“3 Billion and Counting” premiered at a tiny New York venue a couple of weeks ago, the latest skirmish in the War on Science. Physician-to-the-stars Dr. Rutledge Taylor claims that malaria could be eradicated if only DDT had not been banned from Africa.
What? No, no, you’re right: DDT has never been banned from Africa, not even under the 2001 Persistent Organic Pollutants Treaty. The film comes out of Hollywood, starring a Hollywood physician. Perhaps that should clue us in that it is not a serious documentary, and not to be taken at face value.
Nor at any value.
Taylor engaged a publicist and conducted a national campaign to launch the movie. In that campaign he someone appeared on Howard Stern’s radio show. [There’s a guy in comments who claims it wasn’t Taylor, though Taylor wrote it in the first person. Odd as hell.]
How silly are the claims in the movie?
A post at the movie’s blog revealed that Ronnie, Stern’s limousine driver, had a fight with bedbugs, and that Stern thinks DDT should be brought back. That’s how bad this movie is: Howard Stern is the science advisor.
Yes, yes, you’re right: DDT stopped working against bedbugs in the 1950s (see Bug Girl’s recent post). That doesn’t stop the publicists from defending the movie at the movie’s blog. “Royce” [who claims not to be a publicist for the movie] said:
The problem with DDT is that it worked too well in stomping out malaria. The science proves that it minimally impacted the environment. But this information was suppressed. Wonder why and by whom? This movies addresses and uncovers the answers to these questions..Questions that many of us had about this issue.
I tried, without success I’m sure, to set him straight:
First, DDT was not the weapon that eradicated malaria in the U.S. We worked for 30 years to improve medical care, beef up the Public Health Service and county public health officers, educate people on how to drain mosquito breeding areas near their homes, be certain people with malari were fully treated to a cure, and to raise incomes to improve housing so that people could live in a home where mosquitoes could not enter at night (the times malaria-carrying mosquitoes bite). By 1939, malaria was essentially eliminated from the U.S. DDT was not available for use for another seven years.
Earlier we had defeated malaria and yellow fever in Panama, during the construction of the Panama Canal — long before any insecticide existed. Beating malaria is possible with discipline, accurate information, and sustained effort. No pesticide is necessary.
Second, DDT has never been out of use in Africa since 1946, nor in Asia. DDT is in use right now by the World Health Organization (WHO) and at least five nations in Africa who have malaria problems. If someone told you DDT is not being used, they erred.
Unfortunately, overuse of DDT by agricultural interests, in the early 1960s, bred mosquitoes that are resitant and immune to DDT. DDT simply is not the effective pesticide it once was, and for the WHO project to eradicate malaria, this problem was the death knell. WHO had to fall back to a malaria control position, because pro-DDT groups sprayed far too much of the stuff, in far to many places, mostly outside.
Third, all serious studies indicate that DDT greatly affects environment, with doses of the stuff multiplying from application through the top of the trophic levels in the ecosystem. A minimal dose of DDT to kill mosquito larva in an estuary, for example, multiples many times as zooplankton and the mosquito larva soak it up. The next level of consumers get about a ten-times dose from what was sprayed, and that multiplies exponentially as other creatures consume the lower-level consumers. By the time an insect or crustacean-eating bird gets the critter, the dose is millions of times stronger, often to fatal levels for the bird.
If the dose is sub-lethal, it screws up the reproduction of the bird. DDT in the egg kills the chick before it can fledge from the nest, often before it can hatch. If by some miracle the chick does not die from acute DDT poisoning, the eggshells produced by a DDT-tainted female bird are often too thin to survive the growth of the embryo — either way the chicks die. (There are a couple of studies done on plant-eating birds which showed that the chicks did not die before hatching — they died shortly after hatching.)
DDT is astoundingly effective at screwing up the reproduction of birds.
Fourth, studies show that humans exposed to DDT rarely get an acutely toxic dose, but that their children get screwed up reproductive systems, and there is a definite link from DDT exposure to the children of the mother — the cancer goes to the next generation. DDT is not harmless to people at all — it is just not acutely toxic, generally.
Fifth, as I note above, DDT is no longer highly effective in controlling mosquitoes. Where once it killed them dead, they have developed immunity, and now digest the stuff as if it were food. There are studies that show DDT is also weakly repellent, but there are better, less-toxic repellents, and there is no reason to use something so deadly to all other creatures in the ecosystem to get a weak repellent effect.
Because of the biomagnification, DDT kills the predators of mosquitoes much more effectively, and for a much longer period, than it kills mosquitoes. This sets the stage for mosquitoes to come roaring back, with all the natural checks on mosquito population out of commission.
Why use a poison that is not very effective, but very deadly, when there are better alternatives available?
Malaria death rates are the lowest they have been in human history. There is no good case to be made that more DDT could provide any benefit.
DDT is still manufactured in astonishing quantity in North Korea, for one. DDT is used in Africa and Asia, but no one with any sense uses it to eradicate malaria — DDT screwed up that chance 50 years ago.
Rutledge’s movie appears to be sinking from release (it’s played two theaters that I can find, for less than a week at each). It may be far underwater already. It would be to DDT what “Expelled” was to creationism, but it lacks the cloying, gullible religious fanatics to push it.
Mystery photo: If spraying pesticides to fight malaria isn't allowed in Africa as Rutledge Taylor argues, why are these pesticide sprayers pictured in this photo? Publicity still from "3 Billion and Counting" via Rotten Tomatoes website
Also see, at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub: