Politics & Policy

The Deadly War against DDT

In its two decades of widespread use, DDT saved more lives than any other man-made chemical.

A remarkable new documentary tells the story of how political and ideological forces combined to ban a widely and safely used chemical, DDT, leading to a surge of malaria deaths in developing countries like Kenya, Indonesia, and India.

3 Billion and Counting, which premieres this Friday in Manhattan, was produced by Dr. Rutledge Taylor, a California physician who specializes in preventive medicine. His film will both shock and anger you.

#ad#DDT was first synthesized in 1877, but it was not until 1940 that a Swiss chemist demonstrated that it could kill insects without any harm to humans. It was introduced into widespread use during World War II and became the single most important pesticide in maintaining human health for the next two decades. The scientist who discovered the insecticidal properties of DDT, Dr. Paul Müller, was awarded the 1948 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on DDT. (In the 1940s and 1950s the chemical was the “secret” ingredient in a popular new cocktail, the Mickey Slim: gin, with a pinch of DDT.)

In 1962, Rachel Carson’s lyrical but scientifically flawed book, Silent Spring, argued eloquently, but erroneously, that pesticides, especially DDT, were poisoning both wildlife and the environment – and also endangering human health. The National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, and the U.S. surgeon general were among those who dismissed these charges and came out in support of continuing to use DDT to fight disease and protect crops. A federal hearing was held on the safety of DDT, and in April 1972 Judge Edmund Sweeney concluded that not only was DDT safe, but it was an essential chemical. Two months later, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, William Ruckelshaus – who had never attended a single day’s session of the EPA’s hearings and admitted that he had not read the transcripts — overturned the judge’s decision, declaring, without evidence, that DDT was “a potential human carcinogen” and banned it for virtually all uses. The ban on DDT was considered to be the first major victory for the environmentalist movement in the United States, and countries around the world followed America’s lead.

In Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), DDT spraying had reduced malaria cases from 2.8 million in 1948 to 17 in 1963. After spraying stopped, malaria cases rose sharply, reaching 2.5 million over the next decade.

Scientists have never found an effective substitute for DDT — and so the malaria death rate has kept on soaring.

In his dissection of the rise of the environmental movement and the fall of science, Dr. Taylor not only educates us, but he also sparks outrage about the unforeseen consequences of a scientifically ignorant chemical witchhunt, one that has caused untold human suffering and billions of deaths, primarily among children. While any man-on-the-street interview will yield an overwhelming majority of negative comments about DDT — a “highly toxic, killer chemical” – the reality is that DDT has saved more lives than any other man-made chemical.

– Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan is president of the American Council on Science and Health.

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