In Defense of Ddt
A hated pesticide saves lives.


Forgive and bear with me for this important confession. As a Brit (technically a nonresident alien) living in D.C., I don’t get to vote in the upcoming presidential election. But if I did, given my personal interests, I’d probably vote for Ralph Nader. He’s the only candidate who backs the use of DDT for malaria control.

Back in 2000 Al Gore’s campaign was damaged by Nader, and Democratic soon-to-be nominee John Kerry is worried that his campaign may suffer a similar fate. As Robert Kennedy Jr. put it four years ago: “Nader’s candidacy could siphon votes from Al Gore–the environment’s most visible champion since Theodore Roosevelt–and lead to the election of George W. Bush.” And he was right.

Current polls put Nader at five percent of the vote in a couple of swing states (notably Washington, Oregon, and Wisconsin), and the unthinkable might just happen–again.

Looking at the various websites of the mainstream and fringe political parties, it is clear that they all rate the environment and the poor as high domestic and international priorities. But there is no mention on Nader’s various sites of the one project he should be most proud of: the funding of the Malaria Project from his Center for the Study of Responsive Law in Washington, D.C.

The Malaria Project fought, in the face of massive environmental opposition, for the continued use of DDT for mosquito control in poor countries. Since DDT is such a totemic baddie for the Greens, it is probably politically unwise for Nader to support (even tacitly) its use. And this probably explains why the Malaria Project site at CSRL doesn’t mention DDT at all.

John Kerry is unlikely to repeat Vice President Gore’s mistake of visiting the birthplace of anti-DDT author Rachel Carson prior to the election. Carson was one of the first to allege that DDT would harm wildlife. Indeed, used massively in agriculture, it caused eggshell thinning in birds of prey, and numerous other alleged (though few proven) environmental problems. But Kerry isn’t exactly going to support DDT use, either.

DDT was banned from the U.S. and most of the rest of the developed world in the early 1970s. Before that, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences claimed that it had saved “500 million lives from malaria.” All of southern Europe and the southern U.S. had eradicated malaria by using DDT in the early 1950s. But reduction in aid budgets, complacency in spray programs, and environmental concerns resulted in a significant reduction of DDT-spraying around the world starting in the 1960s.

DDT was quietly used in developing countries, such as South Africa, Botswana, Indonesia, and India for the past three decades, almost without comment. But last month (May 17), the United Nations Environment Program Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants came into force. It will eventually phase out the use of DDT, and already makes its procurement and use harder–resulting in more babies killed by malaria. But Nader’s malaria project was a key player in keeping DDT from being banned outright.

Given that “three children die every minute in Africa from malaria, and DDT is still the most cost-effective means of controlling the disease, this would have been a scandalous waste of life,” says Prof. Don Roberts of the Uniformed Services Hospital in Maryland. Furthermore, the spraying of DDT is contained inside buildings and very little reaches the wider environment, and hence “causes no problem,” according to toxicology expert Gerhard Verdooren of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, an environmentalist group from South Africa.

While many Greens will be shocked about Nader’s fight to protect DDT and other insecticides, perhaps they should ponder that thousands of Americans were harmed by West Nile virus last year. And where the disease has hit hardest, local media have been surprisingly sanguine about insecticidal spraying to control this deadly mosquito-borne disease. But the chances of catching West Nile are very small: For most Africans, when surrounded by major dangers such as malaria, minuscule theoretical threats from pesticides do not figure.

Courage in politicians is rare. There is no doubt that John Kerry was a brave man in Vietnam, and President Bush has held firmly to his convictions. But for them the support of DDT is just too much.

The fact that Nader could put humanitarian concerns above his well-known dislike for DDT is commendable and strategically sensible. He could foresee, where no one else could, the harm to the environmental movement of being saddled with the blame for millions of dead children from malaria. It is likely that’s how the history books would have written it had DDT been banned (and it still may be). Nader will never be president, but he has the kind of conviction I like (even if most of his policies are batty). So if I could cast a vote, he’d get mine.

Dr. Roger Bate is a visiting fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and a director of Africa Fighting Malaria.