DDT: Banned Lifesaver

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Appeared in the Financial Post

Death from malaria means convulsions and delirium, retching and diarrhea, joint and abdominal pain so excruciating that coma can be a blessing. The parasitic infection destroys the body’s red blood cells and clogs its capillaries, depriving vital organs and the brain of blood. That malaria strikes some 300 million people annually—and kills an African child every 30 seconds—is all the more tragic given how preventable it is. But modern environmental ideology simply doesn’t permit the use of DDT, the most effective means of eradicating the ghastly disease.

Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) certainly ranks among the most senselessly demonized synthetic compounds. Despite decades of research vindicating the insecticide, the World Health Organization recently announced plans for a “zero DDT world,” i.e., the total phase-out of the chemical during the next decade. Instead, the agency, in conjunction with the UN Environmental Program, will spend $40 million to test “non-chemical” (read less successful) methods of malaria control.

Only three years ago, WHO had endorsed its widespread use, declaring that “DDT presents no health risk when used properly” and “Spraying is like providing a huge mosquito net over an entire household for around-the-clock protection.” The agency’s sanction in 2006 came 30 years after it renounced DDT amid unsubstantiated claims of environmental risks.

Such policy yo-yo frustrates those on the front-lines of the malaria fight who see special interest politics, not science, driving public health policy. Indeed, groups who prosper by collecting contributions for bed nets and other less effective prevention methods are among the most virulent critics of DDT.

As Roger Bate, of Africa Fighting Malaria, recently told the Wall Street Journal: “Sadly, WHO’s about-face has nothing to do with science or health and everything to do with bending to the will of well-placed environmentalists. Bed net manufacturers and sellers of less-effective insecticides also don't benefit when DDT is employed and therefore oppose it, often behind the scenes.”

It was not always so. Swiss chemist Paul Muller was awarded a Nobel Prize for his formulation of DDT in 1939. Thereafter, it became the premiere weapon in defeating malaria across North America, Southeast Asia and a chunk of Europe, freeing a billion people from the miseries of infection.

However, full-scale eradication efforts were never mounted in Africa, where 90% of malaria deaths now occur—most among children under age five.

Widespread agricultural application of DDT captured the attention of naturalist Rachel Carson and others, who claimed the chemical was destroying wildlife and causing cancer in humans. In fact, a great deal of Carson’s conclusions about human health and the environment were patently wrong, more the product of her imagination than proper scientific research.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT in 1972 despite the findings of administrative law Judge Edmund Sweeney, who concluded that DDT is not a carcinogenic, mutagenic or teratogenic hazard to humans nor does it have a deleterious effect on freshwater fish, estuarine organisms, wild birds or other wildlife.

Canada likewise banned its sale and use in 1990.

Nothing better has come along in the ensuing years. DDT remains the most affordable and effective method of “vector control,” which means it prevents infection by reducing the transmission of malaria from infected mosquitoes to people. Spray the walls of a house and the bugs are repelled from entering. The chemical so irritates mosquitoes that they exit fast. And, it kills any bugs that actually land on sprayed surfaces. Its potency can persist for up to a year, depending upon the concentration of spray and type of wall surface.

Proper and timely applications of DDT reduce malaria transmission by up to 90%.

Despite DDT’s benefits and relative safety, the United Nations and World Health Organization prefer instead to promote more costly and less effective control methods. Citing success with a pilot program in Central America (60% reduction of malaria cases), the agencies intend to replace DDT with “pharmacosuppression,” i.e., dispensing the drug chloroquine to curb infection. But chloroquine has been shown to cause ventricular arrhythmias, while mosquitoes build resistance to the drug over time. Moreover, the systematic delivery of legitimate drugs to millions of people in the poverty-plagued far reaches of Africa will be problematic, if not impossible. (In contrast, locals can quickly be taught proper methods of in-home spraying.)

The “zero DDT world” campaign also includes promoting bed nets and window screens; planting mosquito-repellent trees and stocking waterways with mosquito-hungry fish; draining ditches; and encouraging personal hygiene. None of which can match the affordability and ease of DDT, but all of which pass muster with the chemical-phobes.

Evidently, elements within the environmental lobby prefer the blood of malaria victims on their hands to DDT on the walls of malaria survivors.

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