No, DDT was not ‘erroneously’ banned from the world


Fights over genetically-modified organism (GMO) foods take some odd turns.  Some anti-GMO people point to the dangers of DDT in the past as a warning to be super cautious; and some pro-GMO people claim DDT wasn’t all that bad.

Before we hold up the history and science and law of DDT as an example, can we at least get the facts right?  That generally is a failing of the pro-DDT people.

Logo for

Logo for “greener ideal.” An astroturf group?

Like Mischa Popoff at Greener Ideal.

He wrote:

In its first major action in 1972, the United States Environmental Protection Agency made history by banning dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT). It led to a worldwide ban, all based on the public outcry elicited by marine biologist Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring.

This marks the beginning of the organic movement in America, and remains a badge of honor for organic activists, in spite of the fact that this ban resulted in the deaths of over 41 million people – roughly the same number of people Chairman Mao murdered in his Great Leap Forward – as public-health authorities lost their only effective means of controlling mosquitos that act as a vector for tropical diseases like malaria and dengue fever.

[There's more, dealing with making the case for GMO foods; feel free to click over and read his opinion.]

I wrote:  There has never been a worldwide ban on DDT. DDT has never been banned in Africa, nor Asia, nor South America.

The U.S. ban on DDT applied only to the U.S. EPA has no jurisdiction outside the U.S. EPA’s order specifically granted DDT manufacturers the right and duty to keep making the stuff in the U.S., for export.

Malaria deaths have fallen most years since the U.S. ban on DDT — there was no malaria in the U.S. of any consequence, then. But malaria deaths have fallen from 4 million annually at peak-DDT-use years of 1958-1963, to fewer than 700,000 annual deaths, today.

Popoff responded.

You are so completely out of touch Ed.

The United States and the World Trade Organization banned DDT, and then threatened to withhold financial aid from any nation that continued to use it. This resulted in an effective world-wide ban on DDT.

It doesn’t matter whether Africa, Asia or South America actually went through the trouble of writing up legislation and passing it into law to ban DDT. After the big boys in Europe and the U.S. of A. banned it, it was banned for all.

And so it came to pass that tens-of-millions of people would die from preventable diseases like malaria and dengue fever.

You should be ashamed of yourself for getting this so wrong, and for misleading people.

Should I have been stung?  His errors of history blunted any sting.  I responded again (but it’s being held; too many links, I suspect):

The US banned DDT for use on crops, out of doors. Indoor Residual Spraying (as for malaria) is legal in the U.S.

The World Trade Organization has no authority to ban any substance, anywhere. Anyone who told you otherwise was pulling your leg.

EPA tried to save the chemical companies who made DDT. The order banning it for use on crops, specifically allowed manufacture in the U.S. to continue, for export. ALL that DDT, several millions of pounds, was exported to Africa and Asia, for use against mosqutoes or any other pest people there wanted to use it against.

There has never been a shortage of DDT in Africa or Asia.

The World Health Organization started using DDT in 1955, and though they had to end their ambitious campaign to eradicate malaria in 1965 (seven years before the U.S. ban) due to DDT abuse by farmers and other businesses, WHO has used DDT constantly since 1955. Mexico used DDT since 1948 — and still does.

When DDT was banned in the U.S., it became cheaper and much more available everywhere else in the world. In fact, one problem now is what to do with all the surplus DDT that was left over. (See the photos, especially — and click through for the full FAO report: http://timpanogos.wordpress.co… ) DDT manufacture in the U.S. continued at least through 1984; today it is made in massive quantities in India; it’s easy to make, and anyone who wants to manufacture it, may.

Though WHO ended the malaria eradication campaign, people kept fighting it. Many fail to understand that DDT was just one leg of the platform used to beat malaria. The idea was to knock down the local mosquito population TEMPORARILY, and then treat and cure all the humans — so when the mosquitoes came roaring back as they always do, there would be no well of malaria disease for the mosquitoes to draw from, to spread it (mosquitoes must get infected with malaria before they can pass it on, and then they have to incubate the parasite for another two weeks). Efforts to treat and cure malaria continued, and from the DDT-peak-use high of 4 million dying each year of malaria, the death toll was reduced to about a million a year by 1999. With the assistance of NGOs like the Gates Foundation, WHO and several nations re-energized the anti-malaria fight in 1999, using Integrated Vector Management, the methods Rachel Carson urged in 1962. Since 1999, malaria deaths have been cut by 45% more, WHO calculates — about 600,000/year. That’s a dramatic difference from 4 million a year. Still too many, but much, much improvement.

And so it came to pass that, mostly without DDT, malaria deaths did NOT INCREASE, but instead DECREASED, year over year, after the U.S. banned DDT use on cotton in Arkansas.

By the way, the head of the U.S. Public Health Service testified to the EPA in 1971 that there was not need to keep DDT around in the U.S. for malaria or any other disease — “no legitimate use” of the stuff for 20 years prior, he said. Norman Borlaug, fresh from his Nobel Prize, testified DDT was important to third-world nations — which was one more factor in EPA’s odd order, against U.S. law, leaving the manufacturing going, for export.

Mischa, there is a lot written on DDT history, at EPA’s site (though much of it was taken down prior to 2008), and at many other sites. You can catch up by starting here, at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub: http://timpanogos.wordpress.co…

Other good sources include the blog Deltoid, and look for John Quiggin’s book on Zombie Economics.

DDT has never been banned worldwide. The Persistent Organic Pollutants Treaty names it one of the “dirty dozen” chemicals, but there is a special addendum to the treaty that keeps it available to fight malaria, for any nation.

I also recommend WHO’s annual “World Malaria Report.”

And if you’re interested in actually helping fight malaria, go to Nothing But Nets, and buy a bednet for a kid. Nets are about double the effectiveness of DDT or other pesticide spraying to prevent malaria.

Get in touch with what’s really going on in the malaria fight, and join in.

He responded again, with more tartness (this comment has since been cast into “moderation,” so it’s not visible; are they thinking of deleting it, or what?):

Ed, Ed, Ed… you’re wallowing in details my friend. And, again, you should be ashamed of yourself.

It’s one thing to clarify, or provide background. But you’re actually implying that people in the Third World never suffered or died in the MILLIONS after authorities lost the ability to control disease-carrying mosquitoes with DDT. You’re lying, plain and simple.

You’re right to point out that DDT is only one part of how to control malaria, but it is the MOST IMPORTANT part because DDT persists on surfaces inside people’s homes, and thereby prevents children from being bitten by mosquitoes in their sleep.

And on that note, you’re wrong (dead wrong) to suggest that mosquito nets are more effective than DDT. “Nothing But Nets” is nothing but a feel-good attempt by Hollywood elites to assuage their guilt for being part of the world-wide campaign to ban DDT.

What’s simpler? Sending tens-of-millions of mosquito nets to people in the Third World? Or simply spraying the inside of a hut with a few ounces of DDT?

DDT was most-certainly and quite effectively banned by organic activists in spite of the fact that the hero of the organic movement, Rachel Carson, never called for a ban on ANY synthetic pesticides. Here: https://www.fcpp.org/files/1/R…
See for yourself.

To which I responded:

Mischa, I provided corrections. You call me a liar?

Your history is wrong.  You’re wrong on the law, wrong on history, wrong on the chemistry, wrong on the medicine.

Are you lying?  I assumed you had made an error.  I offer you links to sources you can check.

Before you falsely malign those who offer you correction, I urge you to get the facts.

With such a rabid attack on a those who correct your history, can we trust what you claim about GMOs, either?  Unlikely.

It’s one thing to imply that people in the Third World have a tough time with malaria.  Quite another to falsely malign scientists, science, and history to claim, falsely, that environmentalists made malaria worse than it was.

Malcolm Gladwell makes it clear in his history of Fred Soper, the super mosquito fighter who created the malaria eradication campaign, that it was DDT advocates who killed the malaria eradication campaign, by overusing DDT where it wasn’t necessary.  In doing that, they forced the bugs to evolve resistance and immunity to DDT.  By the time the malaria fighters got to Central Africa with DDT as their champion tool to knock down mosquitoes, DDT didn’t work as well as they needed to buy time to cure the humans.  (See Gladwell’s piece here, especially sections 5 and 6, remembering Soper was no great fan of Carson: http://gladwell.com/the-mosquito-killer/ .)

So it was DDT advocates who created the trouble, and environmentalists who warned us it would happen — though Rachel Carson didn’t think it would happen until much later (Soper had hoped he’d have until about 1975).  The DDT advocates were wrong, and reckless.

You’re right, Rachel Carson did NOT call for a ban in DDT. She did warn that abuse of DDT would ruin it for fighting disease.

That came to pass. Seven years after her death, the case to ban DDT in the U.S. was firm (nor was there any malaria there to fight).

The ban in the U.S. covered ONLY the U.S.  DDT was NEVER banned in Africa nor Asia.  DDT has been in constant use outside of North America and western  Europe — but also in constantly diminishing effectiveness.

Your criticism of environmentalists is misplaced and wrong.

You falsely malign the critics who were right.  I must assume that you, too, are wrong, and reckless about GMOs.  What else explains your unfair and inaccurate criticism of me and my post?

What are the odds he’s right about GMOs, but just sadly and badly informed on DDT?

You know, I wonder if this guy is related to Roger Bate and Richard Tren.  Is Greener Ideal part of the greenwash movement?

If you’re looking for opposition to genetically-modified organisms in our food supply, I’m not the guy to see.  I started out in biology, remember, and I’ve seen and come to understand that humans have been altering the genomes of creatures for at least 5,000 years.  Otherwise, we’d not be able to plant wheat, we’d not have maize corn, we’d not have beef or chicken, or pork.  The question is whether the modifications are dangerous.  We’ve had some disastrous genetic modification with simple hybridization.  Obviously, the idea of crossing African bees with European honeybees turned out to be a bad idea — but that was not done in a laboratory, but by simple hybridization.  Hip dysplasia in domesticated canines is one more indication of the evils of “natural” genetic modification.

I’m not the guy to look to for evidence that science always screws things up.  Those who argue on the razor’s edge, that scientists screwed up their warnings about things in the past and therefore should not be trusted now if they happen to warn against science modifying genes in foods we eat, won’t find safe haven with me.  They’d get a sympathetic ear for their presentation of facts, though, if they could avoid patently false claims, like the repetition of the various forms of the Rachel-Carson-was-evil-DDT-is-manna-from-heaven hoaxes.  It’s difficult to argue that all scientists are bad when they warn us of dangers, but those scientists who create the dangers are always right and do things only for our benefit.  The story is much more complex than that, and broad-brush, landscape views often cover over the facts, and obscure wise policy paths.  When they claim the poison DDT is “harmless,” one must wonder what else they have completely wrong, and wonder whether they erred with bad research, or have ulterior motives for making false claims.

Popoff didn’t avoid that trap this time.

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8 Responses to No, DDT was not ‘erroneously’ banned from the world

  1. JamesK says:

    To quote: But, Mr. Popoff, where in the world do you come up with that figure of 41 million dead? It

    I somehow suspect he’s getting the number from some supposed list of all malaria deaths..and then diving head first into the logical fallacy that 1: DDT would have prevented all those deaths and that 2: mosquitos would have never never ever ever developed a resistance to ddt.

    Both of which fly in the face of reality.

    Considering WHO says there are just over 600,000 cases of deaths caused by malaria in 2012 it would take nearly 70 years of that death rate to come up with 40 million. Considering the United States didn’t ban the use of DDT until 1972 and there was no world wide ban on its use until 2004…yeah one does have to wonder exactly what exact orifice Popoff is pulling his claim from.

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  2. JamesK says:

    Mischa, if you think DDT is such a wonderful thing…then certainly you would be willing to let us use a whole lot of it around you and your family……right?

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  3. Ed Darrell says:

    Oh, also:

    “The solution to pollution is dilution.”

    Except, with DDT, you can’t dilute it. It bioaccumulates, which means no dilution can ever be enough to stop it from killing those at the top of the food chain — the eagles, the pelicans, the osprey, the fish, the bats.

    Only by ignoring science almost completely can one make such a bizarre, unhealthy, crop- and farming-industry destroying claim.

    (See bioaccumulation chart here: http://timpanogos.wordpress.com/2013/09/16/yes-ddt-is-deadly-to-humans-as-suicides-demonstrate/ )

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  4. Ed Darrell says:

    But, Mr. Popoff, where in the world do you come up with that figure of 41 million dead? It’s a fictional number, and it can only be derived by ignoring history, science, and maybe being completely flummoxed by the “+” and “-” signs used in math.

    In your article, you offer this :

    Pests that are capably controlled with pesticides in civilized nations routinely wipe out crops in poor nations. Compounding matters, the ban on humankind’s only effective means of controlling the mosquitoes that spread malaria (along with other deadly diseases) has resulted in upwards of one million deaths a year since 1972, mostly children under the age of five, mostly in the poorest 20 per cent of the world’s population. It is unconscionable that such aspects of the organic industry’s history are selectively ignored.

    Let me guess. 1 million dead from malaria each year, 1972 to 2013, 41 years = 41 million dead from malaria.

    Is that your calculation?

    You assume, thereby, that malaria would have been wiped out by 1972, the year the U.S. banned DDT? And so, you calculate, that 41 million people died unnecessarily because of the U.S. ban on DDT?

    Let’s look at the history, science, and law, to unpack that.

    World Health Organization figures are estimates, but highly massaged and generally accurate year-over-year estimates. WHO estimates that 4 million people died from malaria on average, at peak DDT-use years, 1958-1964. This was in the middle of the noble but ill-fated campaign to eradicate malaria from the planet, officially started by WHO in 1955 and led by super mosquito-fighter Fred Soper, borrowed from the Rockefeller Foundation. Soper used DDT in indoor-residual spraying, successfully treating a minimum of 80% of homes in a malaria-endemic area, and then using the 6 months to a year respite from mosquitoes to beef up medical care, to improve accurate diagnoses of malaria and which parasite, and to treat human cases to cure them of malaria, so that when the mosquitoes came roaring back, there would be no infected people from which the insects could draw the disease.

    According to the Macolm Gladwell profile of Soper in New Yorker magazine in 2001, Soper understood that mosquitoes quickly mutate and evolve resistance to pesticides, and he understood DDT’s use had already compromised anti-disease campaigns in several nations when mosquitoes (or flies, or bed bugs, or other insect targets) developed resistance or immunity. (Malcolm Gladwell, “The Mosquito Killer,” New Yorker Magazine 2001)

    Soper’s campaign got the low-hanging fruit first, malaria in temperate regions where medical care tended to be pretty good. In a decade, dramatic strides had been made, and malaria deaths had dropped by 25% to 30% worldwide, and Soper turned to central Africa.

    There he discovered his calculations were too optimistic, and Rachel Carson was right: Mosquitoes in central Africa were already resistant and immune to DDT due to overuse of the stuff in agriculture and pest control, especially outdoor spraying.

    Carson predicted mosquito resistance to DDT in some future date; Soper was hoping for no sooner than 1975. But the DDT-based malaria eradication campaign ended on the ground in Africa in 1965, and WHO officially abandoned it in 1969.

    WHO estimated malaria deaths annually then at an optimistic 3 million per year.

    WHO figures show annual malaria deaths in 1972, the year the U.S. banned DDT, at something more than 2 million per year. Your figures appear to assume 1 million, but it seems to me you gave no thought to whether malaria was increasing or decreasing.

    Now, if you’re blaming Rachel Carson for all malaria deaths, then that 2 million/year death figure increases the urgency of your case. If one wishes to make a case that Rachel Carson is responsible for millions of malaria deaths because her writings prompted an unjustified ban on DDT, which could have wiped out malaria by 1972, shouldn’t one be sure of one’s facts? Not even Fred Soper thought malaria would be gone by 1972, in his most optimistic moments.

    Such a case, your case, is wholly off the mark. Such a claim is so wrong on so many facts that one could only hope claimants understand they are perpetrating a hoax. Let’s look at why.

    1. Most important, malaria declined. Malaria deaths dropped dramatically. If one is making a case that an increase in malaria deaths is the fault of Rachel Carson, one should be stopped from such a false claim by the numbers. Malaria declined almost every year after the 1972 ban on DDT in the U.S. There was an increase after 1985 — far too long to blame on a lack of DDT — when the medicines used to cure humans stopped working, because the malaria parasite itself developed resistance. This is a continuing, vexatious problem — but the arrival of newer treatment regimens, especially those based on artimisinin, continued to cut malaria death rates.

    Today, malaria deaths stand at what is probably an all-time low for humans — fewer than 700,000 people die each year. That’s more than 75% reduction from peak DDT-use, and it’s a solid 45% reduction from 1999 figures, when WHO and the rest of the world decided to fight malaria seriously, again, despite DDT’s not being the tool it once was.

    If you’re going to say malaria deaths after 1972 can be attributed to Rachel Carson, then you must account for the REDUCTION in malaria deaths. Your 41 million deaths figure ignores the 96 million lives saved between 1972 and today, due to the real reduction in malaria deaths, almost all without relying on DDT.

    2. The WHO malaria eradication campaign ended in 1965 — seven years before the U.S. banned DDT. You cannot blame EPA for stuff that happened most of a decade before EPA acted. Honest people, thinking people can’t, anyway. EPA is good, but its regulations cannot migrate through time. Time travel has never been demonstrated.

    3. EPA’s DDT ban affected only the United States, and it applied only to DDT use on crops. Use against malaria is still allowed. Ending DDT use in the United States cannot in any rational way be said to increase mosquitoes nor malaria, even in Mexico, let alone in Africa or Asia, oceans away. Mosquitoes rarely move more than about 50 yards in a lifetime — they do not migrate from the DDT-less cotton fields of Arkansas and Texas to Africa. EPA has no authority outside the U.S., nor did EPA have any intent to stop DDT use in the fight against malaria nor any other disease. Evolution breeds mosquitoes that suck up DDT like vitamins, but has been unable to change their migration to span the world.

    Incidentally, US trade goals were to export as much DDT as possible, to keep the manufacturers in business. That remained true even past the effective date of the Superfund, by which date almost all DDT manufacturers had declared bankruptcy solely to avoid liability for cleaning up their poisoned sites.

    4. EPA crafted their regulation to allow DDT manufacturers to stay in business, but to export ALL of their production to Africa and Asia. In short, the U.S. DDT ban INCREASED DDT availability in the rest of the world, to fight malaria.

    Your claims lack any working links in any cause-effect relationship necessary to make your claim accurate. Your total deaths figure lacks any calculation offset for lives saved, and assumes contrary to history that malaria deaths rose, and didn’t decline.

    Were it a minor math error, or a minor error of history, or a minor error of epidemiology, I’d say your case needs a simple correction.

    Such a string of errors, of history, medicine, geography, time, law, etc., suggests to me instead that you have an agenda to smear Rachel Carson and environmentalists, and no barrier of fact is enough to keep you from your self-appointed round.

    I hope I’m wrong. I’m not seeing a convincing case from you on any count.

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  5. Mischa Popoff says:

    Click here to read about how Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring did indeed lead to 41 million deaths: http://www.greenerideal.com/lifestyle/0718-anti-science-wing-of-organic-movement/

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  6. […] co-author of the one of the best and biggest take downs of the DDT hoaxers, caught wind of that nasty piece at the misnomered “Greener Ideals,” and has taken on Mischa Popoff in a post at Crooked […]

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  7. stewart says:

    A pity when people decide their arguments can’t stand on their own, and feel they have to demonize someone else, especially when there’s a clear paper trail to show the falsity of their comments. And of course everyone’s favourite ex-Greenpeacer had to support the story….

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  8. […] inspector” and repeats the standard DDT myth before a segue into a defence of GMOs. But, as Ed Darrell points out, Popoff is being a bit cute here. DuckDuckGo reveals that he is in fact a Policy Advisor for The […]

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