Politics & Policy

All Wet

P.C. in the heartland.

It’s springtime, and political correctness is blooming in Iowa. It takes the form of new Core Curriculum “standards” proposed by the Iowa Department of Education which misinform and manipulate kids.

Standard course requirements for schools are not intrinsically bad, of course, but these (which would have to be implemented by 2012, or by 2014 for kindergarten through eighth grade) are ideological and over-simplistic. For example, on page 59, Application D asks students to “list recommendations that you will use to convince your local legislators to support the funding and restoration of wetlands.” All wetlands? How about if there’s a thriving city, an airport or a gorgeous and much-used park on a former wetland?

A more egregious example is Application B on the same page, which instructs students to use what they’ve been taught “and other research, [to] write a letter to your legislator arguing against the sale of DDT to Third World countries when it is banned in the U.S.”

This requirement is both stupid and cruel.

Malaria, which is transmitted by the bite of mosquitoes, is one of the worst scourges on the planet, particularly for the inhabitants of poor tropical countries. Forty-one percent of the world’s population live in areas where malaria is transmitted (e.g., parts of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Central and South America, Hispaniola, and Oceania), and each year 350–500 million cases of malaria occur worldwide. More than a million people die, most of them young children in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2002, malaria caused 10.7 percent of all children’s deaths in developing countries. Those who survive are often terribly debilitated.

In the absence of a vaccine, elimination of the vehicle that spreads the disease — in this case, the mosquito — ought to be the key to preventing epidemics, but fundamental shortcomings in public policy limit the weapons that are available.

In 1972, on the basis of data on toxicity to fish and migrating birds (but not to humans), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned virtually all uses of the pesticide DDT, an inexpensive and effective pesticide once widely deployed to kill disease-carrying insects. Not only did government regulators underplay scientific evidence of the effectiveness and relative safety of DDT, but they also failed to appreciate the distinction between its large-scale use in agriculture and more limited application for controlling carriers of human disease. Although DDT is a (modestly) toxic substance, there is a world of difference between applying large amounts of it in the environment — as farmers did before it was banned — and using it carefully and sparingly to fight mosquitoes and other disease-carrying insects. A basic principle of toxicology is that the dose makes the poison.

The regulators who banned DDT also failed to take into consideration the inadequacy of alternatives. Because it persists after spraying, DDT works far better than many pesticides now in use, some of which are toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms. With DDT unavailable, many mosquito-control authorities are depleting their budgets by repeated spraying with short-acting, marginally effective insecticides. Moreover, even if mosquitoes becomes resistant to the killing effects of DDT, they are still repelled by it. An occasional dusting of window- and door-frames is extremely effective.

Since the banning of DDT, insect-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue have been on the rise. Even the United States has not been immune: In 2007, there were 3,623 cases and 124 deaths from mosquito-borne West Nile virus infections, including 30 cases and 3 deaths in Iowa.

The huge toll of diseases spread by mosquitos has caused some bureaucrats to rethink DDT’s use. In 2005, the United States Agency for International Development endorsed DDT for malaria control, following the lead of the World Health Organization.

How can we drain the public policy swamp? First, the U.S. government should undertake a reevaluation of the voluminous data on DDT that has been compiled since the 1970s, and regulators should make DDT available immediately for both indoor and outdoor mosquito control in the United States.

Second, the U.S. government should oppose international strictures on DDT.

Third, federal officials should embark on a campaign to educate local authorities and citizens about the safety and potential importance of DDT. Right now, most of what people hear is the reflexively anti-pesticide drumbeat of the environmental movement. (This is the lamentable legacy of the benighted Rachel Carson and her acolytes.)

And one last thing — Iowa schoolchildren should write letters to their legislators to help make these changes happen.

— Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. He was an official at the NIH and FDA from 1977 to 1994.


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