The Senator might, were he so inclined and if he could do so without his liberal base deserting him, ask a very simple question: why don’t we have malaria and yellow fever in the United States? The answer, horrifying and thus inadmissible by all properly-educated readers of Rachael Carson’s “Silent Spring”, is DDT.
One of the first countries to benefit from the use of DDT for civilian purposes was the United States. In the years immediately preceding World War II, between one and six million Americans, mostly drawn from the rural South, contracted malaria annually. In 1946, the U.S. Public Health Service initiated a campaign to wipe out malaria through the application of DDT to the interior walls of homes. The results were dramatic. In the first half of 1952, there were only two confirmed cases of malaria contracted within the United States.
Other countries were quick to take note of the American success, and those that could afford it swiftly put DDT into action. In Europe, malaria was virtually eradicated by the mid-1950s. South African cases of malaria quickly dropped by 80 percent; Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) reduced its malaria incidence from 2.8 million in 1946 to 17 in 1963; and India cut its malaria death rate almost to zero. In 1955, with financial backing from the United States, the U.N. World Health Organization launched a global campaign to use DDT to eradicate malaria. Implemented successfully across large areas of the developing world, this effort soon cut malaria rates in numerous countries in Latin America and Asia by 99 percent or better. Even for Africa, hope that the age-old scourge would be brought to an end appeared to be in sight.
A Bestseller Begins a Movement
But events took another turn with the appearance of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. A former marine biologist and accomplished nature writer, Carson in 1958 contacted E. B. White, a contributor to The New Yorker, suggesting someone should write about DDT. White declined, but the magazine’s editor, William Shawn, suggested that Carson herself write it. The ensuing articles, supplemented by additional material, became Silent Spring, for which Carson signed a contract with Houghton Mifflin in August 1958.
Carson based her passionate argument against pesticides on the desire to protect wildlife. Using evocative language, Carson told a powerful fable of a town whose people had been poisoned, and whose spring had been silenced of birdsong, because all life had been extinguished by pesticides.
Published in September 1962, Silent Spring was a phenomenal success. As a literary work, it was a masterpiece, and as such, received rave reviews everywhere. Deeply moved by Carson’s poignant depiction of a lifeless future, millions of well-meaning people rallied to her banner. Virtually at a stroke, environmentalism grew from a narrow aristocratic cult into a crusading liberal mass movement.
While excellent literature, however, Silent Spring was very poor science. Carson claimed that DDT was threatening many avian species with imminent extinction. Her evidence for this, however, was anecdotal and unfounded. In fact, during the period of widespread DDT use preceding the publication of Silent Spring, bird populations in the United States increased significantly, probably as a result of the pesticide’s suppression of their insect disease vectors and parasites. In her chapter “Elixirs of Death,” Carson wrote that synthetic insecticides can affect the human body in “sinister and often deadly ways,” so that cumulatively, the “threat of chronic poisoning and degenerative changes of the liver and other organs is very real.” In terms of DDT specifically, in her chapter on cancer she reported that one expert “now gives DDT the definite rating of a ‘chemical carcinogen.’” These alarming assertions were false as well. (Carson’s claims about the supposed pernicious effects of DDT are examined more fully below.)
The Banning of DDT
The panic raised by Carson’s book spread far beyond American borders. Responding to its warning, the governments of a number of developing countries called a halt to their DDT-based anti-malaria programs. The results were catastrophic. In Ceylon, for example, where, as noted, DDT use had cut malaria cases from millions per year in the 1940s down to just 17 by 1963, its banning in 1964 led to a resurgence of half a million victims per year by 1969. In many other countries, the effects were even worse.
Attempting to head off a hysteria-induced global health disaster, in 1970 the National Academy of Sciences issued a report praising the beleaguered pesticide:
To only a few chemicals does man owe as great a debt as to DDT. It has contributed to the great increase in agricultural productivity, while sparing countless humanity from a host of diseases, most notably, perhaps, scrub typhus and malaria. Indeed, it is estimated that, in little more than two decades, DDT has prevented 500 million deaths due to malaria that would otherwise have been inevitable. Abandonment of this valuable insecticide should be undertaken only at such time and in such places as it is evident that the prospective gain to humanity exceeds the consequent losses. At this writing, all available substitutes for DDT are both more expensive per crop-year and decidedly more hazardous.
To some, however, five hundred million human lives were irrelevant. Disregarding the NAS findings, environmentalists continued to demand that DDT be banned. Responding to their pressure, in 1971 the newly-formed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched an investigation of the pesticide. Lasting seven months, the investigative hearings led by Judge Edmund Sweeney gathered testimony from 125 expert witnesses with 365 exhibits. The conclusion of the inquest, however, was exactly the opposite of what the environmentalists had hoped for. After assessing all the evidence, Judge Sweeney found: “The uses of DDT under the registration involved here do not have a deleterious effect on freshwater fish, estuarine organisms, wild birds, or other wildlife…. DDT is not a carcinogenic hazard to man…. DDT is not a mutagenic or teratogenic hazard to man.” Accordingly, Judge Sweeney ruled that DDT should remain available for use.
Unfortunately, however, the administrator of the EPA was William D. Ruckelshaus, who reportedly did not attend a single hour of the investigative hearings, and according to his chief of staff, did not even read Judge Sweeney’s report. Instead, he apparently chose to ignore the science: overruling Sweeney, in 1972 Ruckelshaus banned the use of DDT in the United States except under conditions of medical emergencies.
It would be to allow DDT in malaria-ravaged countries.
I’m thrilled that we’re pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the relief effort, but the tsunami was only a blip in third-world mortality. Mosquitoes kill 20 times more people each year than the tsunami did, and in the long war between humans and mosquitoes it looks as if mosquitoes are winning.
One reason is that the U.S. and other rich countries are siding with the mosquitoes against the world’s poor — by opposing the use of DDT.
“It’s a colossal tragedy,” says Donald Roberts, a professor of tropical public health at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. “And it’s embroiled in environmental politics and incompetent bureaucracies.”
In the 1950’s, 60’s and early 70’s, DDT was used to reduce malaria around the world, even eliminating it in places like Taiwan. But then the growing recognition of the harm DDT can cause in the environment — threatening the extinction of the bald eagle, for example — led DDT to be banned in the West and stigmatized worldwide. Ever since, malaria has been on the rise.