DDT and the Tsunami

Following the tsunami, the folks at Junk Tech Fumento Central Science Station (JTFCSS) have been calling for DDT spraying. Here’s Michael Fumento:

The best answer would be spraying with DDT. Unfortunately, environmentalists have demonized DDT based essentially on unfounded accusations in a 1962 book, Silent Spring. … DDT should be sprayed on water pools, tents, and on people themselves—as indeed was once common in Sri Lanka and throughout most of the world.

And Tech Central Station:

Imagine that every year the world suffered from six or more tsunamis producing the horrific death toll recently experienced. That’s how many people die every year from malaria alone, and the tsunami may contribute to even higher rates this year. That disaster has created new habitat suitable for the proliferation of malaria and other disease-carrying mosquitoes.

Public health officials can take steps to reduce the impact, one of which involves using the controversial pesticide DDT. Since the 1960s green activists pushed bans of the substance around the world based largely on false claims about its health affects. The result was a public health disaster—contributing to skyrocketing malaria rates.

Junkscience has a death clock, attributing almost 90 million deaths to the EPA’s ban on DDT in 1972. Michael Crichton is a little more conservative, only blaming the ban for 50 million deaths:

“Since the ban, two million people a year have died unnecessarily from malaria, mostly children. The ban has caused more than fifty million needless deaths. Banning DDT killed more people than Hitler.”

OK, first the Junkscience death counter. On this page I have a corrected version that shows that the EPA’s ban on DDT has caused deaths. You see, by 1972 malaria had been eradicated from the US, so there was no need for DDT spraying for malaria control. There have been some small outbreaks since 1972, but these have been eradicated by other insecticides. (From reading JTFCSS you would think that DDT was the only insecticide in existence.) The Junkscience death counter is particularly dishonest, since as the author concedes in a footnote hidden at the bottom of the page, the number it gives is more than the total number of malaria deaths in the entire world since 1972.

What about the ban on using DDT to fight malaria? There is no such ban. DDT is banned from agricultural use (and rightly so because of environmental damage) but can still be used for disease prevention. JTFCSS pretends that there is a ban so they can hang malaria deaths around the neck of environmentalists.

So we should be spraying DDT in Sri Lanka to prevent malaria? Well, no. The World Health Organization’s plan for malaria prevention in the wake of the tsunami reports:

Sri Lanka

Endemic sporadic malaria close to the affected areas transmitted by An.culicifacies, which has been considered DDT-resistant for many years, but is still sensitive to organophosphates, such as malathion, and pyrethroids.

Yes, the mosquitoes in Sri Lanka have evolved resistance to DDT. It doesn’t work any more. In fact, that is the reason why they stopped using DDT in Sri Lanka. It wasn’t because of any ban—it was because it stopped being effective. Steve Milloy, Mr Junkscience, has only a half-hearted belief in evolution. This may explain why he and other right-wing authors have trouble grasping the idea that mosquitoes evolve resistance to DDT. Fortunately, the World Health Organization is not taking advice from JTFCSS and sending DDT to Sri Lanka. They are sending malathion, which will actually be able to kill the mosquitoes there.
Correction: Malathion is not a good idea either, since mosquitoes in Sri Lanka have developed resistance to that as well.

For more information see the WHO Roll Back Malaria Department, Jim Norton on the DDT Ban Myth and John Quiggin giving the facts on DDT.

Update: Check out Africa Fighting Malaria, which pretends to be an organization devoted to fighting malaria, but posts this article which as well as arguing for the use of DDT in Sri Lanka where the mosquitoes are resistant to DDT, (remarkably ill-informed for a supposed anti-malaria organization, don’t you think?) claims that environmentalists are opposed to DDT because they want malaria to kill more people. Sure enough, it’s yet another astroturf operation. Sourcewatch has the details.

Comments

  1. #1 ben
    January 24, 2005

    they might be resistant to DDT, but they’re still mosquitoes.

  2. #2 Dano
    January 24, 2005

    Let us not forget mosquitoes are a vector.

    The little guys the mosquitoes carry around evolve resistance to quinones as well, due to our indiscriminate EPA bans on green-weenie environazi…er…indiscriminate spraying.

    D

  3. #3 Agricola
    January 25, 2005

    wow do i feel ahead of the game

  4. #4 Carleton Wu
    January 25, 2005

    Something about this reminds me of the pro-life movement- tremendous concern for those at risk (ie fetuses or third-world residents) while a political point is to be made, but little demonstration of that concern afterwards (ie prenatal care, etc).
    Where are all of the compassionate conservatives calling for research into and funding for defeating malaria? Or for funding, in general, for medical care of poor third-worlders?
    Dano- from the same malaria site that Tim pointed out, I found this: Resistance [to chloroquine] began from 2 epi-centres – Columbia (South America) and Thailand (South East Asia) in early part of 1960s. Since then, resistance has been spreading world wide…. It sounds like resistance has nothing whatsoever to do with, er, EPA action- or any US government policy- since it developed outside of the, er, United States.
    http://www.malariasite.com/malaria/DrugResistance.htm

  5. #5 Dano
    January 25, 2005

    Sorry Carleton, I forgot to close my sarcasm tag so it would show in the text. Quinone resistance is a part of the package and any argument for expanding the spraying of DDT to eliminate malaria is only telling you half the story. Now that I’m adequately caffeinated I can write…

    D

  6. #6 Carleton Wu
    January 25, 2005

    Ahhh. Im getting the nuance now. :)

  7. #7 tc
    January 25, 2005

    I like your work, but you’re wrong on DDT. Most importantly, DDT is still the cheapest insecticide around, by a lot, and this matters hugely to poor countries. There are many countries (mostly in Africa) where mosquitoes have not developed DDT resistance, but where DDT is “unofficially” discouraged due to pressure from aid and environmental organizations. See: http://www.malaria.org/DDTpage.html

  8. #8 Tim Lambert
    January 25, 2005

    tc, that is exactly the same link as I had in my post to show that it has not been banned. And one of the reasons why mosquitoes have not developed resistance to DDT in Africa is because pressure from environmentalists has prevented its use in agriculture there. And the opposition to DDT for public health uses by environmentalists seems to have been exaggerated by anti-green folks: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/08/opinion/8kristof.html?ex=1262926800&en=3906217f5764e4b0&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland

    I called the World Wildlife Fund, thinking I would get a fight. But Richard Liroff, its expert on toxins, said he could accept the use of DDT when necessary in anti-malaria programs.

    “South Africa was right to use DDT,” he said. “If the alternatives to DDT aren’t working, as they weren’t in South Africa, geez, you’ve got to use it. In South Africa it prevented tens of thousands of malaria cases and saved lots of lives.”

    At Greenpeace, Rick Hind noted reasons to be wary of DDT, but added: “If there’s nothing else and it’s going to save lives, we’re all for it. Nobody’s dogmatic about it.”

  9. #9 Aaron Swartz
    January 25, 2005

    Why do these guys care about DDT so much? Do they get some funding from the DDT industry or is it just a convenient way to bash environmentalists? (Possibly because it goes after Rachel Carson, the “head” of the environmental movement?)

  10. #10 Tim Lambert
    January 25, 2005

    While Milloy gets money from chemical companies, they only make DDT in a couple of factories in India and China, so it’s not specifically about DDT but more about bashing environmentalists to weaken them on other issues that Junk Station clients have a financial stake in.

  11. #11 tc
    January 25, 2005

    Yes, DDT was not banned at the 2000 treaty, but that was after lobbying by “pro-DDT” groups and after DDT had been discouraged for many years.

    http://www.malaria.org/DDTpage.html :
    “This led groups such as Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund, Physicians for Social Responsibilty and over 300 other environmental organizations to advocate for a total DDT ban, starting as early as 2007 in some cases.”

    http://www.malaria.org/DDTEconomist14_XII_00.html :
    “In the early 1990s, for example, the United States Agency for International Development stopped the governments of Bolivia and Belize from using DDT. In Madagascar, the United Nations Development Programme tried to persuade the government to replace DDT with Propoxur, a less effective pesticide. To its credit, Madagascar refused. In Mozambique, both NORAD, the Norwegian development agency, and SIDA, its Swedish counterpart, said that they could not support the use of DDT, as it was banned in their own countries.”

    In Mozmbique: http://bmj.bmjjournals.com/cgi/external_ref?access_num=10710569&link_type=PUBMED :
    “It is possible that DDT will be used again in Mozambique. Its use there was stopped several decades ago, because 80% of the country’s health budget came from donor funds, and donors refused to allow the use of DDT.”

  12. #12 Down and Out in Sài Gòn
    January 25, 2005

    On the other hand, some governments have been successful in reducing Malaria without resource to DDT. Before 1991, Vi?t Nam did a lot of mass spraying of the stuff. Afterwards, they stopped using the stuff. Instead, they tried different strategies: more drugs, distributing mosquito nets, enforcing twice-yearly household insecticide sprays. In six years, they reduced malaria deaths by 97%. That’s according to this source.

    Basically, the disease has become so uncommon that doctors have advised me against antimalarial medication here: the side effects ain’t worth it. Now if I visit neighboring Laos and Cambodia, well, that’s a different story.

  13. #13 dsquared
    January 25, 2005

    btw, absolutely nobody advises the spraying of water pools with DDT these days. The only advantage of DDT over other insecticides is its superior persistency when sprayed on walls (this is the main reason why it’s cheaper; because the stuff is so damn persistent, you don’t need to reapply it so often). In water pools, the persistency advantage is greatly reduced; the DDT sticks around in the pool, but sinks below the surface more or less as quickly as any other insecticide.

  14. #14 Brian
    January 25, 2005

    DDT is banned by some countries that could use it to help control malaria. I believe Ecuador is an example. As other comments pointed out, poor countries are much less likely to receive financial assistance that would allow them to make use of DDT. I’d give the critics some TINY amount of credit for the argument that the various DDT bans/discouragements have been overzealous, and excoriate them for all the stupidity and exaggerations they go on to commit.

    This was discussed in Chris Mooney’s blog, although I can’t find it right now.

  15. #15 tc
    January 26, 2005

    From Sourcewatch http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Malaria_and_DDT :

    “The mining industry in southern Africa is the largest private promotor of DDT spraying, as it is a highly cost-effective way of reducing absenteeism amongst the workforce. It is has the largest Gross Geographic Product of all industries in the country.

    Africa Fighting Malaria is supported by two large mining corporations, Anglo American and BHP Billiton.

    “Absenteeism” here means workers being sick with malaria. No, they’re not exactly what their name says, but they’re the the good guys.

  16. #16 dsquared
    January 26, 2005

    They’re not the good guys. The big mining companies could certainly afford to spray their workers’ tents with malathion and give them treated nets. Cutting costs and using DDT instead is not an act of charity; DDT builds up in the human body, and while current studies aren’t showing much toxicity, it took a while for us to catch on to asbestos. Persistency in a toxin is not a good quality.

  17. #17 PW
    January 26, 2005

    First of all let’s not forget that DDT is very harmful to the environment. Raptors are one species that have been extremely affected by it (Steve Milloy’s chicken studies don’t prove anything) That being said if it is used to save children then it should be used, BUT as Down and Out stated there are alternatives. Also Malathion may not be as persistant as DDT but it is an organophosphate and a neuro-toxin.

    I wonder why nobody ever mention the larvacides, they are quite effective at reducing mosquito growth in stagnant water and quite a bit safer.

    Finally all this is missing the point. If people/countries really cared about this issue they would put the money into developing cures for tropical diseases. Just imagine what 1/10th of the money wasted on Iraq would do to solve this problem.

  18. #18 RH Morgan
    January 27, 2005

    I don’t think the piece on the sources of the DDT Ban myth gives credit to Nobel Laureate Peter Medawar for its spread. Medawar was an immunologist — rather outside his field.

  19. #19 Jon
    January 30, 2005

    One thing not mentioned, it is claimed that even in mosquitos resistant to DDT, the DDT still repells them from houses in which is sprayed.

    If all of these right wingers care so much about fighting malaria, they could get put together several tens of millions of dollars for appropriate usage of DDT (they do have the resources!). I guess they are really complaining that people are getting killed because programs that the TCS crowd does not support are not working as well as they should.

  20. #20 Jayfler
    March 21, 2005

    The author blasts “right-wing authors” for a lack of understanding of the theory of evolution, then goes on to demonstrate a profound lack of understanding himself. Natural selection is not evolution; natural selection allows a trait already in a gene pool to fluorish, due to some advantage of that trait. Natural selection combined with beneficial mutation is the foundation of evolution. Is anyone really saying that in DDT-exposed populations the mosquitoes spontaneously mutated to become resistant? Of course not. The trait is already in the gene pool at a very low frequency – DDT just kills off all the others.

  21. #21 Tim Lambert
    March 21, 2005

    Jayfler, biological evolution is the change in gene frequency with time. It doesn’t have to involve mutation. In any event, the original development of DDT resistance required a mutation.