Nader Has the Courage to Fight a Totem

The vice president is worried about Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader. Robert Kennedy Jr. summed up his concern nicely: “Nader’s candidacy could siphon votes from Al Gore–the environment’s most visible champion since Theodore Roosevelt–and lead to the election of George W. Bush.” And with a recent poll showing Nader running at 8% of the vote in the critically important state of California, the unthinkable might just happen.  

Looking at the Web sites of Gore and the Democrats and Nader and the Green Party, it is clear that both parties and individuals rate the environment and the poor as high domestic and international priorities. But there is no mention on Nader’s election site of the one project he should be most proud of: the funding of the Malaria Project from his Center for the Study of Responsive Law in Washington, D.C.  

The Malaria Project has almost single-handedly fought, in the face of massive environmentalist’s opposition, for the continued use of DDT for mosquito control in poor countries. Since DDT is such a totemic baddie for the Greens, it is politically dangerous for Nader to support (even tacitly)its use, especially as he is running as the Green candidate. And this probably explains why the malaria project site at CSRL doesn’t mention DDT at all.  Ironically, Gore recently visited the birthplace of anti-DDT author Rachel Carson. According to Gore’s campaign Web site, when he was young, his mother gave him a copy of Carson’s “Silent Spring,” a book that helped spark his interest in the environment. Carson was one of the first to allege that DDT would harm wildlife. Indeed, used massively in agriculture, it caused eggshell thinning in birds of prey, and numerous other alleged, though few proven, environmental problems. 

DDT was banned from the U.S. and most of the rest of the developed world in the early 1970s. Before that, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences claimed that it had saved “500 million lives from malaria.” All of Southern Europe and the southern U.S. had eradicated malaria by using DDT in the early 1950s. But DDT-resistant mosquitos, reduction in aid budgets and environmental concerns resulted in a significant reduction of DDT-spraying around the world starting in the 1960s.

DDT has quietly been used in developing countries, such as South Africa, Botswana, Indonesia and India for the past three decades, almost without comment. In 1997, however, the United Nations Environment Program decided to promote a treaty that would ban 12 persistent organic pollutants, including DDT.

Most medical and environmental health specialists (including mosquito sprayers) were not aware of the proposed treaty, and most of the country delegates to UNEP were not aware that DDT was still used in malaria control. Indeed, until Amir Attaran, head of the Malaria Project, presented the case for DDT at the UNEP negotiating sessions in Vancouver (1998) and Geneva (1999), it was still likely to be banned.

Given that “three children die every minute in Africa from malaria, and DDT is still the most cost-effective means of controlling the disease, this would have been a scandalous waste of life,” says Prof. Don Roberts of the Uniformed Services Hospital in Maryland. Furthermore, the spraying of DDT is contained inside buildings and very little reaches the wider environment, and hence “causes no problem,” according to toxicology expert Gerhard Verdooren of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, an environmentalist group from South Africa.

Attaran collected nearly 400 signatures from malaria specialists, including three Nobel Laureates, in 1999 on a letter supporting DDT use. The letter was widely reported in the media and led to the World Wildlife Fund retracting its demand that DDT be banned, at the opening plenary session of the U.N. “persistent organic pollutants” meeting last year. Attaran lobbied delegates from numerous countries and with the Malaria Foundation International, made the treaty writers see sense.

When the final meeting takes place in South Africa this December, Attaran, his colleagues and Nader will have saved DDT for those countries that cannot afford the alternatives.

While many Greens will be shocked about Nader’s fight to reprieve DDT and other insecticides, perhaps they should ponder that two more New Yorkers were diagnosed with the West Nile virus last month. New York-based media has been surprisingly sanguine about insecticidal spraying to control this deadly mosquito-borne disease. But the chances of catching this virus are very small. For most Africans, when surrounded by major dangers such as malaria, minuscule theoretical threats from pesticides do not figure.

Perhaps the vice president did not take a stand about DDT and malaria because he was ignorant of the problem. But given his frequent trips to South Africa, where malaria rates have increased 1,000% in the past five years, he surely should have known.   The fact that Nader could put humanitarian concerns above his well-known dislike for DDT is commendable and strategically sensible. He could foresee, where no one else could, the harm to the environmental movement of being saddled with the blame for millions of dead children from malaria. It is likely that’s how the history books would have written it had DDT been banned. Nader will not be president, but Gore could learn a lot from him in what former President Bush called “the vision thing.”