The Excellent Powder — DDT

Today, many people celebrate Earth Day, and for most, that simply means enjoying the beauty of the natural world. And what a perfect day it is here in D.C. for going outside! However, Earth Day has less innocuous roots. It is better understood as a political holiday, one that has advanced an anti-progressive ideology–a philosophy has done considerable harm.

That was certainly the message of an event yesterday hosted by Africa Fighting Malaria at the National Press Club. AFM released its new book: The Excellent Powder: DDT’s Political and Scientific History, authored by Donald Roberts, Richard Tren, Roger Bate, and Jennifer Zambone. It tells what amounts to horror story that started around the first Earth Day event, which took place on April 22, 1970.

DDT was originally condemned by Rachel Carson in her 1962 book Silent Spring, which claimed it was dangerous to public health and harmed wildlife. Carson, who is considered the mother of the modern environmental movement, went as far as to categorize it as “an elixir of death.” And her followers echoed those views at the first Earth Day. A brochure published by Environmental Action for the first Earth Day read:

“A disease has infected our country. It has brought smog to Yosemite, dumped garbage in the Hudson, sprayed DDT in our food, and left our cities in decay. Its carrier is man.”

Yet the real disease threatening people was not man-produced technologies like DDT, it was malaria. And this “excellent powder” was a potential solution.

Yet the anti-progressive drumbeat continued against DDT and June14, 1972, it was banned domestically. Many other nations and the World Health Organization would follow suit by discontinuing its use despite the fact that this insecticide was needed to fight malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

According to author, and AFM President, Richard Tren, DDT was “unfairly vilified” and the book attempts to set the record straight, addressing both science and politics. Co-author Don Roberts, Ph.D., concurred, noting that activist campaigns against DDT use have imposed “severe and grievous harm” on poor people in developing countries. Millions have died needlessly because DDT use was drastically curtailed, allowing malaria-carrying mosquitoes to flourish. When DDT was used malaria rates dropped dramatically around the world, and malaria disappeared from many western nations like the United States. After it was discontinued, rates have skyrocketed into the hundreds of millions, particularly in Africa, with several million people dying every year, mostly children under five.

A medical entomologist, Roberts explained that his contribution to the book stems from his decades of research starting in the 1970s regarding malaria and DDT in the field (in developing nations around the world), in the laboratory, and in the literature. He saw first-hand the extraordinary power that DDT had in the 1970s in efforts to control disease outbreaks. On DDT’s health impacts, Roberts explained that it is toxic–but not very. In fact, modern pesticides are hundreds of time more toxic. Yet we find no human deaths from environmental exposures of from them or DDT. DDT posed no health issues even though DDT was used in extremely large qualities in the United States, including in the home. Roberts remembers his mom using it in the kitchen to kill flies.

Roberts’ research eventually showed that DDT had the ability to repel mosquitoes, a fact that is more important than its toxic effects. If used to repel rather than kill mosquitoes, the insect’s resistance to the substance would remain low and DDT could be used long-term to protect humans from deadly mosquitoes.

Tren elaborated on this point during the question and answer portion of the event. He explained that DDT resistance was a problem when it was used in large, toxic doses to protect crops. But the use of relatively small quantities of DDT to repel mosquitoes from homes to prevent malaria poses a very minor threat of resistance. In any case, Tren explained that where resistance exists, it is best combated by constantly introducing new pesticides rather than imposing bans. Unfortunately, in addition to bans, government regulations make it increasingly difficult to get new pesticides on the market. In fact, the number of public health pesticides available is in decline.

Tren’s point about new pesticides brings us full circle. Conservation and public health are laudable goals, but the anti-progressive goals of Earth Day are not. Rather than condemn chemicals or business, we should celebrate the progress that mankind has made in making life healthier and safer. Indeed, human ingenuity and modern technologies should be credited for finding solutions to environmental problems as well as enhancing the human condition. Political approaches taken by modern-day greens have done the opposite.