Hooray for DDT, Says WHO—Science Wins Over Superstition

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Really good news today–especially for the millions suffering from malaria. The World Health Organization finally broke with ideological environmentalist orthodoxy and acknowledged that the pesticide DDT is a vital third weapon in the war on malaria carrying mosquitoes.

Reason has been reporting for some time on this ongoing struggle between green ideology and the needs of the world's poorest people. More here and here if you're interested.

I suspect a lot of credit for this breakthrough should go to Roger Bate and Richard Tren and others associated with the Africa Fighting Malaria campaign. Good job, folks! It's always a good day when science overcomes superstition and especially so when it will help save millions of lives.

Disclosure: I don't own stocks in any company that manufactures DDT, not that there's anything wrong with that.

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  1. Really good news today–especially for the millions suffering from malaria.

    Minor nitpick.

    Unfortunately this won’t do anything for anyone who is suffering from malaria now. It might help those at risk from contracting malaria though.

    As such, it is indeed good news.

  2. It looks to me like the process worked exactly as it was supposed to; the science got better, and the policy recommendations changed. As science learned about the damage DDT was doing whe it was being sprayed widely, its use was curtailed. As the science learned how it could be used safely, it was approved for that type of use.

    I really don’t see any evidence of this ideological war Bailey’s positing. As far as “…broke with ideological environmentalist orthodoxy,” the article mentions that the 2001 UN treaty that finally banned DDT included an exception for this use. I’m pretty familiar with environmentalist issues, and I can honestly say that I haven’t seen a single piece in all of that time opposing the household spraying of DDT in Africa. Certainly no quotes or links to such are provided in this or any of Bailey’s past contributions. Nor did a single one of the sources quoted in the article suggest that it was irrational to ban DDT at the time.

    Perhaps there is colony of Orthodox Envrionmentalists that live near Ron Bailey, walking around with black hats and long forelocks, protesting the use of DDT for household spraying in Africa. Personally, I haven’t seen any.

    But hey, congratulations, you seem pretty sure you kicked someone’s ass, so rock on.

  3. I thought that the premises (sp?) that DDT is unavailable in Africa and that DDT is particularly effective against mosquitos in Africa were somewhat debunked recently. Specifically, in another H&R thread, someone asserted with some authority (and reputable sources with links?) that it is widely available but not used because it is not cost effective against the peculiarities of mosquito populations in Africa.

  4. I don’t own stocks in any company that manufactures DDT, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    But are you shorting stocks of companies that make malaria treatments?

    It looks to me like the process worked exactly as it was supposed to; the science got better, and the policy recommendations changed.

    I think that the changes in policy lagged the scientific knowledge by quite a long stretch, joe. Is that how its supposed to work? Governments and quasi-governments lock in outdated policies while millions suffer and die?

  5. Hurrah! That is, indeed, a great victory. For those who don’t know, above: there was really a political movement against DDT, as the environmental case against it was never supported by strong scientific data in the first place. Instead, the regular junk of pressure groups was toted as evidence, with the disastrous consequence (for the third world, as malaria was by then eradicated from the North) of making it politically incorrect for governments to encourage its use.

  6. Hurrah! That is, indeed, a great victory. For those who don’t know, above: there was really a political movement against DDT, as the environmental case against it was never supported by strong scientific data in the first place. Instead, the regular junk of pressure groups was toted as evidence, with the disastrous consequence (for the third world, as malaria was by then eradicated from the North) of making it politically incorrect for governments to encourage its use.

  7. RC, please RTFA. You’d link you’d learn about taking Bailey at his word.

    The very first DDT ban by the UN was passed in 2001. That very ban included the exemption for this use. No one has been “locked into” anything – governments used the best science available, commissioned a study to push the science further, and weren’t forbidden from doing this in the meantime.

    The WHO appears to have acknowledged the science fairly quickly.

  8. Joe: So why did it take WHO so long to activley support DDT? It is true that the campaign to ban DDT was beaten back from the POPs treaty, but you will find that groups like Pesticide Action Network are still fighting against it which is why it took WHO this long. As NPR just now reported the WHO endorsement was designed to coopt environmental opposition.

    As for the past some 300 environmental groups did try to get banned globally, according to the Malaria Foundation International at URL http://www.malaria.org/DDTpage.html

    At 7:28 am on Sunday, 10 December 2000, the delegates in Johannesburg, South Africa, approved a treaty allowing for the continued use of DDT in disease vector control as the United Nations Environment Program concluded the fifth and FINAL round of negotiations on a treaty to ban persistent organic pollutants. The official mandate of the treaty was to “reduce and/or eliminate” twelve POPs, of which DDT was one. This led groups such as Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund, Physicians for Social Responsibilty and over 300 other environmental organizations to advocate for a total DDT ban, starting as early as 2007 in some cases. Although the open letter you signed made considerable progress in persuading these environmental groups to change their views, it was only the diplomats and delegates of 120 countries at the Johannesburg negotiations who could take the final decision. I am delighted to report to you that They decided that DDT is a unique case, and whereas the other eleven POPs dealt with by the treaty are on a list to be “prohibited or eliminated” (Annex A of the treaty), DDT alone is on a list to be merely “restricted” (Annex B), with the primary restriction being that DDT use in agriculture is hereby eliminated. The future public health uses of DDT are safeguarded by a “DDT exemption” written into the treaty.

  9. “I’m pretty familiar with environmentalist issues, and I can honestly say that I haven’t seen a single piece in all of that time opposing the household spraying of DDT in Africa.”

    Courtesy of the WWF …

    “Currently, DDT’s only official use, as specified by the World Health Organization (WHO), is for the control of disease vectors in indoor house spraying – although other (illegal) uses are suspected. Because of the availability of safer and effective alternatives for fighting malaria, WWF is calling for a global phaseout and eventual ban on DDT production and use.

    Due to the well-documented hazards of DDT, WWF has been involved in a special effort to inform, educate, and convince the public and policymakers about the dangers of DDT and the need to phase out and ban its use.”

    I’d say the WWF lobbying of public policy makers to “phase out” DDT with an eye to a total ban on production and use qualifies as “opposing the household spraying of DDT.”

  10. Ron,

    “So why did it take WHO so long to activley support DDT?” Is five years really that long a time to collect data on a question like this? Especially when the practice in question is allowed, and the study is looking into whether it should be banned?

    I’m still not seeing the millions of Africans with DDT who were victimized by the ban on household spraying that never happened. The ones RC is just sure have to be out there, what with the evil environmentalists still at loose.

    So I have to ask, what makes you think a five year study period is such clear evidence that the WHO was overly-influcenced by the environmental groups?

    pigwiggle,

    We phased out and banned lead paint because of its health effects, and transitioned to latex paint. Why wouldn’t we want to see the same thing occur with DDT? Sure, the benefits of household spraying outweigh the harms by a good margin, but would you want the stuff sprayed around your house if a safer alternative was available? Replacing less safe practices with more safe ones is part of how material progress works.

  11. Joe, the World Wildlife Fund seeks (sought) to enact a worldwide ban on DDT, including but not limited to household spraying. With a total, worldwide ban, DDT presumably wouldn’t be available to household sprayers.

    To wit:

    WWF said new research shows that DDT sprays — even when used indoors — leak significant levels of DDT into the environment and pose hazards to both human health and wildlife.

    “DDT is such a potent chemical that as long as it is used anywhere in the world, nobody is safe,” said Clifton Curtis, director of the WWF Global Toxics Initiative.

    Sure, WWF talks about ‘safe alternatives’. But producing an effective alternative is easier said than done.

  12. joe,

    The WWF calls for a phase out in ’07, which isn’t substantially different from a ban.

  13. If malaria was killing people in the US at a fraction of the rate that it kills at in Africa, we’d be area spraying DDT.

    Why force the decision upon them to limit them to indoor spraying?

  14. Jesus Christ joe, how do you sleep at night.

  15. Well, Warren, the bodies of the Africans I kill on a daily basis helps to keep my cave warm. Could you be little more dramatic, nancy?

    MattXIV, if I read Bailey’s response correctly, they were calling for a phase out by 2007 in 2000.

    “If malaria was killing people in the US at a fraction of the rate that it kills at in Africa, we’d be area spraying DDT.” No, not really. We’d almost be certainly using the same sort of safer sprays that we’re using now. Especially since our mosquitoes would be quite immune by this point.

    “Why force the decision upon them to limit them to indoor spraying?” No one’s forcing anything. The WHO doesn’t operation an inderdiction program. All of this talk about a “ban” is really referring to advice from the UN about what individual countries’ policies should be. And hey, great news, it is safe for them to continue indoor spraying.

  16. “thought that the premises (sp?) that DDT is unavailable in Africa and that DDT is particularly effective against mosquitos in Africa were somewhat debunked recently.”

    When has that ever stopped anybody here?

    http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/ddt/

  17. …colony of Orthodox Envrionmentalists that live near Ron Bailey, walking around with black hats and long forelocks,….

    …Could you be little more dramatic, nancy? – joe

    Boy! Gratuitous anti-semitism and homophobia all in the same thread! Nice going, joe!

    Of course, we know you are “only joking.”

    Kevin

  18. “Gratuitous anti-semitism and homophobia all in the same thread! Nice going, joe!”

    Oh, please. A pun on the tern “orthodox” is not anti-semitism, and calling someone “nancy” is not homophobia.

    You need to leave the house more, kevrob.

  19. joe’s right on this. Environmental DDT spraying was having major negative environmental effects while also proving fruitless – the mosquitoes were evolving immunity. There was never any UN recommendation to stop spraying DDT in houses, which is more effective and slows down resistance.

    – Josh

  20. But Josh, that goes against the narrative Bailey’s trying to sell. Ergo, those cannot possibly be the facts.

    We have people whose guts tell them that elitist (and antisemitic! and homophobic!) environmentalists have condemned millions of poor Africans to suffering and death. Their guts, Josh! What are your objective facts, against that?

  21. A pun (sic) on the tern “orthodox” is not anti-semitism, and calling someone “nancy” is not homophobia. – joe

    Referring to forelocks and black hats surely conjures up images of the Hasidim to me. If I were to create a caricature of enviro-orthodox wear, I would have gone with Birkenstocks and hempen trousers, and left the Jews out of it.

    As for “nancy,” what could that be except the short form of “nancy boy”? Face it, my statist “friend,” by the rules of our modern PC Police, you’ve been busted. Schedule yourself for that Maoist reeducation known as “sensitivity training” right away, or it will go hard on you! 🙂

    Kevin

  22. I have noticed a fallacy on the H&R boards regarding the environment as an issue. Environmentalists are posited to be radical or fringe elements. But according to my understanding of the issue, the environment is an issue that is very important to a majority of Americans…

    77% according to this recent poll…
    http://www.pollingreport.com/prioriti.htm

    The fringe are those that seem to think environmentalism is an extreme ideology. There are evironmental extremists, just as there are (fill in the blank) extremists, but on this issue it is those who don’t consider environmental impacts as of major import that are extremists.

  23. “If malaria was killing people in the US at a fraction of the rate that it kills at in Africa, we’d be area spraying DDT.

    Why force the decision upon them to limit them to indoor spraying?”

    In fact, malaria WAS killing people in the Southeast US in the 1940’s, and we did not rely on area-spraying DDT: we eliminated the disease through a combination of indoor sprayings, the use of multiple other pesticides, and public drainage programs that targeted mosquito breeding sites (http://www.cdc.gov/malaria/history/eradication_us.htm). Massive outdoor spraying of DDT has been tried in other countries, but it hasn’t worked very well, since it facilitates the dominance of DDT-resistant mosquitos in local populations. Sri Lanka in the 1970’s is an example — there was a short-term drop in malaria rates, and then a new generation of resistant insects shot everything to hell.

    Btw, the eradication of malaria in the United States was achieved through the efforts of a relatively efficient and very well-funded health bureaucracy, in a country where malaria was far far less of a problem than it is in the rest of the world. Can you imagine a vastly larger public works program working in Africa or Asia today? We’re already trying with AIDS, and facing huge problems with corrupt or powerless governments, hucksters passing off placebos as retroviral drugs, and distrustful patients who put their faith in home remedies. Given all this, it’s tough to swallow the “evil Greenies are killing millions by preventing the end of malaria!” meme that keeps getting pushed in Reason. Isn’t there another angle on the subject?

  24. This thread may well be dead, and joe’s usual careful reference to the “facts” in any science policy debate and his acute and fair-minded insight into the evil motivations of this humble reporter have probably settled the matter for anybody on H&R interested in this topic, but I do want to quote from the Sunday Washington Post at URL

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/09/15/AR2006091501012.html

    “WHO expects opposition to the policy change from some environmental groups. Kochi appealed directly to them in his announcement.

    “I am here today to ask you, please help save African babies as you are helping to save the environment. African babies do not have a powerful movement … to champion their well-being,” he said.

    The Post further suggested:

    DDT was the chief chemical villain of Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” whose publication in 1962 helped nurture the modern environmental movement. The chemical was banned in the United States in 1972, and its use worldwide fell steeply after that. It is no longer used in agriculture.

    A study in Zambia in 2000 found that when all houses in a neighborhood were sprayed, malaria incidence fell 35 percent compared with years when none was sprayed.

    Swaziland and Madagascar each had malaria epidemics after suspending DDT spraying, the latter’s outbreak killing more than 100,000 people from 1986 to 1988. Both epidemics were stopped when DDT spraying resumed.

    Apteryx: Actually there was a worldwide campaign using DDT in the 1950s and early 60s that in fact drastically reduced the incidence of malaria throughout the world even in subSaharan Africa. Unfortunately, it failed due to the emergence of resistance combined with growing environmentalist agitation against all uses of DDT.

  25. This seemed worth including…

    Putting Myths to Bed

    Published in today’s Australian is a letter which should (but won’t, there is always another mule in the wings) put to rest the nonsense on ddt recently peddled by Christopher Pearson.

    CHRISTOPHER Pearson (Inquirer, 24-25/1) blames “the environmental lobby . . . with direct responsibility for millions of needless deaths, mostly of children in the Third World, from malaria”. The argument is that Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring falsely accused the insecticide DDT of dangers to both human health and the environment, that this accusation led to the banning of DDT in mosquito control programs in areas where malaria is endemic (mostly the tropics), and as a direct result of this ban, millions of people died.

    This argument is arrant nonsense, recycled from an article in Quadrant, in turn recycled from a number of unscientific and unsubstantiated websites. As professionals and teachers in the field of parasite disease control, we are only too well aware of how such rubbish can be transmuted from cyberspace junk to popular folklore. Your readers should be aware of the facts:

    The manufacture and use of DDT was banned in the US in 1972, on the advice of the US Environmental Protection Agency. The use of DDT has since been banned in most other developed nations, but it is not banned for public health use in most areas of the world where malaria is endemic. Indeed, DDT was recently exempted from a proposed worldwide ban on organophosphate chemicals.

    DDT usage for malaria control involves spraying the walls and backs of furniture, so as to kill and repel adult mosquitoes that may carry the malaria parasite. Other chemicals are available for this purpose, but DDT is cheap and persistent and is often a very effective indoor insecticide which is still used in many parts of the world.

    DDT is not used for outdoor mosquito control, partly because scientific studies have demonstrated toxicity to wildlife, but mainly because its persistence in the environment rapidly leads to the development of resistance to the insecticide in mosquito populations. There are now much more effective and acceptable insecticides, such as Bacillus thuringiensis, to kill larval mosquitoes outdoors.

    Reductions in the use of DDT did occur in a number of developing nations after the US ban in 1972. This reflected concerns over environmental consequences of DDT, but was also a result of many other factors. One of the important factors in declining use of DDT was decreasing effectiveness and greater costs because of the development of resistance in mosquitoes. Resistance was largely caused by the indiscriminate, widespread use of DDT to control agricultural pests in the tropics. This problem, in fact, was anticipated by Carson: “No responsible person contends that insect-borne disease should be ignored . . . The question that has now urgently presented itself is whether it is wise or responsible to attack the problem by methods that are rapidly making it worse.”

    Malaria is a major, ongoing disease problem in much of the developing world. Increases in the incidence of the disease have occurred for complex reasons. Reduced insecticide usage is one, but others include the resistance to treatment in both the parasite and the mosquito vectors, changes in land use that have provided new mosquito habitat, and the movement of people into new, high-risk areas.

    Most nations where malaria is a problem, and most health professionals working in the field of malaria control, support the targeted use of DDT, as part of the tool kit for malaria control. Most also agree that more cost-effective, less environmentally persistent alternatives are needed. There are some effective alternative chemicals for the control of adult mosquitoes, but preventing their further development is lack of invest ment by industry, because malaria is largely a disease of the poor.

    Malaria is responsible for enormous suffering and death. The facts are readily available in the scientific literature. To blame a reduction in DDT usage for the death of 10-30 million people from malaria is not just simple-minded, it is demonstrably wrong. To blame a mythical, monolithic entity called the environmental lobby for the total reduction in DDT usage is not just paranoid, it is also demonstrably wrong. Your article is not only poor journalism, it is an insult to the people who work for the control of parasitic diseases that afflict developing nations.

    Dr Alan Lymbery
    Professor Andrew Thompson
    Parasitology Unit
    Division of Health Sciences
    Murdoch University

    Related and interesting…
    http://timlambert.org/2005/06/ddt10/

  26. ‘Resistance was largely caused by the indiscriminate, widespread use of DDT to control agricultural pests in the tropics. This problem, in fact, was anticipated by Carson: “No responsible person contends that insect-borne disease should be ignored . . . The question that has now urgently presented itself is whether it is wise or responsible to attack the problem by methods that are rapidly making it worse.”‘

    Since we all care about African babies, and recognize the usefulness of controlled, indoor spraying of DDT to control malaria, let’s give a big hand to the environmentalists, like Rachel Carson, whose foresight in bringing to an end the irresponsible, resistance-inducing agricultural use of the product has allowed domestic sprawying of DDT to remain an effective tool for protecting human life.

  27. MSM: Thanks for the link. But do you think that Dr. Kochi, head of WHO, is being delusional when he explicitly worries about oppostion to DDT by environmental groups? Or that the folks over at the Malaria Foundation International (a group of the world’s leading malariologists–yes there is such a scientific discipline) were similarly delusional when they cited oppostion by 300 environmental groups during the POPS treaty negotiations?

    An alternative interpretation is that some environmental groups did not explicitly oppose DDT use for malaria, but many who did are now furiously backpedaling (and falsely scrubbing the record of their previous opposition) because of the bad publicity.

    Joe: You really should read by 40th anniversary review of Silent Spring (and the links) at URL: https://www.reason.com/rb/rb061202.shtml

    Where I note:

    Anti-DDT activists who tried to have the new U.N. treaty on persistent organic pollutants totally ban DDT have stepped back recently from their ideological campaign, conceding that poor countries should be able to use DDT to control malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

  28. Ron, the ban on the agricultural use of DDT that Rachel Carson inspired has saved lives by slowing the development of resistance. Why do you keep evading that point?

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