No, DDT is not the easy answer to malaria

February 13, 2011

Roger Bate and Richard Tren, the Dynamic Duo of DDT, have been busy lately.  Bate appears to have found additional funding from the radical right-wing American Enterprise Institute, where I gather he has been prowling the halls trying to sell others there on the idea that DDT is an easy solution to malaria, and only mad, despotic environmentalist megalomaniacs have stopped DDT from saving Africa from malaria, the American economy from depression, and Major League Baseball from the designated hitter rule.  (I thought it odd that his bio doesn’t mention his work for tobacco interests as integral to his organizing.)

Graphic from a 1950s-era ad for DDT

Graphic from a 1950s-era ad for DDT. No, it's not right -- it's Madison Avenue then, expressing the claims of the "DDT-is-good-for-you" hoaxsters of today.

I don’t exaggerate much, if at all.

So, I’ll bore you with rebuttals over the space of the next few days.  Especially among the right-wing echo chambers, comments are frequently moderated to oblivion when they are allowed at all.

For example, there is a site that calls itself Minnesota Prager Discussion Group — a site for Dennis Prager groupies.  Here’s a post that may have been prompted by a Dennis Prager broadcast, but which cites a scurrilous pamphlet written by Bates and Tren, with Donald Roberts, carrying all sorts of calumny against environmentalists, health care professionals, diplomats, environmentalists and scientists — cloaked in a high degree of disrespect for readers who, they hope, have never bothered to read Rachel Carson and have forgotten everything they may have ever read about DDT and environmental harms it causes.

Here’s the post on DDT and malaria there:

Malaria Can Be Easily Controlled by DDT

Posted on February 2, 2011 by Glenn H. Ray

DDT Still Critical in Fight against Insect-Borne Diseases

Through a mix of environmental fervor, self-interest and disregard for evidence-based policy, United Nations (UN) agencies are misleading the public about the insecticide DDT — mistakenly claiming it is not needed and can be eliminated globally by 2020, says Donald Roberts, emeritus professor of tropical medicine at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Roger Bate, the Legatum Fellow in Global Prosperity at the American Enterprise Institute, and Richard Tren, the executive director of Africa Fighting Malaria.

  • UN agencies are misleading the public by claiming that malaria can be controlled without insecticides, notably DDT; the stated aim is to stop DDT use globally by 2020.
  • UN agencies are committing scientific fraud by deliberately and incorrectly interpreting data on malaria control using noninsecticide methods.

While DDT is no panacea, it is still a critical weapon in the battle against malaria and other insect-borne diseases, say Roberts, Bate and Tren.

Source: Roger Bate, Donald Roberts and Richard Tren, “The United Nations’ Scientific Fraud against DDT,” American Enterprise Institute, January 21, 2011.

Above information came from the National Center of Policy Analysis

Dennis Prager regularly reminds his listeners that many tens of thousands of lives can be saved by approving DDT uses in certain areas in Africa.

Oy.  Helluva lotta error and deception packed in a couple hundred words.

So, I tried to help the “discussion group” get to some more accurate understanding of DDT and malaria.

Ed Darrell, on February 2, 2011 at 4:53 pm said:

1. There is no shortage of DDT.

2. Not only is DDT not a panacea, it is increasingly not effective against malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

3. Richard Tren leads an astro-turf organization that collects hundreds of thousands of dollars, but does very little if anything to actually fight malaria. These sorts of diatribes increase contributions to his organization’s coffers, but they don’t help fight malaria.

4. In actual practice over the last decade, bednets have proven to reduce malaria by 50% to 85% in areas where they are deployed; DDT is only 25% to 50% effective.

5. Bednets cost about $10 and last about five years — $2.00 per year. DDT costs upwards of $12 per application, and must be applied twice per year — $24.00 per year. Bednets stop mosquitoes cold. DDT depends on mosquitoes biting people first, then resting on a DDT-coated wall — and we hope that it’s a young mosquito that has not yet contracted malaria itself and is not shedding the parasites.

6. Malaria deaths, worldwide, are lower now than at any other time in human history. Since the U.S. stopped using DDT on cotton in 1972, the death rate to malaria has been cut in half. The death toll to malaria is, today, less than 25% of what it was when DDT use was at its peak. Statistically, it appears that cutting DDT use also cuts malaria.

7. We know that’s not the case, but those statistics prove that we can beat malaria without DDT — as indeed, the U.S. Army beat malaria without DDT to build the Panama Canal by 1915, 24 years before DDT was discovered to have any insecticidal properties. In the U.S., with the great aid of the Tennessee Valley Authority, malaria was essentially wiped out by 1939 — seven years before DDT became available for use against mosquitoes. No nation relying on DDT has been able to eradicate malaria.

Roger Bate, Donald Roberts and Richard Tren commit health care terrorism when they tell their fraud-laced stories against the UN and the health care professionals who fight malaria. Shame on them.

Did the author read anything I wrote?  He responded, politely for a guy who didn’t quite get it:

Glenn H. Ray, on February 9, 2011 at 12:19 pm said:

Ed Darrell: Thank you very much for this information.

Let us assume every item you mention is accepted beyond debate..

Malaria still ravages populations in Africa. We are not beating malaria without DDT.

Dennis Prager agrees with you regarding the value of bed nets and from his visits to Africa, has encouraged financial support to increase their availability.

The question still remains, why is DDT still banned rather than being available for use where needed?

My responses:

Sometimes the facts stare us in the face and we can’t see them.

You said:

Malaria still ravages populations in Africa. We are not beating malaria without DDT.

We have cut malaria 75% from when DDT was heavily used. We are beating malaria as best we can since DDT advocates overused DDT and made it ineffective against most populations of mosquitoes. (WHO’s program to eradicate malaria was effectively ended in 1965 because overuse of DDT by large agricultural interests had bred mosquitoes resistant to and immune to DDT; today, every mosquito on Earth carries the alleles that make them resistant and immune to DDT.)
It doesn’t matter how much we whine about DDT being “banned,” DDT doesn’t work to beat malaria now, and it was never intended to be more than a very temporary solution while medical care, treating the humans, did the real work.

When we beat malaria (as in the U.S.), the fact that humans do not have the disease means that mosquitoes cannot catch it from humans. That means the mosquito bites go back to being annoyances, and we don’t need to worry about them.

Malaria is a disease of humans. If we concentrate on the mosquitoes, we can reduce it, temporarily. If we concentrate on treating the disease, and preventing the disease in humans, we can forget about mosquitoes.

Dennis Prager agrees with you regarding the value of bed nets and from his visits to Africa, has encouraged financial support to increase their availability.

Then why is he talking smack against them? He’s talking untruths about DDT, untruths carried by the anti-bednet lobby, like the so-called “Africa Fighting Malaria” lobbying group. Bednets are twice to almost four times as effective as DDT, if they are used exclusive of each other. You don’t get that impression from Prager. Bednets cost a fraction of what DDT treatments cost. Bednets are effective longer than DDT treatments.

We can beat malaria without DDT. We can’t beat malaria without bednets. If he has no truck against bednets, Prager should get out of the bed of the anti-bednet, pro-DDT lobby, and talk about beating malaria.

The question still remains, why is DDT still banned rather than being available for use where needed?

No, the question is, why aren’t you listening?

DDT is not banned anywhere in Africa, and never has been. DDT is freely available to any government who wishes to use it — or private groups who wish to use it.

DDT doesn’t work as it once did, plus, it’s a deadly poison to fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and small mammals. DDT is unsafe in use outside of Indoor Residual Spraying, where it is increasingly less effective — and Africans are nervous about IRS because their children keep getting sick with strange new diseases even when the kids are safe from malaria. There may be no solid connection between the new syndromes and DDT, but since DDT is not a panacea, not as effective as untreated bednets, and much less effective than treated bednets — why take a chance?

Opposition to DDT today comes from Dennis Prager’s and AFM’s friends in business in Africa. The only serious opposition to DDT I’ve found in Africa was in Uganda, where businessmen sued to stop spraying two years ago.

What in the world makes you think there isn’t all the DDT out there that health workers need?

Any discussion of fighting malaria that involves DDT takes away from the serious fight to beat malaria. A lot of westerners think DDT is a magic potion, and that if we just poison the hell out of Africa with the stuff, we can beat malaria without serious effort, without serious research, without improving the lives of the poor people of Africa who are victimized by the disease.

We beat malaria in the U.S. by improving housing, beefing up public health services, and increasing incomes of families of victims. It took 20 years of concentrated work — all before DDT was even discovered to kill bugs.

To beat malaria in Africa, we must improve housing, beef up medical care, both diagnoses and treatment of the disease, and improve the lives of the families of victims to prevent new disease-causing bites.

It’s tough work. Prager appears not to have the stomach for it. If so, he should say so, instead of claiming, falsely, that DDT could do the job.

Malaria proves a tough foe, difficult to beat. DDT could play a very small role in the defeat of malaria, but more DDT won’t help, and malaria isn’t winning because DDT isn’t available. DDT is readily available. DDT doesn’t work anymore, and DDT was never intended to be a sole weapon.

And:

Lancet recently devoted most of an issue to fighting malaria, and how to beat it. Lancet is perhaps the world’s leading medical journal, certainly among the top three, with no axe to grind, and concerned with improving the condition of humans throughout the world — from a medical care perspective.

The articles come from the world’s leading malaria fighters and those in the vanguard of research on how to beat malaria.

Here’s the executive summary (8 pages in .pdf form).

Did you notice? No call for DDT.

Can you and Dennis Prager please get on board with the campaign to beat malaria? Howling about false, junk science claims that DDT should be used to poison Africa isn’t a ticket to get on that malaria-fighting train.

Mr. Ray responded again:

Thank you again for your interaction. It has been my understanding that many of the claims about the toxicity of DDT to the living groups you have listed has been exaggerated, particularly in regard to the bird populations.
As you might note, malaria control is not my field of expertise, but I have read this claim from two sources over the past decade, but I cannot refer you to them.
I shall remember your ‘corrections’ in any discussion I might have in the future about DDT.

I am certain Dennis has no connections with any businesses in Africa dealing with DDT.

Denial among people who admit that they don’t know much about the topic is really quite amazing, isn’t it?

I made one more comment, but Ray has held it in his site’s moderation queu for enough days I am convinced he plans to leave it there.  Here is what I posted that he has not yet let through:

Ed Darrell, on February 10, 2011 at 12:49 am said: Your comment is awaiting moderation.

Thank you again for your interaction. It has been my understanding that many of the claims about the toxicity of DDT to the living groups you have listed has been exaggerated, particularly in regard to the bird populations.

Peer review research over the past 40 years has borne out the early research from 1945 through 1961 that showed DDT is a killer of birds, reptiles, fish, amphibians and small mammals. I am unaware of any study anywhere that denies this toxicity, except with regard to insects who produce new generations quickly enough to evolve resistance and immunity.

Discover magazine looked for studies saying DDT doesn’t harm larger animals, but found none. In November 2007 the magazine noted:

In fact, Carson may have underestimated the impact of DDT on birds, says Michael Fry, an avian toxicologist and director of the American Bird Conservancy’s pesticides and birds program. She was not aware that DDT—or rather its metabolite, DDE—causes eggshell thinning because the data were not published until the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was eggshell thinning that devastated fish-eating birds and birds of prey, says Fry, and this effect is well documented in a report (pdf) on DDT published in 2002 by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). The report, which cites over 1,000 references, also describes how DDT and its breakdown products accumulate in the tissues of animals high up on terrestrial and aquatic food chains—a process that induced reproductive and neurological defects in birds and fish.

DDT kills birds outright, through acute poisoning. That was what first sounded the alarms at Michigan State University, the University of Wisconsin, and a dozen other places across the U.S. DDT accumulates in fat tissues, and poisons the brains of migrating birds when they are under stress during migration. DDT poisons chicks of birds in the eggs, killing them outright, or making them unable to feed after hatching. DDT makes female birds unable to lay competent eggs (thins the eggshells), which means even if the chick is free of the toxins, the egg can’t protect it through incubation. DDT scrambles the sex organs of birds, making hermaphrodites, and making both genders unable to mate successfully.

Most of these death mechanisms apply in other species, too. The saving grace for humans is that we are so large. DDT doses required for much of this documented damage is much higher than we get. Still, in humans, modest amounts of DDT mimic estrogen, producing premature onset of menses in little girls, and swollen mammaries and shrunken testes in boys.

There are several studies that indicate the carcinogenic effects of DDT are weak in humans. Those studies frequently are touted as having “proven DDT harmless.” Not at all. They only show that DDT isn’t as bad as tobacco in causing cancers. That’s not an endorsement of health.

As you might note, malaria control is not my field of expertise, but I have read this claim from two sources over the past decade, but I cannot refer you to them.

Any source you have will trace back to the junk science promulgated by Steven Milloy, a former henchman of the tobacco lobby, and Gordon Edwards, a formerly respected entomologist who appears to have gone off the deep end with an obsession against Rachel Carson. Neither ever published any research to back up their claims. Edwards is dead, and Milloy is a long-time political propagandist — you won’t see any research from them.

Search Pub-Med. Check the ornithology and wildlife journals. Under U.S. law, were DDT not a deadly toxin, EPA could not ban it. DDT manufacturers sued EPA to overturn the ban, and they lost twice. The courts agree that the evidence against DDT is more than sufficient for regulation of the stuff as EPA did.

I shall remember your ‘corrections’ in any discussion I might have in the future about DDT.

Thank you. Feel free to check my blog, Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, for further developments on malaria.

The hoax case for DDT, and against Rachel Carson, the UN, the World Health Organization and all of science and medical care, is getting a significant set of boosts from Tren, Bate and Roberts this winter.  Let us hope, if only for the sake of truth and accuracy, that their stuff doesn’t get any more traction than it already has.

Other recent postings on DDT and malaria and policy


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