Thirty years ago this month, the government launched an assault on a basic liberty – the liberty to protect one’s own health using a pesticide.
At that time, the Environmental Protection Agency banned the pesticide DDT. Fortunately for Americans, we had largely eradicated malaria here, but this affront to liberty produced deadly reverberations elsewhere.
Other nations followed the U.S. lead, depriving their citizens of the right to use this substance to protect themselves from deadly malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Because malaria was still a considerable problem in the developing world, millions of people – mostly children – have died every year since.
Initially, DDT was hailed as a major public health achievement. Its discoverer, scientist Paul Herman Muller, was awarded the 1948 Nobel Prize because DDT provided an affordable way to manage major public health risks carried by mosquitoes, lice and other vectors. DDT helped cleanse Nazi war victims of disease-ridden lice, protected allied troops against vermin and typhus, and became a key tool in fighting malaria around the world – saving millions of lives.
DDT is still the best available tool for controlling the spread of malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Public health authorities spray DDT on the interior walls of buildings, which deters mosquitoes from entering the homes. This approach is effective because mosquitoes feed largely at night when people are inside. In addition, DDT is much more affordable than other pesticides, which is critically important for poor people in developing nations.
Such limited use of DDT does not affect wildlife, and DDT has not been shown to have any adverse impacts on human health. According to A.G. Smith of the scientific journal Lancet: "If the huge amounts of DDT used are taken into account, the safety record for human beings is extremely good. In the 1940s many people were deliberately exposed to high concentrations of DDT through dusting programs or impregnation of clothes, without any apparent ill effect."
Yet ever since environmental activist Rachel Carson first attacked DDT in her 1962 book, "Silent Spring," environmentalists have campaigned ceaselessly to ban the pesticide. The results of this effort have been devastating. In the absence of DDT use, malaria cases skyrocketed. According to the World Health Organization, malaria alone infects 300 to 400 million people a year and kills more than one million. Most of these victims are children. For example, South Africa nearly eradicated malaria-carrying mosquitoes when it used DDT, but cases soared after the nation caved to environmental activists who pressed the country to switch to another pesticide. When DDT use ended, cases rose from 4,117 in 1995 to 27,238 by 1999 (or possibly as many as 120,000 if one considers pharmacy records), according to a study conducted by researchers Amir Attaran and Rajendra Maharaj. In response to this crisis, South Africa has decided to resume DDT use.
Tropical medicine specialist Dr. Donald Roberts and his colleagues explain in a research article that "separate analyses of data from 1993 to 1995 showed that countries that have recently discontinued their spray programs are reporting large increases in malaria incidence. Ecuador, which has increased use of DDT since 1993, is the only country reporting a large reduction (61 percent) in malaria rate since 1993."
Despite the rising death toll, environmentalists have worked to advance a worldwide ban, which led to an international treaty restricting the product. During treaty negotiations, more than 350 public health officials – including three Nobel laureates – signed a 1999 letter supporting continued use of DDT to fight malaria. The final treaty, which President Bush signed last year and is now awaiting Senate ratification, allows for limited use of DDT, but it creates serious hurdles. It will require developing nations to navigate an expensive, bureaucratic process before they can employ DDT to save lives.
Moreover, activists continue to push for eventual elimination. They are likely to claim that new alternatives are available. But millions have suffered because bureaucrats and lawmakers followed that advice in the past. Why should we ever trust them to make that decision again?