DDT in NYT: The Unfinished Agenda

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The headline in the April 11 New York Times Magazine said it all: "What the World Needs Now Is DDT." Given the prestige of the Times, one hopes that it reopens the public discussion on the use of DDT for control of the mosquito vector for malaria and for control of other insectborne diseases. For some of us over the last three decades, the issue was never closed, but we were voices in the wilderness, unheard except occasionally to be condemned as strange or worse.

Praise is definitely warranted for the Times' Tina Rosenberg for re-opening the DDT issue for wider public debate, but we have to recognize that even a very well done, long article in the Times can barely hit on all the key issues. Further, it is imperative that with the DDT issue now re-opened, we not let it retreat into oblivion for another three decades while tens of millions of children and adults needlessly die.

DDT Ban as a Symbolic Victory

The DDT ban was probably the first major victory for those opposed to modernity and the use of science and technology the tools that have solved so many of the basic problems plaguing humanity throughout the entirety of our existence. DDT became the symbol of the dangerous evils of science, as "chemicals" became the codeword for synthetically produced chemicals.

Though the belief that nature is benign and "all evil is from the hand of man" (to use Bruce Ames' apt phrase) is centuries old, the banning of DDT in the United States was instrumental to the creation of the modern form of this belief as an ideological movement and to the later formation of Green political parties and extremist NGOs.

Given that the massive scientific evidence of cost and benefit favored the safe use of DDT, the initial EPA ruling on the matter was for continuation of use for disease control. A short time later, a rising tide of political pressure led to the banning of DDT. The Greens learned a lesson and learned it well: that they could override reasoned scientific discourse on an issue with an emotional campaign of fear.

It is easier to frighten people then to educate them. The benefits of modernity longer, healthier lives; lower infant and child mortality rates; increases in education; creature comfort; and choices of all kinds are the products of a vast, complex body of knowledge of which any one of us can only master a minuscule portion. Thus, in many respects, all of us are more ignorant than informed, with the term ignorant here not meant as a pejorative.

Scientists have long recognized the imperfection of the human endeavor. Though science has made our lives safer and has pushed back the boundaries of the unknown, no human endeavor is 100% safe and no scientific knowledge is 100% certain. Absolute certainty is for the ideologues who play on our understandable ignorance and a modicum of uncertainty to promote an agenda that makes us less safe.

The Cost to the World of the Ban

For the U.S. followed by other developed countries, the cost in human lives was not that great as DDT had been very effective over the previous years in eliminating malaria and other vectorborne diseases. These countries also had a variety of more expensive options that they could employ to protect their populations.

Yet imagine if a multinational corporation or consortium of multi-national corporations used their influence in developed countries to prevent poor countries from acquiring the necessary means to protect the health and wellbeing of their citizens, particularly their children. Imagine further that there was a definable cost in human lives, with the heaviest toll being on children the largest single cause of child death on a continent, Africa, with the highest death rate in the world. One does not have to imagine what terminology would be used by "civil society" to describe such horrendous actions. The NGOs/civil society regularly use extremely inflammatory language in their ongoing attack against globalization and modern science and technology.

Though it would clearly be warranted by the facts, we can avoid the extreme language of "civil society" in describing those who have worked so hard to deny the most vulnerable of earth's inhabitants the basic protection against death and disease provided by DDT. Nevertheless, we must ask why these groups are not even held accountable for the misery that they have caused. Those who most demand transparency and accountability from everyone else simply deny responsibility for the consequences of their actions. And they are getting away with it. Even in the fine article by Tina Rosenberg, where the facts are laid out for all to see, one seeks in vain to find words of reasoned condemnation for those responsible for the loss of so many innocent lives. One does detect in her article an undertone of passion against the death-dealing actions but nothing against those who performed the actions.

NGOs vs. the Developing World

Is it not also racist for organizations largely created and run by upper-middle class white European and North American males to use their power to deny the use of a life-saving technology by poor people of color in Africa and around the world? It is a cliche in the aid community that every agency of government has a domestic constituency to shape it except foreign aid. This allows a small, dedicated minority in a country to impose an anti-technology agenda on aid policies. The public isn't paying attention.

Banning DDT was the opening wedge but it has been largely subsumed under a vast array of issues on which Northern NGOs collectively act against the best interests of the world's poor while pretending to speak for them. The NGOs express little doubt that they might be wrong and that their actions might be harmful. Their certainty as to the rightness of their actions has allowed them to claim a moral superiority and given them the presumed right to forcibly disrupt meetings, interfere with life-saving research, and destroy transgenic agricultural crops or burn down buildings, all without a whisper of condemnation from other NGOs. Most of those recruited to carry out these actions are neither knowledgeable about science nor have they had any experience with the peoples that they claim to defend.

From the Green Revolution to the construction of dams for irrigation and electrification, to transgenic plant breeding and a host of other issues, the Green NGOs have acted to block the use of technologies that could transform human life. This has caused considerable frustration among the leaders of the developing countries. Once again, it is legitimate to raise the issue of racism. Northern white NGOs (with slogans like "we are six billion") assume that they are more legitimate representatives of the world's poor than the poor's elected representatives.

The cost in human suffering trumps all other issues when weighing the costs and benefits of the use of DDT. But it should also be noted that malaria in Africa results in a sizeable loss in real economic output and the human betterment that more robust economic activity would provide.

The Scientific Evidence

Rosenberg correctly states that DDT "has been used on such a huge scale over the last fifty years that it is reasonable to think that if it had any serious effect on human health, we would know it by now." The evidence is even stronger than that statement indicates. Since the first spraying of the citizens of Naples in World War II to kill body lice and prevent the expected outbreak of typhus, there have probably been well over a billion human beings in clearly definable and measurable groups who have been subjected to greatly elevated levels of DDT without any identifiable harm of any kind. These include World War II military units, refugees and displaced persons, freed prisoners of war and others from concentration camps, post-war migrants to a number of different countries, farmers, anti-malaria spray men, and workers with twenty or more years experience manufacturing DDT all of these people would have been exposed to elevated levels of DDT over a sustained period of time.

This experienced has been reinforced by study after study that has failed to find any harm to any human whatsoever, even though some of the studies were organized in an effort to find harm. This includes research projects to identify causes of breast cancer (for which those of us who advocate the use of DDT have long been blamed). In all of them, there is no evidence of harm.

So What About the Environment?

There is one final issue that may be the most controversial, namely the question of environmental harm. Advocates for the use of DDT (such as this author), wisely prefer to avoid the environmental issue of DDT and in effect concede it. No one to my knowledge advocates the widespread use of DDT in agriculture. Most of us favor a limited environmental use of DDT for disease vector control, while some would limit it strictly to the inside of huts.

We need to have two separate argumentative tracks. One takes the position implicit in Rosenberg's article that a limited use of DDT would save millions of children's lives and that its use should be encouraged and not opposed, regardless of environmental harm. Nevertheless, there are those who have been critical of the evidence for environmental harm from DDT, and their voices need to be heard once again. Limited spraying with DDT will save lives, but more extensive spraying (still excluding agriculture) will save even more lives, so we need to have a better understanding of whether it causes environmental harm, how much it might cause, and what the trade-offs are between more lives saved and protection of the environment. All of those with the requisite knowledge need to be involved in this discourse.

But when the evidence is in, the only ones who have a right to make the final decision are those whose lives and whose children's lives are at greatest risk. The ban is one of the greatest immoralities of our times. Putting the lives of others at risk in pursuit of an agenda where one's own life is not at risk has to be condemned as immoral. This needs to be clearly stated and vigorously opposed.

Thomas DeGregori, Ph.D., is a professor of economics at the University of Houston, member of the Board of Directors of the American Council on Science and Health, and author of Bountiful Harvest: Technology, Food Safety, and the Environment (Cato Institute) and Origins of the Organic Agriculture Debate (Blackwell Professional). Much of the material here is based on these books and other books and articles. Links to them are posted on his webpage, http://www.uh.edu/~trdegreg/.