africa and elsewhere cannot afford these more costly chemicals and procedures. Millions die and many more become ill, sapping their strength and contributing to the continuing poverty of their nations. Yet even small quantities of DDT, applied to the walls of houses and to mosquito netting, can effectively control the malaria problem.
During World War II, a Brooklyn-born chemical engineer, the son of Lebanese immigrants, learned how to mass-produce DDT. Joe Jacobs turned a Swiss moth-killing chemical into a potent weapon against all kinds of disease-spreading insects, including lice and fleas, and saved the lives of millions of GIs and European refugees. A 1970 National Academy of Sciences report states: “To only a few chemicals does man owe as great a debt as to DDT. … [I]n a little more than two decades [after WW II], DDT has prevented 50 million deaths due to malaria that otherwise would have been inevitable.”
The inventor of DDT, Paul Hermann Müller, received the Nobel Prize in 1948; Jacobs went on to found a major engineering company and became a leading philanthropist–a “compassionate conservative.”
But the battle against insect-borne diseases continues. Both West Nile and the recent outbreak of malaria started near a major international airport. The infected mosquitoes may have been aboard, or perhaps a domestic mosquito bit an infected traveler. With the growth in international air travel, it is only a matter of time before other nasty diseases are carried to our shores: Yellow fever; Dengue; Japanese viral encephalitis; (African) Rift Valley fever–deadly and with no vaccine; (Australian) Ross River fever–no vaccine. So long as epidemics continue in the poorer nations, we are not safe.
Steven Milloy, author of Junk Science Judo, has put it well and succinctly: “Judicious use of DDT won’t harm people or the environment. It will, however, kill mosquitoes–which is better than mosquitoes killing us.”
S. Fred Singer is professor emeritus of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia and president of the Arlington, Virginia-based Science &Environmental Policy Project. He is also a visiting Wesson Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, California.