Reason.tv: Demonizing DDT—Challenging a scare campaign that has cost millions of lives

In The Excellent Powder: DDT's Political and Scientific History, Richard Tren and Donald Roberts argue that the infamous insecticide is the world's greatest public-health success stories, saving millions of lives by preventing insect-borne disease. Unfortunately for those in areas still infested with mosquitoes and other flying bugs, DDT is also the world's most-misunderstood substance, the target of a decades-long scientifically ignorant and ideologically motivated campaign that has vastly limited its use and applications.

From Rachel Carson in the 1960s to contemporary critics, DDT has been the object of what Roberts, a professor of tropical public health at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, calls "scare campaigns" that link DDT to "theoretical harms to wildlife and human life that simply don't exist."

Dubbed "the excellent powder" by Winston Churchill for its life-saving qualities, DDT has the potential to transform the developing world from a malarial hell into something else again. Yet as Tren, the winner of the 2009 Julian L. Simon Award, warns, under current international conventions, global DDT production is scheduled to be halted in 2017, thereby consigning much of the world to less-effective and more-expensive alternatives that will consign millions of poor people to living hell.

Reason.tv's Nick Gillespie sat down with Tren and Roberts, who are part of Africa Fighting Malaria, to talk about how DDT got such a bad rap and what can be done to set the record straight.

Approximately 9.15 minutes. Shot by Meredith Bragg and Dan Hayes; edited by Hayes and Josh Swain.

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  • Marc Linn||

    Good interview. How sad that our civilization is being dismantled. Maybe the mosquitoes will take over!

    Typo in the first line of text: book title is "Excellent Powder," not "Power."

  • ||

    Nothing like a good scare campaign now is there LOL

    LOu
    www.ultimate-privacy.at.tc

  • Aaron Boyden||

    How could DDT "transform the developing world" when it is already widely used as an anti-malaria measure, when other equally effective pesticides are also available and in use, and when there are already DDT-resistant mosquitoes (and mosquitoes resistant to other measures; sadly, they seem to develop resistance to whatever you use), which would surely become much more common if use were intensified?

  • PiledhighDeep||

    DDT is no magic bullet because the squeet populations will develop immunity to it requiring more intense application with decreasing results, and there are also persistence and bioaccumulation issues with it too.

    But all that is irrelevant because it doesn't make the gov't and envirowackos look bad.

  • St. V||

    Hilarious. So because the mosquitoes may/will eventually adapt to it within some years, the banishment shall continue!

  • Ecolibertarian||

    DDT does weaken the eggs of many raptors, including the bald eagle. No mainstream scientist disputes that. So "theoretical harms to wildlife and human life that simply don't exist" certainly seems like an outright misrepresentation of the truth. Furthermore, DDT was never banned for malaria control, only for agricultural use. Finally, in most developing countries malaria is not fatal, because people who live there have developed resistance. Basically malaria is only fatal to white people who don't have access to medicine.

  • ||

    Have to take exception to the idea that malaria is only lethal to white people. The impact of malaria on native people in sub-saharan africa was so powerful that it altered the human genome, increasing the frequency of thalassemia, sickle cell, and Hgb C to levels that are 1000's of times more common than in other populations. Duffy antigen is almost non-existent in African Americans, while most white, hispanic and native americans have it. It is missing because its the binding site for the P. falciparum parasite.

    Malaria even today exacts a terrible toll on the people there. The average two year old has had over 200 infections with malaria before they turned two. The inflammatory reaction along with the chronic hemolytic anemia is still killing 10-20% of all babies there by the time they turn two.

  • Ecolibertarian||

    Malaria isn't going to be eradicated, so I don't see re-engineering the genome of tropical peoples as a realistic possibility.

    And yes, I neglected to mention the toll on children - however, child mortality due to malaria still falls dramatically in those countries that have economically developed to the point that nutrition, hygiene, and medicine are widely available. Economic growth is a better cure for malaria than DDT.

  • Zeb||

    Malaria has been eradicated in many places, so I'd say it's worth a try.

  • ||

    I think you missed BRM's point. He was not suggested that we genetically engineer the Africans. He was pointing out that malaria has already exerted a powerful effect on the genome of Africans via natural selection.

    To your original comment, there are still hundreds of thousands of malaria deaths among Africans. You're simply wrong that it's not deadly. Ref: http://www.rollbackmalaria.org/keyfacts.html

  • ||

    however, child mortality due to malaria still falls dramatically in those countries that have economically developed to the point that nutrition, hygiene, and medicine are widely available. Economic growth is a better cure for malaria than DDT.

    Malaria is a hamper to economic growth and screens over windows and doors are expensive and not economically feasible in Malaria stricken areas.

    Advocating for people to suck it up with international conventions and taking away a proven method for improving their lives is disgusting.

  • ||

    economic growth entails the destruction of a great deal of "nature." People in the rich nations killed off nearly all their wildlife and mowed down most forests to make room for people. Now they are telling other people to stay poor for the sake of the wildebeast. That is pretty nervy.

    Some people should go to Africa or another place where you can't move without being assailed by some kind of insect (oftentimes disease carrying insect) before telling africans not to kill fleas. We can't even stand a fly in the house. Everywhere you go in Africa, it's flies and more flies, and fleas, and mosquitos buzzing. Sit in an air conditioned house in some american suburb and tell africans it's okay? Like I say it takes a lot of nerve

  • ||

    Seriously? Your first statement about the raptor eggs IS disputed by "mainstream scientists"--at least in regards to reduction of raptor populations. And "malaria is only fatal to white people"? Are you joking or trolling?

  • St. V||

    Yeah... that last little diddy about whitey is retarded. Malaria epidemics are in populations that are vastly non-white, so that statement is simply ridiculous. I wish I could post my "Wtf Face" when I read EcoDipstick's post.

  • Jimmy 'Crack' Corn||

    +3

  • Drake||

    Perhaps the world's leaders want those "poor people" dead?

  • TP||

    Perhaps Mother Nature wants them dead.

  • Mark Plus||

    Libertarian websites publish article after article about the wonders of pesticides and the irrationality of fearing them in our food supply, so I wonder why I've met libertarians who insist on eating organic produce.

  • MWG||

    To each his own. What's your point?

  • Mark Plus||

    You show through your own behavior that your publications promote nonsense about the safety of pesticides.

  • MWG||

    My own behavior??? I think people who only eat "organic" foods are one step above vegans (yes I meant that in a derogatory manner.), but they have every right to blow their money on overpriced melons.

    Your point is that you've "met" libertarians who only eat organic produce and therefore any libertarians who "promote nonsense about the safety of pesticides" are disingenuous? Dumb...

  • Jimmy 'Crack' Corn||

    +2

  • St. V||

    Clearly it's a libertarian conspiracy. I think pot should be legalized, but I've never consumed it. Same relative concept. Now shoosh.

  • π||

    Libertarians by the very nature of libertarianism will not be an homogenous group. Give people liberty and they will use it in many ways.

    I'm not giving credit to your claim, and see no reason to believe it. It would, however, be shocking to me to discover there were no libertarians who "insist on eating organic produce" or any other dietary restriction or oddity of any type.

  • Joe C||

    I'm a libertarian, and I don't waste my time and money on an organic diet.

  • ||

    Yeah, and I wonder why I've met libertarians who insist on eating foods that were grown with pesticides.
    I've also met libertarians who prefer genetically modified foods, irradiated food, and milk from bovine growth factor.
    Jeesh, is there a food those libertarians won't eat??

  • ||

    I'd like to know where the hell I can get some DDT. I've had it with the ants coming into my kitchen.

    -jcr

  • A trick||

    Catch one of those little buggers and insert into baited ant house. They will take the food back to nest and all be dead in two days. Works every time.

  • Zeb||

    For ants what you need is Chlordane. I think I still have some of that kicking around somewhere.

  • A trick||

    Isn't it dangerous? www.ncchem.com/chlordane.htm

  • Zeb||

    Yes, but it works very well. (I do try to use the least toxic available method for such things. Hence, I still have chlordane which has been banned for quite some time now.)

  • ||

    Why was it banned?

  • Adamatari||

    DDT is IN USE, as these authors point out, and if used carefully, as these authors point out, then it has minimal environmental impact. But that's not what happened, and not why DDT became reviled.

    Additionally, the authors overstate their case. The US had great success in eliminating malaria in Cuba after the Spanish-American war, long before DDT existed. Malaria has been fought down in many countries before the existence of DDT. Good governance and planning is the only cure for malaria.

    Of course, "good governance" is an oxymoron to the more moronic libertarians, and environmentalists are always automatically wrong because they state we have responsibilities rather than just freedoms.

    Carefully governed DDT use can be reconciled with environmentalism, but reckless DDT use is indefensible. Even these guys aren't defending that.

  • ||

    good governance and planning is the only cure for malaria.

    I wonder what kind of wet land permit you need from the good governance to drain a swamp. Of course if you spray DDT on the wall you don't need to drain the swamp.

    I guess things that are better for the environment is not good governance.

  • Adamatari||

    Funny thing, we have lots of swamps down here in Florida but we don't have malaria... I guess you don't have to drain every swamp to eradicate malaria. DDT was used initially, but it hasn't been used for decades and yet Florida remains free of malaria (mosquitoes not so much).

    And if you'd bothered to actually READ MY POST, I support the careful use of DDT if it's the best alternative. I'm just not totally convinced by these guys, because they are acting as though it isn't used to the extent it still is, and are pretending that DDT alone is some sort of miracle cure, which it is not.

    Ultimately it comes down to good governance. With DDT, part of that is making sure it's sprayed in houses instead of diverted to agricultural use. Many countries aren't even doing that much of the time. You can't blame a malaria death on environmentalists banning DDT when the DDT is there and corruption and lack of oversight leads it being used on crops instead.

  • ||

    environmentalists are always automatically wrong because they state we have responsibilities rather than just freedoms that government control and central planning should override individual decision on how to live our lives and how to act as stewards for future generations.

  • Adamatari||

    The "individuals" making the decisions are corporate boards, and they only care about their profit for the short term. Minamata disease, the Bhopal disaster, the London Smog (well, that last one was caused by government building or allowing to be built dirty power plants in the middle of a city that suffers from weather patterns that trap airborne pollution)... Somebody has to step in before disasters like that, rather than afterward as in those cases. In places like the US and Europe, elected governments have stepped in, either through regulations or after lawsuits. If there is no force that can hold back these disasters, then people would be forced to become vigilantes or guerrillas (as has happened, for example on the island of Bougainville).

    Defending people who poison the air and water doesn't come out so well when you consider the harms - both in terms of direct harm to people and in terms of less direct harm like damaged fisheries due to a degraded environment. Unless you are arguing for sociopathy as a form of government, we can't have people always just do "what feels good". Just like you would (hopefully) have a murderer arrested, there must be something to prevent environmental disasters that harm people's lives.

    People have to live. A healthy environment is necessary for human life. For civilized life, humans make the environment to suit their needs. I think that's a great thing. However, wisdom is balancing human action and considering its consequences. Just randomly doing things and hoping it turns out does not work - we had lead all over the place (we put it in fuel and paint), we had smog much worse than today, etc. That's terrible. If you want to defend heavy metal poisoning and smog, be my guest.

  • ||

    It's awfully difficult to tease the whole truth out of all this. I generally agree that environmentalists have overreacted to many issues--pesticide use being but one--but someone once pointed me to this from Wikipedia (not that I grant them any kind of final authority on things).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D.....on_DDT_use

    yes, it reads like an tree-hugger apologia, but things are definitely nuanced here.

  • voxpo||

    That's about what I was gonna say. It'd have been nice if they'd commented on more of these complexities. Also would like to hear their evidence about the raptor eggs.

  • ||

    If there is any doubt about how the environmentalist hates human life, simply read a few of "Dave Mathews" posts from yesterday.

    At least he is honest. Those who say "oh, it doesn't matter, we are saving the environment" feel just like he does, but won't admit it because they know they will be seen as the filth that they are.

    What kind of *human being* looks at the misery of hundreds of millions of people and shrugs?!

  • Zeb||

    Yes, all environmentalists believe exactly the same things. It's one big homogeneous bloc. The same way as all libertarians are just pot smoking republicans.

    I find this sort of rhetorical collectivism practiced by libertarians rather grating. If you don't want to be treated as part of a class, but as an individual, you need to do the same to your opponents.

  • St. V||

    Gill is our little libertarian version of a troll. I'd rather read Chad's silliness than this weenie. Chad man...

  • ||

    I'd rather read Chad's silliness than this weenie.

    I couldn't ask for higher praise!

  • St. V||

    You aren't up to Tony level yet, so don't get too excited.

  • tony||

    sniff, sniff, what's that smell, oh, it's Marshall Gill, who called me a cocksucker last night in front of everybody because he didn't have anything better to say. Take English level one again...you failed last semester...oh, and a course in human respect is in tall order...that is, respect between a man and a man. Learn it, and you'll go far. Dish out more attitude, you'll get a nice dish back and it won't feel good. Crystal clear? I thought so. Stick to the fucking arguments, not the name calling and shit talking!

    Any way, I support full on legalization of DDT. It's good for ya.

  • ||

    who called me a cocksucker last night in front of everybody because he didn't have anything better to say

    I had thought of "shit-eater" but figured one was a close as the other.

  • Comrade Zero||

    Probably the kind of person who gains short-term benefits from unchecked pollution and contamination of drinking water supplies and the food chain.

    Oh, and if you doubt the motives of those small government types, just log onto stormfront.org.

  • Zeb||

    Well, I guess I should at least be happy that large government types (at least some of them) do the same thing in an even stupider way.

  • St. V||

    Comparing a site for white supremacists to that of libertarian ideology regarding state control is fucking retarded.

  • Comrade Zero||

    Glad to see your sense of irony is intact.

  • St. V||

    I don't believe I was commenting on your first statement. Bless you anyways, though.

  • ||

    768,000 Africans died in 2008 from malaria. DDT is still the best pesticide, and the only one that has fully eradicated it from large geographical areas.

    Rachel Carson et. al. bring up legitimate points, and it being no major inconvenience it has been agreed to ban DDT in many advanced economic nations.

    But when you murderous fools advocate and assent to Stockholm Conventions and other coercive bans on less advanced nations' methods of survival and in any way not allow Africans to use all means for their very survival: You sirs have the most black souls and festering Karmas and I hope all you eco-lepers will be shunned and isolated from all decent and civilized humanity until you either repent or perish from the otherwise beautiful face of this world.

  • tony||

    people ate their picnics in parks where it was sprayed everywhere. DDT was not a safety hazard at all.

  • Karl||

    This is another one of those libertarian issues you hear over and over that is just pure crap. The chemical and specifically the pesticide industry has been so subsidized and promoted by the government they are practically an essential part of socialism like nuclear power. But then libertarians argue that they are too regulated. This issue is similar to other issues that help determine if a libertarian is truly libertarian or a conservative: nuclear power, pollution, the chemical industry and military spending. Do some research and learn just how much chemical companies profits throughout the last century came from government contracts. Many pest control companies are having to find more natural and safer solutions today. There's been a lot of articles in the Wall Street Journal about it recently. The reason is because customers are demanding it. The bottom line is the like nuclear power, if you believe in the free market then let the free market provide the answer. I don't give a shit about someone trying to convince me of their amateur scientific dumbshit theories. I can find plenty of that crap over at a site about climate change. The fact is without the government and with a true free market, there would be much less pesticide use. Anyone who can't handle the fact they might agree with liberals must just be a conservative not a libertarian. If you love toxic chemicals, pollution, nuclear power and the military, then move to a communist country, you'll love it there.

  • ||

    You seem to misunderstand the issue in its entirety. DDT is banned from use in the US and provisions in USAid mean it is effectively banned from countries that accept US agricultural assistance. Additionally international agreements entered in to by governments means that the last organisations producing DDT will be prevented from doing so in the near future. The issue has nothing to do with the market and everything to do with "customer protection" based on groundless assertions made several decades ago and perpetuated by envirofascists who seem to simply hate humans.

    DDT is far and away the best and cheapest way to reduce malarial risk, the mosquitoes which are now resistant are non-malarial and it still serves as a deterrent for them anyway, as has been shown by the countries who have opted to reduce the millions of deaths a year rather then receive US agricultural aid. It does not harm humans in any quantity whatsoever and there is no evidence that it causes environmental damage in the countries that have an endemic malarial problem.

  • ||

    Comment was response to Karl, wrong button doh.

  • Serpilian||

    Karl is either a plant or seriously deluded. He ignores arguements given, actual scientific evidence, and even logic. He tries to say he is a 'true' libertarian, but frankly espouses anarchism and seems to think if you support the use of tried and true techniques, like pest control with DDT, you are just communists. Please get a clue, Karl. Freedom means more than just what you think people should do.

  • Midas Mulligan||

    To Karl and the real avatars who destroy Pandora, in 3D, in 3RD world theaters everywhere.

    In June 1972, EPA head, Attorney, and Environmental Defense Fund Member, William Ruckelshaus declared that DDT was a “potential human carcinogen” and banned it for virtually all uses.

    In the chain of circumstance since Ruckelshaus arbitrarily and capriciously banned DDT, an estimated 15 billion cases of malaria have caused immense suffering and poverty in the developing world.

    Of these largely avoidable cases, 102 million people have died.

    That exceeds one needless premature death every 12 seconds for more than three decades.

    According to the WHO, 9 out of 10 of these victims were pregnant women, and children under the age of five. Infanticide on this scale appears without parallel in human history.

    Does Gaia the Earthmother demand an annual sacrifice of over two million infants, young mothers and their unborn? To feed a few powerseeking attorneys and their powergroups? This is not ecology. This is not conservation. This is genocide of which all Americans can claim some small ration of blood on their hands.

    The Ruckelshaus Holocaust climbs the charts past Hitler and Stalin, soon Mao will be eclipsed as well.

    Simply put, spraying DDT inside dwellings presents no discernable human or environmental hazard. "Resistance" is not an issue since this mostly takes the form of avoidance and keeping mosquitoes away from human prey is the intended object anyway. DDT presents no patent issues to upset anti-globalists/anti-capitalists and, at pennies a pound, DDT is affordable and cost-effective health care for developing nations.

    In short, anti-malarial use of DDT allows more healthy populations to work, generate wealth and climb out of the poverty/subsistence hole in which so many American Idiots apparently wish to keep them trapped. DDT bans are not pro-environment - they're anti-human. Worse, they attack impoverished, developing societies least able to protect themselves.

    This is a tyrannical tragedy, lovers of life and liberty can and should confront and bring to a merciful end, most likely in a surprisingly short time-frame. This is truly would be long overdue Universal Health Care for all.

  • ||

    The first thing to remember is that the Ruckelshaus decision flew in the face of EPA scientists. This is not a libertarian matter; it is a matter of public health and, bizarre as it may seem, a matter of human decency. DDT use for public health purposes must rate poorly in the "ecological" scale. It seems odd that the public health use of DDT was crushed because of the agricultural community's view of DDT as a silver bullet to be used as often as it pleased--many applications over a growing season.
    For those who say that progress is the cure for malaria, I would suggest that they read about the debilitating effects of malaria--forgetting for a moment about the appalling mortality--that make progress a questionable process at best.
    That USAID precludes the use of DDT by a nation seeking funding raises questions of morality that could well be related to genocide.

  • Pattylane||

    Who started this website? I'm a journalist and am curious about you. Thank you,

    Patty

  • Scarpe Nike||

    is good

  • sd||

    sd

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