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.


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

Africa Fighting Malaria claims to be fighting malaria

July 6, 2010

In response to earlier analysis here, that Africa Fighting Malaria (AFM) does not appear to do much to fight malaria, Richard Tren wrote a comment to a post at TropIKA.

Tren is unlikely to respond here; I gather he does not want to answer questions.

I will comment more completely later — I’m still not sure just what AFM does to fight malaria.  It’s humorous that he calls my question an “ad hominem” attack; I ask the questions because Tren has led the fight in the unholy smear campaign against Rachel Carson, against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, against dozens of other scientists and science itself, against saving the bald eagle, against wise use of pesticides, against bed nets, against fighting malaria other than poisoning Africa. Most recently, as Tren mentions, he published a book that repeats much of the inaccurate claims and hoaxes he has relied on before.  But he’s concerned about attacks on him personally, and not the substance.

Why am I concerned at all?  The AFM-led assault on the World Health Organization, Rachel Carson, malaria fighters in public health, scientists and environmentalists  has come at an extremely high cost in human life. It is impossible to know how many people have died needlessly from malaria, yellow fever, leishmaniasis, dengue fever and other insect-borne diseases in the absence of medical care or prevention programs in lieu of DDT, but it must be millions — many of them could have been saved but for policy-makers’ beliefs that an increase in DDT could poison these people to health quickly and cheaply.  The campaign in favor of DDT has hampered serious efforts to fight malaria especially, such as Nothing But Nets and USAID’s support for prophylactic measures to beat the disease.

Does Tren answer the question well, what does AFM actually do to fight malaria?

Help me find some substance here in Tren’s letter (unedited by me in any way):


It’s hard to know whether or not to respond to this. To say that we are ‘under fire’ because of the sniping and ad-hominem attacks from a blogger who has, for some or other reason, decided to take issue with my organization is an exaggeration to say the least. However even though your post has so far received zero comments I’d like to make a few things clear for the record.

AFM was founded in South Africa in 2000 and we opened an office in the United States in 2003. We maintain an office and a presence in South Africa as well as an office in the Washington DC. You say that we have focused most of our attention on one issue – the desirability of using DDT in mosquito control programs. Actually we focus on malaria control programs, not mosquito control programs; but to an extent you are correct. We have focused on this issue because DDT continues to play an important role in malaria control in many southern African programs (and in some other countries) and over the years other countries, such as Uganda have attempted to use DDT but have been harshly criticized and domestic and international groups forcing DDT spraying programs to close down. AFM defends DDT because of its outstanding record in saving lives and because it is under attack. The scare stories and smear campaigns against this insecticide are so pervasive and the misunderstanding about it so widespread that it is vital for some group or individual to provide a counterbalance, based on sound science.

AFM was a critical voice in securing an exemption for the use of DDT in the Stockholm Convention, and our research and advocacy work helped to usher in far-reaching reforms to US support for malaria control. We recently published a major book on DDT and its role in malaria control – The Excellent Powder – see Additionally, we have responded to several recent publications that seek to limit the use of DDT (and interestingly other insecticides such as pyrethroids), with letters in Environmental Health Perspectives, British Journal of Urology International and working papers published on our own website. We have publicly exposed and criticized the way in which anti-insecticide advocacy groups, like Pesticide Action Network, have lobbied against indoor residual spraying programs that are funded and maintained by the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI). All of these letters and papers can be accessed from our website – if any of your readers have any difficulty in accessing them, I’d be happy to forward them.

A word on our critical review of a paper published in British Journal of Urology International. Several researchers from the University of Pretoria published a paper in late 2009 claiming that DDT use in IRS would increase the chance that a boy would be born with a urogenital birth defect by around 33%. This paper was widely covered in the media and caused considerable problems for the malaria control programs in southern Africa. One scientist in particular even claimed on a public TV program that DDT was linked to the case of intersex South African athlete, Caster Semenya; this was further promoted in the print media causing great concern among people living in malaria areas. As we documented in our review, the research paper was very deeply flawed and the conclusions of the authors were premature to say the least. Although it required a considerable investment of time and effort, we respond with a formal review of both the paper and the outrageous claims made in the media for which there was no scientific evidence. Our letter to the journal, which was co-authored by some senior malaria scientists from South Africa, was published in the journal. Although the authors of the paper were given ample opportunity to respond to our criticisms, they declined – which is telling.

You make the point that we have focused on DDT – true, we have done so because there is a need for someone to respond to the never-ending claims of harm. Someone has to stand up and defend the malaria control programs that are using DDT and implementing effective malaria control measures – perhaps if some of the other advocacy groups or individuals stepped up and helped to defend IRS and the use of public health insecticides, we wouldn’t have to spend so much of our time and energy doing it.

In addition to defending the use of public health insecticides, we strongly advocate for investments in new insecticides and against regulations and policies that may hamper access to insecticides or investment in new insecticides. For instance in 2008/9 we coordinated a response to proposed EU regulation of insecticides that could limit access to insecticides. (The various documents that I describe are available on our website) As an example of our work in this regard, we recently held a successful policy briefing on Capitol Hill (in Washington, D.C.) involving stakeholders from advocacy groups, donor agencies and the private sector. Again details of this are available on our website.

Aside from our advocacy and defense of public health insecticides, we have been successful in exposing the ongoing use of sub-standard malaria medicines as well as fake medicines in Africa. Our research studies have been published in Malaria Journal, PLoS One, and other journals. In order to maintain this project and to get safe and effective malaria medicines out to communities we have raised funds for malaria treatments and have focused on increasing access in Uganda. Again, details are available on our website.

Lastly AFM is involved in a research and advocacy program to remove import tariffs and non-tariff barriers from malaria commodities. As malaria programs are scaled up, it is increasingly important to ensure that barriers to access are removed – import tariffs and non-tariff barriers can be significant and AFM is very excited to be involved in this important area of research and advocacy. See for more details.

So, I hope that this helps to answer the questions about what we do. We are a policy and research group, we have never pretended to be anything else and our track record stands for itself.

Paul, if you want to have a discussion about our work, I’d be happy to correspond with you and your colleagues on a basis of cordiality and respect. I would be delighted to debate our work on DDT, public health insecticides, drug quality and import tariffs and non-tariff barriers, but let’s leave the sniping bloggers and their misleading and biased comments out of this.

Richard Tren

Does Africa Fighting Malaria actually fight malaria?

June 11, 2010

This spring’s publication of a book, The Excellent Powder, by Richard Tren and Donald Roberts, repeating most of the false claims about malaria and DDT, got me wondering.   Their organization, Africa Fighting Malaria (AFM):  Does AFM do anything to fight malaria?

At its own website it makes some astoundingly grandiose claims:

In its seven years of operation, AFM has helped transform malaria control by taking on and turning around failing public health institutions, donor agencies and governments.

Offhand I can’t think of any public health institution AFM has even been involved with, other than its undeserved criticism of the World Health Organization — and if anyone knows of any donor agency or government AFM has “turned around,” the history books await your telling the story.

Africa Fighting Malaria springs to life every year around World Malaria Day, April 25, with editorials claiming environmentalists have killed millions.  AFM seems to be one of the sources of the bizarre and false claim that Rachel Carson is a “mass murderer.”  AFM makes noise whenever there is difficulty getting a DDT spraying campaign underway in any part of Africa, for any reason, quick to lay the blame on environmentalists, even though the blame generally rests in other places.  AFM is quick on the draw to try to discredit all research into DDT that suggests it poses any health threat, though so far as I can tell AFM has published no counter research, nor has it conducted any research of its own.

In its 2009 Annual Report, AFM proudly states “AFM is the only advocacy group that routinely supports IRS [Indoor Residual Spraying] and through its advocacy work defends the use of DDT for malaria control. ”  Cleverly, and tellingly, they do not reveal that IRS in integrated vector (pest) management is what Rachel Carson advocated in 1962, nor do they mention that it is also supported by the much larger WHO, several nations in Africa, and the Gates Foundation, all of whom probably do more to fight malaria when they sneeze that AFM does intentionally.

Google and Bing searches turn up no projects the organization actually conducts to provide bed nets, or DDT, or anything else, to anyone working against malaria.  I can’t find any place anyone other than AFM describes any activities of the group.

AFM has impressive video ads urging contributions, but the videos fail to mention that nothing in the ad is paid for by AFM, including especially the guy carrying the pesticide sprayer.


Looking at the IRS Form 990s for the organization from 2003 through 2008 (which is organized in both the U.S. and South Africa), it seems to me that the major purpose of AFM is to pay Roger Bate about $100,000 a year for part of the time, and pay Richard Tren more than $80,000 a year for the rest of the time.

Can anyone tell me, what has Africa Fighting Malaria ever done to seriously fight malaria?

One could make the argument that if you sent $10 to Nothing But Nets, you’ve saved more lives than the last $1 million invested in AFM, and more to save lives than AFM in its existence.

Tip of the old scrub brush to Pharyngula and, even though AFM wasn’t what they were targeting.


Update: Tim Lambert at Deltoid sent some traffic this way, which caught the attention of Eli Rabett, which reminded me that there really is more to this story about Africa Fighting Malaria, and you ought to read it at Deltoid and Rabett’s warren.

Formatting issues

More (updated September 24, 2013):

Wall Street Journal’s DDT-fueled war on science

May 12, 2010

I don’t subscribe to the Wall Street Journal — their discounts to educators are lousy.

So I missed this editorial when it ran on April 24, 2010 (page A12), “DDT and population control – malaria still kills one million every year.”

Nominally, that should be good news.  At the peak of DDT use in the early 1960s, malaria killed about 3 million people annually.  By the time we banned DDT use on cotton crops in the U.S., the death toll was still about 2 million people annually.  From the heyday of DDT, we’ve decreased malaria’s death toll, to less than half what it was.

Editorial writers at the Journal don’t let facts get in their way when they go off on a misdirected political jihad or crusade.  Gross error Number 1:  They mislead readers about the facts.

They are claiming that a million is too many (it is), but they claim that the total would be significantly less if only Americans would attack Africa with poison.  We have trouble enough with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it seems to me.  There is no indication that we could reduce malaria rates with a lot of extra poison.  Malaria is a parasite in human blood.  To defeat the disease we have to defeat the infections in humans.  Mosquitoes just spread the disease from one human to another.  DDT does not cure malaria in humans; it is one preventive device of limited effectiveness.

What are they on about?

The Journal’s editorial writers said:

Environmental activists this week marked the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, which happened to fall three days before World Malaria Day. Insofar as Earth Day politics have contributed to today’s malaria epidemic, the two events are related.

You could see this one coming.  The reactionaries at the editorial seek out opportunities to criticize environmentalists, whose cause they see as anti-business.   The Journal’s editorial page usually carries an op-ed piece by Hoover Institute maven Henry I. Miller about once a year (see here, for example), claiming we need DDT to fight West Nile virus.  We don’t, of course.  West Nile virus-carrying mosquitoes are best fought with other pesticides, when pesticides are used.  They need to be hit before adulthood, while they are still larva, in the water.  DDT is exactly wrong for such applications.  But Miller’s piece comes around almost every year, as soon as the first West Nile virus infections in humans are noted.

So, since they so soundly disregard science on that diatribe, why not here, too?  DDT offers a great target for Tea Baggers, Know-Nothings, and truth bashers.  Most of the history of DDT was written before the internet, so it’s easier to spread falsehoods without contradiction.

Disinformation.  Propaganda.  Shame on the Wall Street Journal.

Earth Day and World Malaria Day are related in this way:  Environmentalists warned us that doing the wrong stuff in the environment would make it harder to fight malaria, and they were right.  People who resist clean air and clean water legislation also resist legislation to stop poisoning our planet.  Those people rarely do anything to fight malaria, either.  Human comfort, human health, human survival, is not what they are concerned about.

Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, was a leading opponent of the insecticide DDT, which remains the cheapest and most effective way to combat malarial mosquitoes.

Gaylord Nelson, the father of Earth Day, was governor of Wisconsin when the University of Wisconsin did the first studies showing that songbirds and raptors in Wisconsin were being wiped out by DDT. We should expect him to be an opponent of indiscriminate use of the stuff.  His state was on the road to ruin, and long before the federal government acted against DDT, Wisconsin had laws and regulations to limit its use.  Wisconsin’s wild populations recovered a bit more quickly because Wisconsin had acted.

Gaylord Nelson at the Apostle Islands, Photograph by Frank Wallick, 1967.

Gaylord Nelson at the Apostle Islands, Photograph by Frank Wallick, 1967.

Nelson also knew that, in the U.S., malaria was conquered by 1939 (according to the Centers for Disease Control).  DDT came along in 1946, seven years later.  While DDT was used to control mosquitoes in the U.S., it was for no disease control reasons — that was why so many people opposed the rather pointless use of the stuff.  And I suspect Nelson was savvy enough to know that DDT has not been the cheapest means of controlling mosquitoes for several years.  One application of DDT in Africa costs about $12.00, for the professional who must apply it, and the testing to determine whether DDT will even work.  One application lasts about six months.  So, for a year’s protection, DDT costs about $24.00 per house, per year.

Bednets cost about $10.00, and last about five years.  That works out to $2.00 year.  For $24.00, you could provide a dozen different nets in a home, though most homes would use them only to protect children.

Moreover, recent test runs in Africa show DDT about 25% to 50% effective in reducing malaria incidence, while bednets are about 50% to 85% effective.  Nets are cheaper and more effective.

Doesn’t the Wall Street Journal have fact checkers?  Or do they just not care about the facts?

Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” misleadingly linked pesticides to cancer and is generally credited with popularizing environmental awareness.

Wrong on three fronts.  Carson noted that the family of chemicals from which DDT comes might have links to cancer, but she did not make the claim that DDT is carcinogenic.  DDT was banned because it’s a long-term, deadly poison that destroys ecosystems.  Cancer in humans was not a part of the equation.

However, DDT is now known to be a weak human carcinogen.  Every cancer-fighting agency on Earth lists it as a “probable human carcinogen” (it is confirmed to cause cancer in other mammals).  Can’t the Wall Street Journal find the phone number of the American Cancer Society?

DDT earned its ban because of 20 years of research data by 1972, showing that DDT kills virtually everything it comes in contact with that is smaller than a large man, and it destroys ecosystems.  Talking about DDT’s carcinogenicity is a red herring.  Carson didn’t claim DDT was a significant cause of cancer, nor was DDT banned from agricultural use because anyone thought it was a significant cause of cancer.  Yes, DDT is a weak human carcinogen, contrary to the Journal’s implication; but no, that’s not why it was banned.

Carson’s book certainly ignited concerns about human activities affecting environment other than land development.  But “environmental awareness” is as old as our nation, at least.  A hundred years prior to Rachel Carson’s book, the U.S. set aside the world’s first National Park, Yellowstone.  60 years earlier, Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot led the drive to conserve the nation’s forests.  The Soil Conservation Service, a New Deal program, worked to save soil on farms and unimproved areas, a good 30 years before Carson’s book.  Environmental awareness is an almost-congenital trait in Americans.  Rachel Carson sounded alarms about new reactive chemical combinations.  Americans were already alert to the need to save soil, water, air and wild spaces.

We banned DDT to save our crops and to save our wildlife.  Those are good reasons to keep the ban today.

But other leading greens of the period, including Nelson, biologist Paul Ehrlich and ecologist Garrett Hardin, were also animated by a belief that growth in human populations was harming the environment.

Nelson thought the U.S. needed to slow immigration (see more below).  Ehrlich feared a massive round of starvation, which was staved off only with the Green Revolution and billions of dollars of foreign aid money, the good luck of our having Norman Borlaug and the Rockefeller Foundation, and major economic change in nation’s like India and China.  Hardin pointed out that even the best intentioned people needed a structure to encourage them to conserve, else conservation would not take place.

They all recognized that while any human could minimize her impact on the natural world, no one person could ameliorate all the effects of billions of people.

“The same powerful forces which create the crisis of air pollution also are threatening our freshwater resources, our woods, our wildlife,” said Nelson. “These forces are the rapid increase in population, industrialization, urbanization and scientific technology.”

Notice, please, that Sen. Nelson did not suggest humans should do anything to cause or encourage massive human death (nor did the Journal do the courtesy of noting where they quoted him from).  He merely notes that air pollution and water pollution, and a lack of freshwater, are created by human populations, industry, urban sprawl and technology.  All of these things threaten human health.  Nelson is concerned that we not add to human illness and misery.  That’s not what the Journal’s editorial wants you to think, however.  It will suggest instead that Nelson urged more human suffering and death.

How craven must an editorial board be to accuse good people, falsely, of such sins?

In his book “The Population Bomb,” Mr. Ehrlich criticized DDT for being too effective in reducing death rates and thus contributing to “overpopulation.”

I doubt it.  I can’t find anything quite to that description in my copy of the book.  It’s a common internet legend (one level dumber than urban legend) — but shouldn’t the Wall Street Journal have higher standards than to use for documentation, “my cousin Clem heard a story about a person his aunt once knew?”

Hardin opposed spraying pesticides in the Third World because “every life saved this year in a poor country diminishes the quality of life for subsequent generations.”

Now the Journal is making things up.  In the essay from which the Journal quotes him, Hardin wrote about the dangers of uncontrolled immigration and population growth — almost sounding like an angry Arizona Tea Partier at times — but never did he get close to suggesting that we should not suppress malaria, for any reason.  (Wise readers may wish to see what Hardin actually said, where he really went awry if he did, and how his words resonate today, at his essay, “Living on a Lifeboat.”  Writers at the Journal should be ashamed of savaging the reputation of a guy who is so much in tune with what they usually write.  Notice Hardin does not mention DDT, use of pesticides in foreign nations, malaria, nor any other disease.  He rails at starvation, however.)  When the Wall Street Journal engages in fiction, shouldn’t they let us know?

For these activists, malaria was nature’s way of controlling population growth, and DDT got in the way.

Gee, in context, that’s all fiction. Never did Sen. Gaylord Nelson claim malaria was a good population control tactic, nor that we should stop using DDT to allow more people to die. Those are whole cloth lies. Never did Garrett Hardin say either of those things. Never did Paul Ehrlich say those things.

Cover of 2003 Science Magazine special on Garrett Hardin's essay

Cover of 2003 Science Magazine special on Garrett Hardin's essay, "Tragedyof the Commons"

For anti-science activists, like the writers at the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, falsehoods have become coin of the realm, and DDT is just one more sciency thing to try to use as whip against political opponents. The serious question is, why is the Wall Street Journal opposed to clean air and clean water?  Why are they trying to politicize things at all?

The writers at the Journal continue:

Today, malaria still claims about one million lives every year—mostly women and children in sub-Saharan Africa. There’s no evidence that spraying the chemical inside homes in the amounts needed to combat the disease harms humans, animals or the environment. Yet DDT remains severely underutilized in the fight against malaria because the intellectual descendants of Senator Nelson continue to hold sway at the World Health Organization and other United Nations agencies.

Full disclosure would be good here.  Malaria death rates are at the lowest point in history, at least since 1900.  Yes, too many die — but it’s not the fault of “not enough DDT.”  No nation that uses DDT has ever succeeded in eradicating malaria with pesticides alone.  Only those nations that assaulted malaria from the  human side, treating malaria in human victims, have been successful in eradicating the disease.  DDT use was essentially suspended in Africa by the World Health Organization in about 1965, because overuse of DDT in agriculture had bred mosquitoes that are resistant and immune to the stuff.  No amount of DDT spraying, anywhere, can reverse that.  Spraying DDT where mosquitoes are unaffected by it, is stupid.

Plus, studies indicate a correlation between DDT use, even in those small amounts, and premature deaths to children in the households sprayed.  DDT is not harmless.  DDT is not benign.

DDT has never been banned in Africa, and even under the 2001 Persistent Organic Pesticides Treaty (POPs) DDT has a special carve out to keep it available to fight malaria, despite its being a destroyer of worlds.  So implicit in the Journal’s screed here is that Africans are too stupid or lazy to use a substance that would save their children and themselves from malaria, though it’s available relatively cheaply.

Is DDT “underutilized?”  Again we should ask, why would anyone use DDT where it is not effective? Then we should ask, who would use DDT in fighting disease in Africa, and do they use it?  It turns out that DDT is not completely superfluous to all mosquito populations.  But testing is required to be sure DDT will work — were an organization to use ineffective pesticides, thousands could die, and the testing is therefore a preservation of human life.  And, because of past incidents in Africa, for example when DDT killed off the fish local populations depend on for their food, DDT use is extremely limited, to indoor applications only, and only by trained professionals who limit its spread.

WHO has been using DDT in Africa for indoor residual spraying (IRS) since the 1950s.  Use was slowed when DDT’s effectiveness was compromised.  In recent years WHO held a press conference on DDT to encourage locals who fear DDT poisoning to go along, and since 2005 DDT’s effectiveness appears to be dropping.  But DDT is available for use wherever it is needed to fight malaria in Africa.

Is the Wall Street Journal calling for mass poisoning of Africa?  What else could they be talking about?  Why would they call for such a thing?

The Journal claims WHO and other UN agencies are “under the sway” of Sen. Nelson, and that’s bad?  Let’s be clear:  Nelson didn’t oppose use of DDT in Africa to fight malaria.  UN’s WHO is the leading continent-wide advocate of proper use of DDT to fight malaria.  If the Journal claims that current, appropriate use of DDT is too little, what is the Journal advocating?

The good news is that the Obama Administration has continued the Bush policy of supporting DDT spraying in Zambia, Mozambique and other countries where the locals want it used. “Groups like the Pesticide Action Network have lobbied the U.S. Agency for International Development to stop spraying DDT, and Obama is ignoring them so far,” says Richard Tren of Africa Fighting Malaria, an advocacy group. “They’re prioritizing what makes sense from a science and public health point of view.”

Let’s be clear:  The Bush administration refused to allow U.S. money to be used to purchase DDT, or to use DDT, until about 2005.  Environmental Defense, the organization that first sued to stop DDT use in the U.S., argued for years that DDT should be allowed in the limited use WHO proposed, but Bush’s people stood firmly opposed, though never explaining why.  In any African nation where local people want DDT, it’s freely available with other money, of course.  So U.S. opposition, bizarre as it was, was not and is not a barrier to DDT use.

Most environmental groups favor beating malaria, and if a bit of DDT carefully controlled will help do the trick, so much the better.  While business lobbyists have falsely impugned environmentalists for years on this point, actual opposition to DDT use has come, in Uganda for example, from business groups.  Tobacco growers claim they fear some DDT will somehow get on tobacco leaves, and that will make the stuff unsaleable in the European Union.  Cotton growers fear any faint traces of DDT will ruin sales of organic cotton to the EU.  These business groups sued to stop DDT use against malaria in Uganda.

But environmental organizations, like ED, the Sierra Club, and others, have been fighting malaria for 40 years.

Which is more than we can say for Richard Tren.  Tren is one of two or three of the leading false propagandists for poisoning Africa in the world.  He tells false tales about Rachel Carson, false tales about DDT’s harms and effectiveness, and as best I can tell he has never lifted one finger or written one check to fight malaria himself, while taking tens of thousands of dollars to spread his false tales.

There are dozens of noble malaria fighters out there whose opinions we should seek — Socrates Litsios, the late Fred Soper, to mention two.  Why does the formerly august Wall Street Journal use Richard Tren as a source, when there are authoritative people handy to talk?

DDT helped to eradicate malaria in the U.S. and Europe after World War II, and the U.S. is right to take the lead in reforming public health insecticide policy and putting the lives of the world’s poor above green ideology.

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A12

According to the history of malaria at the CDC, malaria was essentially wiped out in the U.S. by 1939.  DDT was not available for use for another seven years.  Malaria was gone from northern Europe by World War II.  DDT was a tool in the final eradication of the disease in Italy and Greece.  But the main campaign against malaria was in curing the disease in humans, before the mosquito populations could rise up.

Among the nasty facts of science the Journal either does not know, or refuses to say, DDT can’t eradicate mosquitoes.  In anti-malaria campaigns, DDT is used to knock down the mosquito populations temporarily, so that the disease can be cured in humans.  Mosquito populations will quickly rise again, and in even greater numbers — but if there is no human reservoir of malaria parasites for mosquitoes to draw from, they cannot spread the disease.  Malaria parasites must spend part of their life cycle in humans, and part in mosquitoes.

Curing malaria in humans is the tough part.  It requires money to improve medical care, for accurate and speedy diagnoses, and for prompt and complete treatment of the disease in each patient.  Preventing malaria is aided greatly by better-built homes with screens on windows, the sort of stuff that requires people to have more than subsistence incomes.  So beating malaria generally requires economic development, too.

How much easier is it to bash environmentalists than to confront the real causes of malaria.  Bashing environmentalists won’t do anything to relieve human suffering nor eliminate the disease, so we can bash environmentalists again next World Malaria Day, and next Earth Day — all at no cost to us, safe in our Wall Street Journal offices in Manhattan, New York, U.S.A.  The Journal has fallen victim to bold purveyors of junk and voodoo science, and bogus and voodoo history.  Shame on the Journal.

Curing the disease in humans means the mosquitoes are mere nuisances, and no longer vectors of disease.  Killing the mosquitoes with poison means the disease will be back with a vengeance in a few weeks or months.  Curing humans is more difficult, and more costly — but it saves lives and can save Africa.  We cannot poison Africa to health.

It’s curious, though:  How did they get so poisoned by DDT, up in that office building?


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