Public Health

DDT Can Be Good for Your Health


LOS ANGELES—The United Nation's Environment Program met last week in Bonn to discuss a potential international ban on DDT, an insecticide banned in 1972 the United States because of worries about cancer and its ill effects on some wildlife. DDT was a lead villain in the highly influential 1962 best-seller Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, the fountainhead of modern environmentalist fears over chemicals. DDT is one of 12 substances, dubbed persistent organic pollutants, which are potentially on the UN's chopping block. Last week's meeting is the fourth in a series of five. Any ban decided on at the conclusion of the series of meetings would be signed officially in May 2001.

The UN should be advised in the strongest terms not to ban the pesticide. While these international bureaucrats think they are acting in the interest of everyone's environmental health, their targeting of DDT could mean death for millions in the world's poorer regions. To the wealthy Western world, malaria is merely a subject for fantastic tales of faraway jungles. But in parts of Central and South America, southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa, it's still a powerful killer. Malaria causes around 500 million illnesses and 2.7 million deaths annually around the world, most of them of children. Indeed, Malaria Foundation International reports that over 200 children under age 5 die every hour from the disease. By killing the anopheles mosquitoes that spread malaria, DDT has proven our most effective weapon against the disease. The World Health Organization made its longest strides toward ending the scourge during its Malaria Eradication Program of the late '50s and '60s. DDT sprayed on the interior of people's homes was the best weapon. This interior use keeps DDT for the most part out of the larger environment, and in minuscule quantities, compared to the massive agricultural use that raised environmental fears. Nowadays, the evidence from countries like Ecuador, which still uses DDT in mosquito control, is completely clear: More DDT use equals less malaria. While other pesticides can also kill mosquitoes, only one type is anywhere near as cheap and harmless to humans as DDT–and it's not quite as cheap (every penny counts, especially in relatively poor nations). When dealing with insects that often develop resistance to pesticides, it's foolish to eliminate any chemical weapon from our arsenal.

Unfortunately for many people in the malaria belt, the world's elites are arrayed against DDT. The WHO is again making a "roll back malaria" project one of its central concerns. But now it stresses curing the already sick and developing nonexistent "silver bullet" vaccines, as opposed to killing the mosquitoes that spread malaria. The United States, which banned DDT long ago, doesn't like giving foreign aid to any program that involves DDT. And because of the damage it may cause birds when used in large quantities, most environmental groups want to ban it entirely.

A group of scientists with Malaria Foundation International have begged the UN not to rob them of their best hope of saving lives from malaria. The UN's, and the international environmental community's, apparent willingness to disarm the world's poor in the fight against malaria does not speak well of their humanitarianism, or their sense of proportion. The charges against DDT are either based on outdated notions of massive agricultural use or on tentative and unproved fears that the insecticide disrupts hormones and women's lactation periods. Given the clear, fatal effects of malaria, and DDT's unmistakable record in helping curb it, these objections are a morbid, and unfunny, joke. Try telling a mother whose children are dying of malarial fevers that she can't use a pesticide to kill the insects responsible because some study indicates it may perhaps shorten her lactation period.

Much of the world still lacks the basics of sanitation and pest control that allow for a healthy civilized life. It is arrogant-and quite unkind-to allow Western concerns about rare and remote risks to drive a worldwide ban of something of vital importance to the developing world just because we no longer need it. Such arrogance, however callous, is unfortunately one of the animating principles of global environmentalists, whose fantastic fear of chemicals blinds them to real, urgent threats to human life.