Politics & Policy

The Case of the DDT Deniers

Kenya crazy talk.

Poor little Kenya. That’s the message the media have been sending as the United Nations and European nations hold out this African country as the poster child of America’s environmental sins. In the weeks leading up today’s presentation of oral arguments in Massachusetts v. EPA — the Supreme Court case in which northeastern states are suing the Bush administration to regulate carbon dioxide as a “pollutant” under the Clean Air Act — global-warming alarmists and the media have been pointing to malaria epidemics in the cooler regions of Kenya as proof of the harmful effects of human-induced “climate change.”

#ad#At the United Nations global-warming summit earlier this month in Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi, the Associated Press breathlessly filed a dispatch citing Kenya as the prime example of how “a warmer world already seems to be producing a sicker world.” The article proclaimed that because global warming was “disrupting normal climate zones” in Kenya, “malaria epidemics have occurred in highland areas where cooler weather historically has kept down populations of the disease-bearing mosquitoes.”

The AP article followed the predictable pattern of blaming America for not ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, describing how the mostly Europeans signatories were discussing “how to draw the United States into a plan for mandatory emission caps.”

Many friend-of-the-court briefs point to recent cases of malaria appearing in the world’s cooler regions to try to persuade the Supreme Court that carbon dioxide is already affecting public health and thus should be regulated. With examples such as Kenya, they are likely trying to persuade swing justices, such as Anthony Kennedy, who increasingly weigh international considerations in their judgments about laws.

Al Gore’s book and DVD, An Inconvenient Truth, also showcases Kenya. Recent malaria outbreaks in the city of Nairobi, Gore proclaims, show that “now, with global warming, the mosquitoes are climbing to higher altitudes.” At the Nairobi summit, U.N. head Kofi Annan also turned up the heat by proclaiming that climate change “is a threat to health, since a warmer world is one in which infectious diseases such as malaria … will spread further and faster.” Annan then pointed his finger at what he called “the few diehard skeptics” that “try to sow doubt,” concluding that “they should be seen for what they are: out of step, out of arguments, and out of time.”

But when it comes to global warming and malaria, many of the “diehard skeptics” who are “out of step” with Annan and the media are prominent scientists who have produced studies published by the U.N.’s own World Health Organization. Research papers from the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show not only that global warming is not to blame for malaria in Nairobi and the highlands, but that flawed environmental policies are the real culprit. We indeed should cry for Kenya, but our tears need to be directed at the right target. In Kenya and elsewhere, it is modern environmentalism that is “producing a sicker world.” And it is now primarily the U.N. and Europe that are blocking Kenya from using the best tool to fight her malarial epidemics. That tool is the “environmentally incorrect” insecticide DDT.

If the AP and other news services had bothered to talk to critics of global-warming alarmism or had even done a simple Google search with words such as “Kenya,” “malaria,” and “history,” they would have discovered a remarkable fact: Epidemics of malaria in Nairobi and in the highlands are nothing new under Kenya’s sun. They have occurred many times before in this century. In those regions of Kenya, as elsewhere, malaria was greatly reduced by the use of DDT to combat the mosquitoes spreading the disease. And there as elsewhere, malaria came back with a vengeance after DDT use was halted due in large part to the scare-mongering of Rachel Carson and other enviros.

If Annan, Gore or the AP had bothered to look at a comprehensive 1999 WHO report published in conjunction with the U.N. and World Bank’s Roll Back Malaria partnership, they would have come across this startling conclusion about malaria in the Kenyan highlands: “malaria among highland populations is better described as a re-emerging [underlining in original] problem rather than a new, unprecedented phenomena.” This paper, written by scientists at the Kenya Medical Research Institute, documents that malaria “[e]pidemics in highland Kenya, varying in magnitude, location, and effect, were to recur throughout the 1940s.” As for Nairobi, that city experienced malaria outbreaks in the 1920s, ’30s, and 40s, according to the WHO report, which is entitled “The epidemiology, politics, and control of malaria epidemics in Kenya: 1900-1998.”

What brought an end to malaria in these regions for decades until it recently resurfaced? In substantial part, the spraying of DDT. “Following concerted attempts to interrupt transmission during the 1950s and 1960, … malaria risks declined significantly,” says the WHO study. And DDT was a large component of these “concerted attempts.”

According to the WHO paper, authorities in Kenya began spraying DDT in the 1940s, with an immediate 98 percent reduction in some regions. The report credited this spraying in substantial part for malaria not reoccurring in Nairobi after a flood in 1961.

The WHO report also casts a skeptical eye on climate playing any significant role in Kenya malaria resurgence. Measuring temperature and rainfall in Kenya’s Kericho district in the highlands, the study states that “there is no obvious effect of ‘warming’ in this area since 1967.” The U.S. CDC reported similar findings in 2005. The CDC study concluded: “Doubts exist as to the plausibility of climate change as proximate cause of epidemic malaria because global warming cannot explain the World War II epidemics. Dramatic increases in malaria in the 1990s are not mirrored by prospectively collected climate data.” And malaria researchers have also noted that the disease was endemic in many of other regions of the world, including the American South, until DDT eradicated malaria in those places after World War II.

But the malaria increases do seem to be mirrored in the reduction of DDT use. After the unfounded hysterics of Silent Spring author Rachel Carson and other eco-activists, DDT began to be used in Kenya less and less. Supply was restricted by U.S. and other nations’ bans, and in 1990 Kenya itself outlawed the insecticide’s use. Now there is extensive debate in Kenya, as elsewhere, about bringing back DDT. Two of the things that may be holding Kenya back from doing this, according to the online magazine Science in Africa, are the United Nations and the European Union. Although the WHO has commendably now called for DDT’s use in anti-malaria efforts, the U.N. Treaty on Persistent Organic Pollutants phases out DDT. It does have an exception for health reasons, but imposes expensive paperwork requirements on countries that use the substance. The European Union is also shedding crocodile tears for Kenya. “Europe is tightening its restrictions on insecticide residues on East African products,” according to the magazine, and this is discouraging DDT’s use, even though it would not be used in agriculture.

Imposing strict Kyoto-like reductions on carbon dioxide may worsen Kenya’s public-health systems, as well as those of other countries including our own, by making electricity use more expensive in setting such as hospitals. My colleague Marlo Lewis delves into more of these details in his report, “A Skeptic’s Guide to An Incovenient Truth.”

Critics of global-warming alarmism are often slammed as “deniers.” But to save Kenya and other poor nations from the ravages of malaria, we need to stand up to the activists and bureaucracies who should be called the DDT deniers.

 – John Berlau, a policy director at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, is author of the just-published Eco-Freaks: Environmentalism Is Hazardous to Your Health.

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