Contra John Quiggin and Tim Lambert, DDT is usually the most cost-effective anti-malaria treatment, and remains scandalously underusedby Roger Bate / May 24, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
The environmentalist assault on the chemical DDT has come at an extremely high cost in human life. It is impossible to know how many people have died needlessly from malaria, yellow fever, leishmaniasis, dengue fever and other insect-borne diseases in the absence of DDT, but it must be millions.
Many environmental groups cut their teeth pushing for bans on agricultural uses of DDT. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (1962) was the starting point for much of this, although Carson is certainly not to blame for the environmental crusade that occurred against the chemical after her death in 1964. Silent Spring made important points about the dangers of overuse of agrochemicals, of which DDT was a major component. But it was short on good medical science. For example, Carson led the reader to believe that in one instance, after spraying DDT, a housewife developed leukaemia and died within three months. Such a claim has no scientific validity; in terms of danger to humans, DDT is one of the safest insecticides ever developed.
But while there were serious concerns about the bioaccumulation of DDT up the food chain, and it was rightly phased out for use in agriculture, it still had a valid role in combating public health menaces, notably disease-bearing mosquitos. Not satisfied with having DDT outlawed for agriculture, environmentalists increased pressure for a total ban in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
By 1997, the World Health Assembly had bowed to this pressure, passing a resolution to restrict the use of insecticides in public health, and the United Nations Environment Programme was beginning negotiations towards what would become the Stockholm convention to phase out global use of DDT and 11 other chemicals. Several major environmental organisations were demanding a total ban on DDT by 2007. I attended the negotiations in Geneva in 1999 and Johannesburg in 2000, and recall the change in the position the more responsible green groups took when several hundred malaria scientists, including three Nobel laureates, and some ministries of health from southern African nations demanded that DDT remain available for public health use.