Research & Commentary: DDT Bans

Published July 29, 2014

Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT, was first synthesized in 1874 and discovered to be an effective insecticide in 1939. During World War II, it was used to protect military installments and personnel against vector-borne diseases such as malaria and typhus. Production of DDT expanded significantly in the late 1940s as it was released for commercial sale, leading to its widespread agricultural use.

During the 1950s, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) subsidized DDT spraying programs to eradicate crop-destroying insects. Taking advantage of DDT’s low cost and high effectiveness, USDA abused these programs by spraying excessive amounts of the chemical without a complete understanding of the its long-term effects on wildlife, disregarding property rights in the process. By the 1960s, evidence emerged suggesting excessive government use of DDT had adversely affected bird populations.

In June 1972, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency prohibited all use of DDT on crops, and many poor countries today are unable to use it because of the threat of foreign aid revocation. Although bird populations have increased since the ban, other factors have contributed to the increase, and the ban has led to malaria’s return, killing one child every 30 seconds. These victims are mostly in warm, humid countries where incomes are low and mosquitos are prevalent. This is an avoidable situation as evidence from more than 50 years of use shows DDT is not harmful to humans or the environment when used appropriately.

It is important to consider the environmental benefits of such pesticides as well. As Joseph Bast, P. J. Hill, and Richard Rue wrote in Eco-Sanity: A Common Sense Guide to Environmentalism, pesticides such as DDT have saved millions of acres of wilderness in the United States and around the world by making it possible to produce more food per acre of land. As the world population is expected to grow rapidly, so will the necessity for pesticides. According to Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, some 20 to 40 percent of the world’s potential crop production lost annually can be attributed to weeds, pests, and diseases. CropLife America, a crop protection association, says those numbers would double if existing pesticide use were abandoned, significantly raising food prices and rates of famine.

The DDT case is another in which a government’s solution has proven more harmful than the problem it was meant to address did originally. Millions of lives in underdeveloped countries should not be sacrificed because a few people in rich nations still believe DDT harms bird populations. Research shows if early DDT spraying had been applied in proper dosages and with respect for people’s property rights, wildlife populations would have suffered no ill effects and millions of human lives would have been saved. Governments should consequently lift the bans on DDT and other pesticides.

The following documents provide additional information about DDT from a variety of perspectives.


Ten Principles of Energy Policy
Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast outlines the ten most important principles for policymakers confronting energy issues, providing guidance to help cope with ongoing changes in markets, technology, and policies adopted in other states, supported by a thorough bibliography. 

Rachel Carson’s Deadly Fantasies
Writing in the September 2012 issue of Forbes, Henry I. Miller and Gregory Conko discuss the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s best-selling book, Silent Spring, and an article on Carson’s work published in May 2012 in Nature. Miller and Conko conclude Carson’s book and the Nature article both lack adequate scientific evidence to back up their claims, and that Carson’s advocacy for the ban on DDT and other pesticides has inflicted a net harm on public health. Miller and Conko conclude DDT has some negative but manageable effects on wildlife, but the benefit would be the millions of lives saved through disease prevention and containment. 

DDT: An Introduction
Duke University’s Department of Chemistry offers an introduction to DDT, including its history, and its present-day usage. 

Eco-Sanity: A Common Sense Guide to Environmentalism
In Chapter Four of Eco-Sanity: A Common Sense Guide to Environmentalism, authors Joseph Bast, P. J. Hill, and Richard Rue examine pesticides, which they characterize as another example of the media and activists’ “crisis of the month.” The authors conclude some pesticides have caused significant harm to wildlife, especially when they were used improperly; but they have not been shown to affect cancer rates or rates of other diseases, although such potential effects should continue to be carefully investigated. They also note those who advocate for a sweeping ban on pesticides seem to be unaware it would lead to a huge expansion of cropland, devastating wildlife as habitable space becomes more scarce. 

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring at 50 Years
Katherine Mangu-Ward, managing editor of Reason magazine, interviews the University of Alabama’s Andrew Morriss, coeditor of the book Silent Spring at 50: The False Crises of Rachel Carson, who says her book “shifted the emphasis from conservation to a more radical view of man being outside of nature.” Carson’s work has led to vast limits on the DDT use and malaria control which have resulted in millions of lost lives in Africa and Asia, Morriss notes. Although Carson was right to oppose massive subsidies for DDT spraying programs in the developed countries, she is responsible for denying countries the single most effective tool to stop malaria, Morriss states. 

Pesticides and Property Rights
In this 2001 paper for the Property and Environment Research Center, Andrew P. Morriss and Roger E. Meiners examine the application of DDT and other pesticides. They conclude abusive government spraying of DDT on farmland in the mid-20th century led to adverse effects on certain bird populations while also grossly violating people’s property rights. After such spraying programs were funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, many environmentalists called for a solution that involved more government intervention in the form of a ban on DDT. Morriss and Meiners find DDT would have posed no danger to humans had it been adequately researched before it was widely used and had government not subsidized excessive use of it and had respected people’s property rights. Unfortunately, the DDT ban has led to a comeback of malaria, which now kills a child every 30 seconds. 

Increasing Food Production
CropLife America, a crop protection association that “represents the companies that develop, manufacture, formulate and distribute crop protection chemicals and plant science solutions for agriculture and pest management in the United States,” makes the case for growing abundant food supplies and preventing costs from increasing. Such a plan requires responsible pesticide use to increase crop yields and feed a growing world population. If pesticides are abandoned, they warn that food costs will rise significantly.


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