For the Birds Radio Program: Bring back DDT?
Recently, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial titled “Bring Back DDT and Save Lives.” The US banned DDT almost 30 years ago, and most developed countries have also done so. Now the United Nations Environmental Program is sponsoring a legally binding convention for a world-wide ban on DDT, which will eliminate DDT everywhere. But there has been a recent upsurge in the number of malaria cases in poor, developing countries as DDT use has dwindled, and the Wall Street Journal is using this to declare war on environmentalists. They claim that DDT never killed a single bird, merely caused some raptor species to produce eggs with thin shells, and that DDT is the only way malaria can be managed.
DDT is the most effective pesticide for killing mosquitoes. But it accumulates in fatty tissue of birds and mammals, including humans, bioaccumulates, and lasts just about forever in the environment, such that for many years after its use was discontinued in the United States, it could still be found in human milk.
The one use of DDT that seems worthwhile is in spraying the inside of houses in malaria-prone areas. Many scientists support the manufacture of DDT for this purpose, and I must say that makes sense to me—DDT may have some dangers to humans, but malaria is a proven killer, and spraying indoors doesn’t expose natural systems to any real dangers. But in the long run the most important thing is to find a cure or vaccination to protect human beings from malaria without compromising the environment any more than necessary. The Wall Street Journal seems to be reverting back to the tactics used by Time magazine and the chemical industry from the 1960s, ridiculing Rachel Carson rather than supporting their own arguments with sound fact.
Back then one member of the American Chemical Society asked “She’s a spinster-what’s she interested in genetics for?” The chemical industry and its supporters lambasted the rapidly accumulating evidence that DDT was potentially dangerous for humans and definitely devastating for birds. The July 28, 2000 Wall Street Journal editorial said, “Activists have succeeded in convincing the public that DDT is so evil that we should accept the suffering and death of millions in poor countries to save the world’s paranoid wealthy from theoretical health risks we still can’t identify. That is Rachel Carson’s shameful legacy.” Rather than supplying genuine facts about DDT, they are still stuck on attacking Carson, who was dying of breast cancer during the rabid public ridicule she faced back in the 60s, and who obviously cannot defend her position today.
DDT is an insecticide that indiscriminately kills insects and other invertebrates wherever it’s applied, so it kills insects critical for pollinating plants, lovely butterflies and their larvae, mayflies, dragonflies, and all kinds of important and helpful little creatures. It also kills birds that eat large quantities of mosquitoes. But because mosquitoes have a short lifespan and are very fertile, over time they become more and more resistant to DDT and so the DDT dosages have to keep increasing to stay effective.
Even if DDT were put back into use everywhere, we would still need more research find a cure or a vaccination for malaria. But research is expensive, without any guarantees of success, and the chemical industry has a vested interest in selling DDT. Too bad the Wall Street Journal is so bent on ridiculing the environmental movement that they can’t see the complexities of the issue, and refuse to consider additional and alternative solutions that don’t directly benefit their advertisers.