Jay Ambrose: Still wrong about DDT and malaria

February 27, 2011

Propagandists against Rachel Carson and — inexplicably — for DDT awoke a few weeks ago.  We’re seeing a flurry of op-eds, opinion pieces and other editorial placements making false claims for DDT, and against Rachel Carson, one of the science heroes of the 20th century.

The campaign of hoaxes, urging more and heavier use of DDT, and falsely impugning environmentalists, continues.  Alas.

Jay Ambrose of Scripps Howard News Service, still wrong about DDT

Jay Ambrose of Scripps Howard News Service, still wrong about DDT

Jay Ambrose used to be a full-time editor for the Scripps Howard newspapers.  Since he retired he writes occasional opinion pieces.  In the past three years or so he’s mentioned his desire to bring back the poison DDT, to poison Africa in the hope it might also get malaria, for example.

A few weeks ago he went after global warming with the same alacrity and lack of accurate information.

Let’s review a few facts about the history of DDT:

  • The World Health Organization (WHO) carried on a super-ambitious campaign to eradicate malaria from the world starting in 1955.  It was a race against time — super malaria-fighter Fred Soper, who spearheaded early campaigns for the Rockefeller Foundation , understood that overuse of DDT in agriculture or any other venue could push malaria-carrying mosquitoes to develop resistance to DDT.  WHO’s campaign involved Indoor Residual Spraying of DDT, coating the walls of homes with the stuff; then with biting mosquitoes reduced, a careful campaign of medical care would cure human victims of the disease.  When the mosquitoes came roaring back at the end of the campaign, there would be no infected humans from whom the insects could get the parasite that causes the disease — voila! — no more malaria.  WHO lost the race; by 1965 Soper’s group already found resistant and immune mosquitoes in central Africa, and most of the nations in the Subsaharan Africa had not  been able to mount an anti-malaria campaign. DDT use in Africa was scaled back, therefore, and by 1969, WHO’s international board voted to abandon the campaign, made impossible to complete by abuse of DDT.
  • Seven years after WHO was forced to stop using DDT by DDT abuse, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT from use outdoors on agricultural crops, under the watchful eye of two federal courts who had previously determined DDT to be dangerous and uncontrollable in the wild. EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus short-circuited a total ban on DDT, however; his order specifically allowed U.S. manufacturers to continue making DDT, greatly increasing the amount of DDT available to any nation who wanted to use it to fight malaria or any other disease.
  • Even though DDT was cheap and plentiful, however, many African nations found it simply did not work anymore. Work continued to fight DDT through all other means including especially treating the disease in humans, and malaria incidence and deaths continued to decline.
  • At the end of the 1970s, the malaria parasites began to develop resistance to chloroquine and other traditional drugs used to cure humans of the stuff.  It was a shortage of drugs to treat humans that caused the uptick in malaria over a decade ago, not a lack of DDT.  Progress against malaria slowed for a few years, until artemisinin-based drugs were discovered to work against the disease, and means could be found to speed up production of the drug (originally from a Chinese plant, a member of the wormwood family).
  • By the turn of the century, it became clear that a miracle, one-punch solution to beat malaria is unlikely to be found.  Many nations turned to a method of malaria control including “integrated vector management,” which includes the use of pesticides (including DDT) in careful rotation to prevent mosquitoes from developing resistance or immunity to any one poison. This is the method championed by Rachel Carson in her 1962 book, Silent Spring.
  • At the time of the U.S. ban on DDT use on crops, annual malaria deaths ran about 2 million.  By 2000, that rate had been cut in half, to about 1 million annually.  Today, and since 2005, the annual death toll to malaria has been estimated by WHO to be under 900,000 — less than half the death rate in 1972 when the U.S. banned DDT use on crops, and a 75% reduction in deaths in 1960, when DDT use was at its peak.  Malaria deaths today are the lowest in human history.
  • DDT Malaria continues to be a priority disease, with added emphasis in the past decade with massive interventions funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the President’s Initiative on Malaria.   Bill Gates is regarded as a great optimist, but he says he is working to eradicate malaria from the world.   Key tools of the eradication campaign are bednets, which are cheaper and more effective than DDT, and integrated vector management.  The Gates Foundation campaign strikes continuing blows of great magnitude against the disease in those nations where it can work.

Few of these facts are acknowledged by Jay Ambrose, who wrongly claims that DDT had alone been the great vanquisher of malaria, and who claims that Africans, unduly swayed by a long-dead Rachel Carson, had failed to use DDT though they knew in their hearts it would save their children.

About once a year Ambrose trots out his misunderstandings of history, law and science, and slams Rachel Carson and those who banned DDT from cotton crops in Texas, falsely blaming them for malaria deaths in Africa.  His article of the past few weeks was picked up by the Detroit News.  Warning that our fight against global warming is as wrong-headed as saving the bald eagle from DDT, he wrote:

The main thing is to avoid what happened with DDT. Because of a ban to protect wildlife from the pesticide in this country, it became more scarce, and a consequence was its being employed sparingly if at all in wildlife-safe, indoor spraying to combat malaria in Africa. Though not always, DDT can be enormously effective in stopping the disease while posing minimal threats.

The estimate is that millions of African children died because of misplaced values and overreactions.

That’s worse than heartbreaking.
From The Detroit News: http://detnews.com/article/20110221/OPINION01/102210305/Don’t-overreact-to-possible-global-warming#ixzz1FDv1ZhkY

When I chided Ambrose for getting the facts wrong many months ago, he angrily promised to come back to this blog and provide evidence to make his case.  Of course, he never did.  There is no such evidence.

Then why does he continue to falsely indict Rachel Carson, William Ruckelshaus and EPA, and “environmentalists,” and wrongly urge the poisoning of Africa with DDT?

I do not know.

Are his views on global warming similarly in error?  If history shows a trend, yes.


%d bloggers like this: