Is DDT Bad?

On her Earth Day show, Oprah mentioned the banning of DDT as one of the successes of the Earth Day movement.

The banning of DDT is another example where our reflexes have been trained and our brains have been disengaged.  To question the validity of the DDT ban has been conditioned to be a bad thing.  We nod our heads in agreement that the ban is a good thing and go on with living our lives.

But, this Wall Street Journal editorial, DDT and Population Control, from today presents a different perspective.

Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, was a leading opponent of the insecticide DDT, which remains the cheapest and most effective way to combat malarial mosquitoes. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” misleadingly linked pesticides to cancer and is generally credited with popularizing environmental awareness.

Today, malaria still claims about one million lives every year—mostly women and children in sub-Saharan Africa. There’s no evidence that spraying the chemical inside homes in the amounts needed to combat the disease harms humans, animals or the environment. Yet DDT remains severely underutilized in the fight against malaria because the intellectual descendants of Senator Nelson continue to hold sway at the World Health Organization and other United Nations agencies.

So, to put this in terms that the Left may better understand, why is Oprah against something that can save 1 million lives a year?  If it is true that DDT can save 1 million lives a year without causing harm, then why are we so closed minded to this?  Perhaps its because we don’t see the faces of the those 1 million people a year that die from malaria.


7 thoughts on “Is DDT Bad?

  1. 1. Rachel Carson’s book did not link DDT to cancer.

    1. (a.) DDT was banned because it kills wildlife, not because it’s carcinogenic (which it is, but weakly so).

    2. DDT was never the most effective way to control malaria. Never. It was a key tool in fighting malaria, but it was rendered much less useful by overuse by agricultural interests in Africa. Malaria fighting requires that we cure it in humans — mosquitoes don’t make the disease up. DDT is not effective in fighting malaria in humans, and never has been proposed for that.

    3. DDT is not underutilized in Africa, nor anywhere else. Generally, anywhere DDT remains effective, it is in use.

    4. Largely with non-DDT methods, the death count from malaria steadily decreased after 1965. Today, fewer than 900,000 people die annually from malaria, worldwide — less than half the death toll when DDT was regularly used. If you’re arguing deaths, you should note that your chart would suggest it more effective to ban DDT completely than to use more.

    5. No malaria fighters ask for more DDT. Are you calling them idiots?

    Where did you ever get such a load of crockery?

    • Ed – Thanks for the comment. That’s interesting information if true.

      Is this meant to be a response to my post? Just curious, because I’m not sure what chart you’re referring to in #4 and as for where I got the “crockery”, it’s clearly cited from a Wall Street Journal editorial.

      Just some notes:
      The wikipedia article on DDT disagrees with your first item 1.

      Not sure where #2 was suggested in my post. It’s well understood that DDT kills mosquitoes, which carry and transmit malaria.

      If 3-5 is true, then it’s not clear why DDT needed to be banned.

      Finally, 900,000 deaths per year is still big. I’m sure there are other malaria fighting techniques that have been improved as well to help bring that number down. The question is would more use of DDT today reduce the 900,000 even further.

      If not, great. If so, then be closed to using it doesn’t cost you a thing, but it costs a lot of people their lives.

  2. A response to your post and the WSJ diatribe both, yes.

    Wikipedia may disagree, but it is in error if and where it does. (What point is it you say they disagree on?) Check out the order from EPA, which would be the authority on the issue of why DDT was banned — see especially Part III starting on page 13370 which sets out the reasons for Ruckelshaus’s banning of DDT use in agriculture (use to fight malaria was not banned).

    EPA’s history (which is accurate) notes:

    4. On June 14, 1972, the EPA Administrator announced the final cancellation of all remaining crop uses of DDT in the U.S. effective December 31, 1972. The order did not affect public health and quarantine uses, or exports of DDT. The Administrator based his decision on findings of persistence, transport, biomagnification, toxicological effects and on the absence of benefits of DDT in relation to the availability of effective and less environmentally harmful substitutes. The effective date of the prohibition was delayed for six months in order to permit an orderly transition to substitute pesticides. In conjunction with this transition, EPA and USDA jointly developed “Project Safeguard,” a program of education in the use of highly toxic organophosphate substitutes for DDT.

    5. Immediately following the DDT prohibition by EPA, the pesticides industry and EDF filed appeals contesting the June order with several U.S. courts. Industry filed suit to nullify the EPA ruling while EDF sought to extend the prohibition to those few uses not covered by the order. The appeals were consolidated in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

    On December 13, 1973, the Court ruled that there was “substantial evidence” in the record to support the EPA Administrator’s ban on DDT.

    Not even a mention of carcinogenicity.

    If it were true that Rachel Carson rested her case against DDT on its carcinogenicity, where does she make that case? Not in Silent Spring (disagree? show me the page), not in later writings.

    “DDT doesn’t cause cancer” is a red herring argument, and false besides. DDT was not banned because it posed a huge cancer threat to humans. It was banned because it devastates wildlife.

    Today the links between DDT and cancer are much better known than in 1962, or in 1972. Every cancer fighting agency on Earth lists DDT as a “probable human carcinogen,” because it is well known to cause cancer in other mammals, and it is well known to cause human injury that is often precursor to cancer. Fortunately for us, because there is a lot of DDT still circulating, DDT is not a strong carcinogen in humans.

    DDT was banned because it kills wildlife. Carcinogenicity was still up in the air in 1972, and was not basis for EPA’s decision nor subsequent wins by EPA in court against challenges from DDT manufacturers.

    #2 was suggested in your post where you quote the Wall Street Journal article, “[DDT]remains the cheapest and most effective way to combat malarial mosquitoes.” DDT is not the most effective way to control malaria, nor is it the cheapest to use today, if it ever was. DDT does not fight malaria; DDT kills insects. Malaria is a human disease, transmitted by insects in most cases. Since mosquitoes cannot be eradicated, use of DDT to slow malaria is, at absolute best, a temporary measure. To quash malaria, we have to cure it in humans, so there is no well of disease for the insects to draw from to infect others.

    3 to 5 are true, and they are irrelevent to the ban on DDT use on crops in the U.S. First, EPA’s authority does not extend past the borders of the U.S. Second, extreme damage from DDT in the U.S. was not, then, caused by abuse of DDT overseas. The ban on agricultural use of DDT in the U.S. was necessary to protect wildlife, including migratory fowl protected by treaty, fish, amphibians, and mammals.

    As a pragmatic matter, because of those problems, agricultural use of DDT dried up in most other nations, too — but not before abuse of DDT could cause serious damage, like the destruction of the World Health Organization’s campaign to eradicate malaria.

    Because 3-5 are true, them WSJ rant is wholly wrong and out of place; nor does WSJ claim we need to bring DDT back in the U.S.

    Sure, 900,000 deaths a year is huge. But let’s be clear: There was NO INCREASE IN MALARIA DEATHS because DDT was banned in the U.S. First, mosquitoes don’t migrate from Texas to Africa, and second, DDT use was necessarily curtailed in Africa and Asia by 1965, a full seven years before the U.S. banned spraying DDT on cotton. Are you alleging that Ruckelshaus has some supernatural power, and that his action in 1972 affected DDT use in 1965?

    Would more DDT use today save more lives? No malaria fighter thinks so. DDT is ineffective in many places, and expensive to use in others. In actual measurement over the past decade, bednets have reduced malaria incidence and deaths by 50% to 85% in areas where they were used a lot, while the best DDT has been able to do is 25% to 50% reduction, if more than 80% of all homes could be sprayed with DDT.

    900,000 deaths a year is too many; it’s less than 25% the 4 million deaths to malaria that occurred when DDT use was at its peak; it’s less than half the 2 million deaths per year when DDT use in the U.S. was stopped.

    You’re alleging DDT can save a million more lives a year, but there aren’t even a million lives being lost. Are you claiming DDT will bring long-dead people back to life? Plus, there is that nagging causal link issue: That allegation rests on the unspoken claim that malaria rates rose dramatically once the U.S. stopped using DDT. But malaria rates and total deaths have been falling for the last 40 years, largely without DDT. The claim that DDT could be a magical solution is completely unfounded.

    You’ve been misled by an inaccurate and biased piece in another publication. Get the facts on DDT, you’ll see why no malaria fighters are jumping up and down to insist on more DDT today. DDT can’t save a million lives a year, now. Were that true, India should be malaria-free, since India alone uses more DDT than all the rest of the world together, and has done so for more than a decade. Instead, malaria rates there pose serious problems, and may be rising.

    No leftists argue for more death in Africa, seriously. But loud advocates for DDT propose to poison Africa to rescue it from an imagined lack of DDT — thereby frustrating the serious work against malaria.

    Malaria needs to be beaten. It would be nice if you would help us beat it. Malaria is the enemy, though, and not environmentalists, nor “leftists.” Every moment spent ranting about politics in the fight against malaria is a moment lost to the fight against malaria.

    Get the facts right, come join us in fighting malaria and improving Africa.


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