Tina Rosenberg’s article, What the World Needs Now Is
published in the New York Times last year contains many factual
errors about DDT. The errors combine to present a false picture of a world where DDT is a magic bullet that could end malaria if only dogmatic environmentalists would allow it. After seven weeks one (and only one) correction was made to her article:
An article on April 11 about DDT and its effectiveness in controlling
malaria in developing countries misstated the position of an
international health organization on it. The Global Fund to Fight
AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria indeed plans to finance some DDT
spraying, in Somalia.
Many more corrections should have been made but were not:
It costs a quarter as much as the next cheapest insecticide. It is DDT.
Correction: Deltamethrin costs the same as
But at the moment, there is only one country in the world getting
donor money to finance the use of DDT: Eritrea, which gets money for
its program from the World Bank with the understanding that it will
look for alternatives.
The move away from DDT in the 60’s and 70’s led to a resurgence of malaria in various countries — Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Swaziland, South Africa and Belize, to cite a few; those countries that then returned to DDT saw their epidemics controlled.
Correction: Only one of those countries moved away from DDT in the 60s and 70s. And that country, Sri Lanka, abandoned DDT in 1977 because the mosquitoes had developed resistance to DDT and a malaria epidemic had resulted. It was only by switching to malathion that they were able to control the epidemic.
In her 297 pages, Rachel Carson never mentioned the fact that by the time she was writing, DDT was responsible for saving tens of millions of lives, perhaps hundreds of millions.
Correction: Carson did mention the the triumphs against disease, writing:
The world has heard much of the triumphant war against disease through the control of insect vectors of infection, but it has heard little of the other side of the story – the defeats, the short-lived triumphs that now strongly support the alarming view that the insect enemy has been made actually stronger by our efforts. Even worse, we may have destroyed our very means of fighting.
Yes, one of the reasons that Carson was against the overuse of pesticides was that it would destroy their usefulness against disease.
Back to Rosenberg:
DDT killed bald eagles because of its persistence in the environment. ”Silent Spring” is now killing African children because of its persistence in the public mind.
Correction: “Silent Spring” is now saving African children. If it hadn’t been for bans on the agricultural use of DDT that Carson inspired, mosquitoes in Africa would have developed resistance as they did in Sri Lanka and many other places. The African children being saved from malaria with DDT spraying can thank Rachel Carson.
Ruckelshaus made the right decision—for the United States. At the time, DDT was mainly sprayed on crops, mostly cotton, a use far riskier than indoor house spraying. There was no malaria in the United States—in part thanks to DDT—so there were no public health benefits from its use. ”But if I were a decision maker in Sri Lanka, where the benefits from use outweigh the risks, I would decide differently,” Ruckleshaus told me recently.
Correction: Mosquitoes in Sri Lanka are resistant to DDT so there are no public health benefits to its use.
But the most pernicious falsehood in the article is the title:
What the World Needs Now Is DDT
This is contradicted by information deep in the article, but Rosenberg fails to draw the obvious conclusion:
Malaria’s status can be read in the aid figures. By the 1990’s, it was almost completely ignored, and Africa’s malaria-control programs disintegrated. In some countries, the entire federal antimalaria program employed only two or three people. … Both bed nets and house spraying can be effective, and studies comparing costs differ on which is cheaper.
What the world needs now is not DDT but money to combat malaria. It doesn’t matter that much whether it is spent on bed nets or spraying with DDT or other insecticides—they all work and the costs don’t differ that much (and DDT isn’t necessarily the cheapest solution). Rosenberg makes it look like that all that is preventing malaria from being controlled is environmentalists’ prejudices against malaria and that just isn’t true.
Fortunately other reporters have done a better job of reporting the facts than Rosenberg. A recent LA Times article gets it right:
DDT, banned in the U.S. for harming the environment, is still used in limited circumstances as a house spray, but it is not the miracle worker some suggest it could be if only Western aid groups would get behind it.
Today’s weapon of choice in the war on malaria is a net treated with a biodegradable pyrethroid insecticide. The net works not so much because it forms a foolproof barrier against mosquitoes—it doesn’t—but because the insecticide kills the bugs. The most astounding results come when treated nets multiply across a village. When net use reaches a tipping point of about 60% of households, they kill enough mosquitoes that the protective benefits extend even to the households without nets.