This is a story of triumph and tragedy. The triumph occurred in
the middle part of the 20th century, when the larger part of mankind
finally succeeded in overcoming the ravages of malaria, the deadly
infectious disease that had afflicted the human race since the dawn of
time (and which, by one estimate,
had killed approximately half the people who had ever lived on earth).
But within three decades, the triumph would give way to tragedy when
leftist ideologues, professing concern for the integrity of the natural
environment, collaborated to ban the use of the pesticide best known by
the acronym DDT—the very substance that had made it possible to vanquish
malaria from vast portions of the globe. By means of that ban,
environmentalists effectively ensured that, over the course of the
ensuing 30+ years, more than 50 million people would die needlessly of a
disease that was entirely preventable.
Malaria is spread by protozoan parasites that are transmitted from person to person by female mosquitoes of the Anopheles genus.
Symptoms of the disease include high fever, shaking chills, joint
pain, headaches, muscle aches, fatigue, vomiting, anemia, hemoglobinuria, retinal
damage, and convulsions. Malaria also has been found to cause cognitive
impairments and neurologic damage, especially in children. And in 1 to 2
million cases each year, it results in the death of the victim.
According to Dr. Robert Desowitz, professor of tropical medicine at the University of North Carolina: “From colonial times until the 1940s, malaria was the American disease”—annually afflicting as many as 7 million Americans and killing several thousand. In 1936, for instance, some 3,900 U.S. residents died of malaria.
But these casualty figures were dwarfed by those of other countries. In
India during the 1930s, for example, approximately 100 million people
contracted malaria each year, and at least a million of them died as a
result. In Africa, hundreds of millions of people per year became infected, and several million of them lost their lives as well.
By the time World War II began, people worldwide were essentially
powerless in the face of this dread disease, just as they had been
throughout most of human history. Then in 1939, everything changed. The
Swiss scientist Paul Müller developed the synthetic pesticide DDT
(Dichloro-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane), which proved to be a remarkably
effective means of killing the mosquitoes responsible for malaria’s
transmission (and killing also pests like flies, aphids, and potato
beetles that carry such infectious diseases as bubonic plague, typhus,
yellow fever, and encephalitis).
The Müller and the Geigy Corporation subsequently patented DDT in
Switzerland (1940), England (1942), and the United States (1943). In
1943 Merck & Company produced and delivered 500 gallons of DDT to
Italy in an effort to put down a raging epidemic of louse-borne typhus.
Later that year, the U.S. Army supplied its troops with rations of
10-percent DDT dust to kill lice. Throughout the course of the Second World War,
DDT protected millions of Allied troops from contracting malaria and
other infectious diseases like typhus and the plague. Moreover, the
pesticide saved the lives of recently liberated concentration-camp survivors by killing off typhus-carrying lice.
Wherever DDT was used in significant quantities, the incidence of
malaria declined precipitously. In South America, for example, malaria
cases fell by 33 percent between 1942 and 1946. In 1948, there was not a single
malaria-related death in all of Italy. After DDT was sprayed widely
in India’s Kanara district (where some 50,000 people had typically
contracted malaria in any given year during the pre-DDT era), the number
of newly diagnosed malaria cases dwindled to about 1,500 per year by
the late 1940s—a 97 percent decrease. Throughout the entire Indian nation, the number of malaria cases fell from about 75 million in 1951 to 50,000 in 1961. In Sri Lanka,
DDT spraying was initiated in 1946, at which time approximately 3
million new cases of malaria were being diagnosed each year. By 1956,
that figure had fallen to 7,300; eight years after that, in 1964, a mere
29 Sri Lankans contracted malaria.
Encouraged by DDT’s unmatched success in killing the carriers of
infectious disease, in May 1955 the World Health Organization, at its
Eighth World Health Assembly, initiated a Global Malaria Eradication
Campaign (GMEC). Funded mostly by the U.S. government, the GMEC focused
heavily on the use of DDT as a means of combating malaria in North
America, southern Europe, the Caribbean, and much of eastern and
southern Asia. By 1961, malaria had been nearly eliminated from each of those regions. In South Africa, malaria rates plummeted by 80 percent in
just 18 months as a result of spraying small amounts of DDT on the
walls and eaves of traditional mud and thatch huts twice a year.
Similarly, the incidence of malaria declined by 60 percent in Ecuador
and by 90 percent in Madagascar.
DDT use reached its zenith in 1962, when a total of 80 million kilograms of the pesticide were used around the world. The National Academy of Sciences summarized the efficacy of DDT as follows:
“To only a few chemicals does man owe as great a debt as to DDT. It is
estimated that, in little more than two decades DDT has prevented 500
million human deaths, due to malaria, that would otherwise have been
Unfortunately, tropical Africa was, for the most part, unable to share in the great benefits of DDT because:
(a) with only a few exceptions, the nations of that region did not
possess infrastructures capable of disseminating the pesticide in an
effective and comprehensive manner; and (b) Africa’s Anopheles mosquitoes
and malaria parasites differed slightly from their counterparts on
other continents and thus were more resistant to eradication campaigns.
But the scientific community was working—and with promising signs of
progress—to overcome those obstacles. For example, in a 1959-1960 pilot project in
the Kigezi district of Uganda, DDT was sprayed twice per year and it
virtually eliminated malaria from the region. Indeed, there was good
reason to be confident that before long, DDT would successfully drive
malaria from every part of the globe, including Africa.
Tragically, however, this confidence would be derailed by a series of
events that were triggered initially by the September 1962 publication
of biologist/zoologist Rachel Carson’s bestselling book, Silent Spring,
which warned of the dangers that DDT allegedly posed to all manner of
plant, animal, and human life. These threats were so great, said Carson,
that on balance they more than negated whatever benefits were to be
gained from using the pesticide to prevent malaria.
Receiving immense media coverage, Carson’s book enjoyed immediate critical acclaim and spent 30 weeks on the New York Times bestseller
list. It was the subject not only of congressional discussion and
debate, but also of consideration by the presidential Science Advisory
Committee. The book’s popularity was boosted to some extent by the wave of fear that
had recently swept through the American public with regard to concerns
over: (a) the physical effects of radioactive fallout from
nuclear-weapons testing, and (b) birth defects resulting from the
pregnancy drug thalidomide.
In Silent Spring, Carson stated that the overall rise in U.S.
cancer rates between 1940 (the dawn of the DDT era) and 1960 proved that
DDT was a carcinogen. She predicted that DDT and other pesticides would
spark a cancer epidemic that would wipe out “practically 100 percent”
of the human population within a single generation. As Carson saw it, a race of super-insects,
immune to the effects of pesticides, would infest the crops grown on
American farms. Desperate farmers, she said, would respond to these
infestations by using much greater quantities of DDT. In this way,
Carson explained, the pesticide would eventually poison the entire food chain, killing off, in sequence, bugs, worms, birds, fish, and finally mankind.
Carson also claimed that
the atmospheric presence of DDT and its metabolites, DDE
(Dichloro-Diphenyldichloro-Ethylene) and DDD
(Dichloro-Diphenyl-Dichloroethane), caused the shells of bird eggs to
become thinner, thereby leading to an increased incidence of egg
breakage and/or embryo death. This, Carson postulated, would severely
interfere with bird reproduction and ultimately would lead to a “silent
spring” bereft of the familiar sounds of birdsongs. Citing a 1956 study that Dr. James DeWitt published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, Carson reported:
“Dr. DeWitt’s now classic experiments [on quail and pheasants] have now
established the fact that exposure to DDT, even when doing no
observable harm to the birds, may seriously affect reproduction. Quail
into whose diet DDT was introduced throughout the breeding season
survived and even produced normal numbers of fertile eggs. But few of
the eggs hatched.”
Activist organizations like the Sierra Club and the World Wildlife Fund quickly jumped aboard Carson’s bandwagon of doom; within a few years, they would be joined by other, likeminded groups such as Greenpeace and the Environmental Defense Fund (the latter of which asserted that
“[c]hronic low dose DDT exposure is associated with premature birth and
low birth-weight in babies who were exposed before birth, and with
decreased duration of milk supply in nursing mothers”). Some of these
groups initiated lawsuits seeking to ban the use of DDT and pressuring the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to hold hearings on the subject.
Also echoing Carson’s nightmarish prognostications was the biologist Paul Ehrlich, who wrote:
“The Department of Health, Education and Welfare announced studies
which showed unequivocally that increasing death rates from
hypertension, cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer, and a series of
other diseases has resulted from the chlorinated hydrocarbon load. They
estimated that Americans born since 1946 [when DDT usage was becoming
widespread] now had a life expectancy of only 49 years, and predicted
that if current patterns continued, this expectancy would reach 42 years
by 1980, when it might level out.”
Notwithstanding the warnings of people like Ehrlich, Carson, and
spokesmen for the aforementioned environmentalist organizations, DDT
continued to be used widely to combat malaria throughout the 1960s. By
1967 the disease was eradicated from all developed countries where
it previously had been endemic—most notably large regions of Latin
America and tropical Asia. Typical was the case of Taiwan, where the
incidence of malaria plummeted from more than a million cases in 1945,
to a mere 9 cases in 1969.
Despite spectacular success stories such as these, Carson and her fellow
environmental activists continued to warn of DDT’s dangers and to make a
case for a worldwide ban on the pesticide’s use. Their persistence
eventually paid some dividends when DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972.
That ban was due, in large measure, to the influence of
then-EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus, an attorney with close ties
to the Environmental Defense Fund.
It is noteworthy that two years before he outlawed the pesticide,
Ruckelshaus (in an August 31, 1970 U.S. Court of Appeals hearing) had
stated unequivocally that “DDT has an amazing an exemplary record of safe use,
does not cause a toxic response in man or other animals, and is not
harmful. Carcinogenic claims regarding DDT are unproven speculation.”
Yet by the time he delivered a May 2, 1971 address to the Audubon Society, Ruckelshaus was professing considerable skepticism about the safety of DDT:
“As a member of the Society, myself, I was highly suspicious of this
compound, to put it mildly. But I was compelled by the facts to temper
my emotions ... because the best scientific evidence available did not
warrant such a precipitate action. However, we in the EPA have
streamlined our administrative procedures so we can now suspend
registration of DDT and the other persistent pesticides at any time
during the period of review.”
After the Environmental Defense Fund and the Audubon Society jointly
filed a lawsuit demanding that the U.S. Department of Agriculture and
the EPA place a ban on DDT, Ruckelshaus ordered a hearing to consider
precisely that course of action.
After seven months of hearings in 1971, which produced 125 witnesses and
9,362 pages of testimony, EPA Judge Edmund Sweeney concluded that
according to the evidence:
“DDT is not a carcinogenic hazard to man ...
is not a mutagenic or teratogenic hazard to man ... [and the] use of
DDT under the regulations involved here do not have a deleterious effect
on freshwater fish, estuarine organisms, wild birds or other wildlife.”
But Ruckelshaus, who had never attended even a day of the EPA hearings and had never (by his own admission) read any of the transcripts of those hearings, overruled Sweeney and formally banned DDT
on January 1, 1972. His decision was chiefly a consequence of his close
ties to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and others in the green
The DDT ban was subsequently appealed, but to no avail, as Ruckelshaus
had appointed himself as the appeal judge. After the appeal had been
squelched, Ruckelshaus’ obvious partisanship was on display for all to
see. He began soliciting, on his personal stationery, donations on
behalf of EDF: “EDF’s scientists blew the whistle on DDT by showing it
to be a cancer hazard,” he gloated, “and three years later, when the dust had cleared, EDF had won.”
In an April 26, 1979 letter to American Farm Bureau Federation President Allan Grant, Ruckelshaus acknowledged that his decision to ban DDT had been rooted in concerns that were more political than environmental:
“The ultimate judgment [on DDT] remains political. Decisions by the
government involving the use of toxic substances are political with a
small ‘p.’ In the case of pesticides in our country, the power to make
this judgment has been delegated to the administrator of
the Environmental Protection Agency.”
The American environmental movement’s campaign against DDT paved the way
for other, similar efforts all over the world. In 1975, for instance,
the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) jointly called for a greater emphasis on alternatives to the use of DDT and other insecticides for the control of vector-borne diseases such as malaria.
Four years later the WHO announced a global strategy de-emphasizing
vector-control measures for combating malaria, and focusing instead on
improvements in case-detection and treatment. That is, efforts to kill
the mosquitoes that transmitted malaria would be scaled back; the new
approach would allow people to become infected in whatever numbers
nature might dictate, and would focus chiefly on the development of more
effective treatments for the disease.
In 1980 the WHO and UNEP helped create the Panel of Experts for Environmental Management for
vector-borne disease control. Shortly thereafter, the WHO’s vector
biology and control program (whose centerpiece had been the use of DDT
and other insecticides) was eliminated entirely—for reasons of so-called
During Silent Spring’s heyday in American bookshops, few readers were aware that the book was replete with errors and misrepresentations and
was based, in large measure, on shoddy science. Ruckelshaus, by
contrast, knew this quite well—a fact which makes his decision to ban
DDT particularly worthy of condemnation.
Among the inaccuracies in Carson’s book was the author’s contention
(mentioned above) that DDT had contributed significantly to the overall
rise in U.S. cancer rates between 1940 and 1960. Yet Carson’s claim is
definitively refuted by Centers for Disease Control data showing that
cancer rates had already been rising long before the introduction of DDT
in the early 1940s. Indeed, between 1900 and 1960 Americans’ cancer
rates spiked mostly as a result of an increase in the use of tobacco.
Carson also contended (again,
as noted above) that according to Dr. James DeWitt, the atmospheric
presence of DDT and its metabolites was having a destructive effect on
bird eggs and the embryos contained therein. But this was a gross misrepresentation of
DeWitt's actual findings, which were that: (a) among quail which had
been fed 200 parts per million of DDT, 80 percent of their eggs hatched,
compared with a nearly identical 83.9 percent of the eggs of the
“control” quail that had received no exposure to DDT; and even more
significantly, (b) among pheasants that had been fed high levels of DDT,
more than 80 percent of their eggs hatched, as compared to a mere 57
percent among the “control” pheasants. Because these facts offered no
support whatsoever for Carson’s thesis about DDT’s allegedly harmful
effects on bird reproduction, she omitted them from her book.
Over the course of time, an increasing number of Americans—including many former believers—came to realize that Silent Spring contained
at least as much fiction as fact. San Jose State University
entomologist Dr. J. Gordon Edwards, for one, at first supported Carson
but later changed his mind after discovering that she had relied heavily
upon “very unscientific sources.”
Edwards (who once wrote a book published by the Sierra Club) also found
that even in those places where Carson had cited research of genuine
scientific merit (as in the case of Dr. DeWitt’s work), she had commonly
misrepresented the findings with what Edwards characterized as a
“false” narrative. Said Edwards:
“They [Carson’s conclusions] did not support her contentions about the
harm caused by pesticides. She was really playing loose with the facts,
deliberately wording many sentences in such a way as to make them imply
certain things without actually saying them, carefully omitting
everything that failed to support her thesis that pesticides were bad,
that industry was bad, and that any scientists who did not support her
views were bad. It slowly dawned on me that Rachel Carson was not
interested in the truth about those topics, and that I really was being
duped, along with millions of other Americans.”
Carson’s duplicity was manifested further in her assertion that the
Audubon Society's annual bird census from 1940-1961 showed that bird
populations had declined widely and precipitously. Reasoning that
because these declines supposedly had begun at roughly the time when DDT
spraying became widespread, she concluded that DDT itself was the
cause. But as the aforementioned Dr. Edwards points out, Audubon census
figures from 1940-1961 actually show the reverse of what Carson claimed; i.e., at least 26 kinds of birds became more numerous during that period. In May 1967, the Virginia Department of Agriculture Bulletin explained why:
“The phenomena of increasing bird populations during the DDT years may
be due, in part, to (1) fewer blood-sucking insects and reduced spread
of avian diseases (avian malaria, rickettsial-pox, avian bronchitis,
Newcastle disease, encephalitis, etc); (2) more seed and fruits
available for birds to eat after plant-eating insects were decimated [by
DDT]; and (3) Ingestion of DDT triggers hepatic enzymes that detoxify
carcinogens such as aflatoxin.”
In congressional testimony, Charles Wurster, a biologist for the
Environmental Defense Fund (and someone whose sympathies, therefore,
were clearly with the anti-DDT coalition), likewise noted the general
abundance of birds during the DDT years—referring specifically to “increasing
numbers of pheasants, quail, doves, turkeys and other game species.”
Similarly, the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association of Pennsylvania noted
dramatic increases in most kinds of hawks; national forest studies from
Wisconsin and Michigan reported a nearly sevenfold increase in nesting osprey productivity from 1965 to 1970; and the herring gull population reportedly grew from
2,000 pairs in 1941 to 35,000 pairs in 1971. Some birds, such as
blackbirds and redwings, multiplied so rapidly that they became “pests.”
Experiments on caged birds
repeatedly found that exposure to DDT—at levels that were hundreds of
times greater than those which birds in the wild might encounter—did not
lead to significant thinning of their egg shells. A slight degree of
eggshell thinning was observed among some birds that had been exposed to
mega-doses of DDT, but that thinning was much less pronounced than what
had been found in many natural habitats around the world where DDT had
not been used. Nor was there any solid evidence that the eggshell
thinning among the DDT control group was in fact due to the pesticide. Eggshell thinning can result from such variables as
high levels of oil, lead, or mercury in a bird’s environment; or from
phosphorus deficiency, calcium deficiency, dehydration, temperature
extremes, decreased light, and stress.
Other studies have shown no correlation whatsoever between DDT exposure
and eggshell thickness in pelican populations. Moreover, it was found
that red-tailed hawks and golden eagles
during the DDT era produced eggs whose shells were thicker than those
of the eggs that these bird species had produced before the creation and
use of DDT.
Just as empirical evidence discredits the notion that DDT led to a
decline in bird populations, so do the facts contradict claims that the
pesticide is harmful to humans and other animals. Said the director of the World Health Organization in 1969 (three years prior to the EPA’s 1972 ban on DDT):
“DDT is so safe that no symptoms have been observed among the 130,000
spraymen or the 535 million inhabitants of sprayed houses [over the past
29 years of its existence]. No toxicity was observed in the wildlife of
the countries participating in the malaria campaign. Therefore WHO has
no grounds to abandon this chemical which has saved millions of lives,
the discontinuation of which would result in thousands of human deaths
and millions of illnesses. It has served at least 2 billion people in
the world without costing a single human life by poisoning from DDT. The
discontinuation of the use of DDT would be a disaster to world health.”
Dr. Philip Butler, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Sabine
Island Research Laboratory, “92 percent of DDT and its metabolites
disappear” from the environment within 38 days after they have been
In 1985 the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that “DDT has had no significant impact on
human cancer patterns and is unlikely to be an important carcinogen for
man at previous exposure levels, within the statistical limitations of
In 1997 the New England Journal of Medicine stated, “Our data do not support the hypothesis that exposure to [DDT] and PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyls] increases the risk of breast cancer.”
In August 1998, the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine reported: “Data from three studies in four Midwestern states [Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas] showed no strong consistent evidence for an association between exposure to DDT and risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”
In June 1999, the journal Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention stated, “Even after 20 years of follow-up, exposure to relatively high concentrations of DDE or PCBs showed no evidence of contributing to an increased risk of breast cancer.”
One long-term study examined 35
workers who, for periods ranging from 9 to 19 years, were exposed to
DDT levels that were 600 times greater than those to which average
Americans were exposed; no ill effects were observed.
In another study of male subjects who voluntarily ingested 35 milligrams of DDT daily for nearly two years, the subjects “developed no adverse effects.”
According to the Journal of Cancer Research and Clinical Oncology, when primates were exposed to quantities of DDT that were more than 33,000 times greater than
the average daily human exposure to the pesticide (as estimated in 1969
and 1972), the results were “inconclusive with respect to a
carcinogenic effect of DDT in nonhuman primates.” Another study found that exposure to DDT reduced the size of tumors in animals.
“The scientific literature does not contain even one peer-reviewed,
independently replicated study linking DDT exposures to any adverse
health outcome [in humans],” said Dr.
Amir Attaran, a malaria expert formerly employed by the World Health
Organization and currently affiliated with Harvard University's Center
for International Development.
Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Harold M. Koenig said,
“As far as I know, there is no known association between DDT or any
other insecticide and cancer. To categorize [Rachel] Carson’s work as
research is a big stretch. It was really just hysterical speculation.”
“DDT is the best insecticide we have today for controlling malaria,” said malaria
expert Dr. Donald Roberts of the Uniformed Services University of the
Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. “DDT is long-acting, the
alternatives are not. DDT is cheap, the alternatives are not. End of
Notwithstanding such testimonials to DDT’s unparalleled effectiveness in
combating malaria, the Green lobby—led by such stalwarts as the World
Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Physicians for Social Responsibility—waged a tireless campaign aimed at banning the pesticide not only in the U.S. but everywhere on earth, all in the professed interest of protecting the natural environment.
The World Wildlife Fund, for instance, identified DDT as part of a “cocktail of highly toxic chemicals” by which animals and people could become “contaminated.” Greenpeace warned that
“measurable quantities” of DDT and its metabolite DDE “are present” in
human fatty tissue, blood and breast milk, and that “[r]esearchers think DDE could be inhibiting lactation because of its estrogen-like effects and may therefore
be contributing to lactation failure throughout the world” [emphasis
added]. Physicians for Social Responsibility, urging “holistic”
alternatives to DDT, announced that studies “suggest that DDE and possibly other organochlorines can weaken the immune systems of children, increasing their risk of developing asthma and certain infections [emphasis added].
Insisting that DDT could be replaced by alternative pesticides and by procedures such as “integrated vector management” (treating, with “environmentally sensitive” pesticides, the water sources where mosquitoes breed), environmentalists pressured countries around the globe to discontinue their use of DDT and to cut off government funding for DDT projects.
The environmentalists were joined in this effort by such entities as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the European Union, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Environment Program, and UNICEF.
These aid bureaucrats warned impoverished countries whose populations
were at high risk of contracting malaria, that if they continued to use
DDT as the lynchpin of their anti-malaria programs, grants to their governments would be withheld.
Additional support for the environmentalist crusade against DDT came from a coterie of powerful and immensely wealthy leftist foundations, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Turner Foundation, and the Heinz family philanthropies.
Like the aid bureaucrats listed in the preceding paragraph, these
foundations threatened to withdraw their grants to impoverished nations
if their governments were unwilling to forego the use of DDT.
Only a few nations—among
them Ecuador, Mexico, and South Africa—possessed the financial
resources necessary to fund their own DDT programs without the help of
the aforementioned foundations and organizations. And for as long as
they continued to use DDT, they remained malaria-free.
Eventually, however, a number of these nations bowed to pressures from the environmental lobby. In the 1990s, for instance, the Clinton Administration
stipulated that the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement
would be contingent upon Mexico’s willingness to stop its production of
DDT. When Mexico ultimately agreed to abandon its DDT programs, its
malaria rates increased exponentially.
South Africa, like Mexico, was able to resist the mounting pressures of
the environmental lobby until 1996, at which time its Department of
Health (DOH) finally relented; this DOH decision to comply with
environmentalist demands was greatly influenced by the United Nations, which was threatening to cut off funding for the country’s public-health programs.
Shortly after South Africa had discontinued its use of DDT and replaced
it with synthetic pyrethroid insecticides, a highly efficient malaria
vector, Anopheles funestus (which had been completely eradicated
from the country in the 1970s), reappeared. Within just a few years, the
incidence of malaria nationwide increased more than tenfold
(from 6,000 cases in 1995, to 62,000 cases in 2000). Desperate to scale
back this re-emerging crisis, the South African government resumed its
use of DDT in 2001 (disregarding UN warnings against such a course of
action), and within months the malaria rate dropped by four-fifths.
In other nations, too, mosquitoes that previously had been vanquished by
DDT quickly developed resistance to alternative pesticides;
vector-management efforts failed dismally wherever they were tried. When
Bolivia, for instance, yielded to international pressure and banned the
use of DDT in favor of bed nets and other measures, its infection rate soared by 80 percent between 1993 and 2005. Zanzibar, Sri Lanka and other countries had similar experiences.
Notwithstanding the mountains of evidence demonstrating that there were
no effective alternatives to DDT for controlling the spread of malaria,
the environmental lobby continued to call for the pesticide to
be outlawed everywhere in the world. UNICEF and USAID, for instance,
made their loans to Eritrea—where malaria was responsible for 50 percent
of all deaths—contingent upon that nation's pledge to use the
money not for DDT projects but rather for insecticide-treated bed nets,
“environmental assessments,” and other “effective alternative[s]” to
DDT that “could be used safely” under strict World Health Organization
Supporting this approach, the World Bank likewise demanded that
Eritrea discontinue its use of DDT entirely, in favor of “chemicals or
techniques that are safer for the environment and human health.” As a
result of these restrictions, malaria retained its status as
Eritrea's leading cause of death.
Similarly, the Canadian government gave Ethiopia (where nearly 150,000
people were dying of malaria each year) $1.5 million to fund a “national
implementation plan” compliant with the International Stockholm Convention resolution
to eliminate “persistent organic pollutants” such as DDT. But this plan
proved to be entirely ineffective, and Ethiopians continued to die of
malaria in enormous numbers. As journalist Paul Driessen aptly put it:
“In effect, then, this effort to eliminate DDT pays Ethiopia about $10 for each dead Ethiopian.”
In February 2005 the European Union (EU) warned Uganda (where
up to 100,000 people were dying of malaria each year) that EU member
nations would stop importing Ugandan fish, flowers and cereals if that
African country were to implement a DDT program to combat the disease.
Citing environmental concerns, USAID announced that it would only promote DDT as a “measure of last resort”—a
position that, according to Roger Bate (co-founder of Africa Fighting
Malaria), gave the agency “carte blanche never to support” the
pesticide, since it could “always claim that other methods of malaria
control [had] not yet been tried.” Bate elaborated:
“While some misplaced concern for the environment and human health may
be part of USAID’s reasons for refusal to fund IRS, the more significant
reason is likely to be the vested interests that influence its spending
plans. In 2004, USAID’s budget for malaria control stood at around ...
$80 million. However, the agency provides no documentation that it
spends a single cent buying either insecticides or effective artemsinin
drugs for malaria control. The vast majority of the agency’s budget is
directed towards US-based consultants who ‘advise’ malaria control
programs and conduct nebulous projects that have no clear deliverables.
USAID, like most other donor agencies, is far more comfortable directing
its funding to its own consultants, rather than the departments of
health in the countries they are supposed to be assisting.”
A similar tendency surely guided the policy decisions of other donor agencies as well.
In 1998 the World Health Organization launched a “Roll Back Malaria”
(RBM) campaign, where a consortium of aid agencies, international
institutions, and environmentalist groups collaborated in an effort to
reduce or eliminate the use of DDT around the world—in favor of
pesticides and drugs that were known to be far less effective than
DDT in terms of preventing malaria, but were reputed to be more
“environmentally friendly.” Predictably, RBM was a colossal failure; the
incidence of malaria infections and deaths worldwide increased by
nearly 10 percent over the next seven years.
One conclusion is inescapable: the environmental movement’s insistence
on banning DDT from every part of the world in the latter decades of the
20th century led to a dramatic resurgence of malaria in many places
where it previously had been eradicated. Moreover, the anti-DDT campaign
prevented most of Africa, where the pesticide had never before been
deployed on a scale grand enough to make a difference, from taking the
measures necessary to save the multitudes of people who ultimately would
die of malaria on that continent year after year.
As recently as 2005, 500 million people around
the world (approximately one-twelfth of the earth’s population) were
contracting malaria on an annual basis; and each year, 2 to 3 million of
them died as a result. Since the 1972 U.S. ban on DDT, more than 50 million people—about 90 percent of whom resided in sub-Saharan Africa, and most of whom were children younger than five—have died of malaria.
Said the World Health Organization,
“more people are now infected [with malaria] than at any point in
history,” with “up to half a billion cases [being reported] every year.”
Anywhere from 1 to 2 million of those people die from the disease. Dr.
Wenceslaus Kilama, chairman of Malaria Foundation International, placed this
figure into perspective: “This is like loading up seven Boeing 747
airliners each day, then deliberately crashing them into Mt.
“The resurgence of a disease that was almost eradicated [many] years ago
is a case study in the danger of putting concern for nature above
concern for people,” said Nizam Ahmad, a Bangladeshi analyst who focuses on the problems that affect developing countries.
“It’s worse than it was 50 years ago,” lamented University of North Carolina malaria expert Dr. Robert Desowitz.
In the words of
former Surgeon General Harold M. Koenig, “[Rachel] Carson and those who
joined her in the crusade against DDT have contributed to millions of
preventable deaths. Used responsibly, DDT can be quite safe for man and
On the subject of the longstanding U.S. ban on DDT, Koenig added:
“[M]ost politicians today are more concerned about getting re-elected
rather than doing what is right. [M]any of them have very poor
scientific backgrounds and do not understand the impact of the policy
decisions they are making [and] are not able to teach their constituents
that there will be severe consequences to their decisions…. These poor
public policies [i.e. prohibiting use of DDT] are being implemented
because it is easier for politicians to go along with the noise coming
from the hysterics rather than to learn the whole story and educate the
general electorate that there are ways agents like DDT can be
used safely…. [B]anning DDT worldwide is beyond ignorance, it is just
The ban on DDT had enormous implications not only in terms of lives lost
(and all the human misery that attended those deaths), but also in
terms of the economic viability of the populations affected by the
disease. Prior to the ban, DDT, by causing infectious-disease rates to
decline so dramatically, had enabled developing countries to make
economic strides that would not have been possible if malaria had
continued to decimate their populations. As the U.S. Centers for Disease Control once put it:
“The unparalleled benefits stemming from [public health] programs [in
developing countries] are due almost entirely to the use of DDT. DDT
provides the only safe, economically feasible eradication measure
available today [that helps to promote economic development].”
According to the Dr. Roger Bate:
“Malaria perpetuates poverty by debilitating people. Unable to work,
its victims cannot afford to feed themselves or their children. Sick and
malnourished, they are prone to a vicious cycle of future infection and
debilitation…. To break the cycle, to save lives, it is imperative that
we have all the tools, including DDT, that work to help control
malaria, protect health and ensure development….
“Malaria kills a few million every year,” added Bate.
“Each life lost is a potential Mandela, Shakespeare, or Edison, and
nothing is less reversible than death, nor more tragic than the death of
a child. Hundreds of millions suffer chronic illness, which creates a
painful economic burden and perpetuates poverty. This may not be the
intention of those who are debating a DDT ban, but it surely will be the
Environmental leftists traditionally have viewed the people killed by
malaria as unfortunate, collateral victims of mankind’s highly necessary
efforts to protect the natural environment from the alleged ravages of
DDT. Some environmentalists, however, take their rationalizations in
favor of the DDT ban much farther: That is, they view malaria as
nature’s way of imposing a necessary check on the potential problems
associated with overpopulation, and therefore as something that is not
For example, former (1969-1985) Sierra Club director Michael McCloskey said (in
1971) that his organization “wants a ban on pesticides, even in
countries where DDT has kept malaria under control ... [because by]
using DDT, we reduce mortality rates in underdeveloped countries without
the consideration of how to support the increase in populations.”
In a similar spirit, Club of Rome director Alexander King wrote in 1990: “My chief quarrel with DDT in hindsight is that it greatly added to the population problem.”
Because international aid agencies, environmentalist groups, and
charitable foundations were unyielding in their refusal to advocate the
use of DDT, around the turn of the 21st century several African nations
that were being ravaged by malaria finally began to launch their own
private efforts to combat the disease. In 2000, for instance, a privately funded Indoor Residual Spraying program in
the Zambian Copperbelt Province began using DDT to combat malaria.
After just one spraying season, the incidence of malaria in the region
had declined by half.
The success of the Zambian program influenced national malaria-control policies elsewhere
in Zambia, as well as in nations like Swaziland, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and
Madagascar. In addition, it helped persuade South Africa to reinstitute
its own (aforementioned) DDT program (in 2001).
Subsequently, these and other African nations beseeched the United
Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO) to help finance
similar programs on their behalf. Reluctantly the
UN, which had been pushing for a worldwide ban on DDT, agreed to permit
DDT spraying for health purposes; the UN also encouraged aid
organizations to loosen their restrictions against the financing of such
DDT programs. Even so, it would take another five years (and millions
of deaths) before bureaucratic obstacles could be hurdled and DDT programs were effectively instituted. in 2000, meanwhile, the WHO approved DDT as one of 12 insecticides safe for use in indoor residual spraying.
In September 2006 the WHO announced that
it would thenceforth actively support indoor spraying of the chemical “not only
in epidemic areas but also in areas with constant and high malaria
transmission, including throughout Africa.” “The scientific and
programmatic evidence clearly supports this reassessment,” said Dr.
Anarfi Asamoa-Baah, WHO assistant director-general for HIV/AIDS,
tuberculosis, and malaria. “DDT presents no health risk when used
properly.” Elaborating on this theme,
the WHO issued a statement asserting that DDT “provides the most
effective, cheapest, and safest means of abating and eradicating”
infectious diseases like malaria and typhus, which “may have killed half
of all the people that ever lived.”
In short order, environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club, the
World Wildlife Fund, Environmental Defense, and Greenpeace likewise
accepted the stubborn reality that DDT, on balance, could help alleviate
a great deal of human suffering. As Greenpeace spokesman Rick Hind told the New York Times, “If there’s nothing else [besides DDT] and it’s going to save lives, we’re all for it. Nobody’s dogmatic about it.”
This change of heart was too little, too late. The longstanding,
uncompromising, inflexible dogmas of Mr. Hind’s organization and others
on the environmental Left had already condemned at least 50 million
innocent people to death in three-and-a-half decades.