Duplantier reporting Behind The Headlines

Week of:
May 27, 2001
DDT Ban Kills Millions in Third World


by: F.R. Duplantier

"One of the oldest pesticides is still the best for controlling mosquitoes; this is dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, commonly known as DDT."

"The heroic malaria-eradication program of the postwar years used DDT as its primary weapon," recall Roger Bate and Kendra Okonski of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "This program succeeded in North America and southern Europe, and greatly reduced incidence in many other countries. But eradication was not possible for many countries," they lament. "Public-health activity in these countries is wholly or partly reliant on funding from overseas aid agencies. Since donor countries frown on DDT, these agencies are extremely reluctant to countenance its use in other countries."

According to Bate and Okonski, writing in a recent issue of UpDate, the monthly newsletter of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, "Spraying DDT in houses and on mosquito breeding grounds was the primary reason that rates of malaria around the world declined dramatically after the Second World War. Nearly one million Indians died from malaria in 1945," they report, "but DDT spraying reduced this to a few thousand by 1960. However, concerns about the environmental harm of DDT led to a decline in spraying and, likewise, a resurgence of malaria. Today there are once again millions of cases of malaria in India, and over 300 million cases worldwide -- most in subsaharan Africa."

Bate and Okonski ascribe the malarial problem in the world's poorest countries in part to their "few financial resources to control it." They emphasize that, "for an extremely impoverished country, even DDT may be expensive to use. Costlier alternative insecticides are out of the question." The two analysts see "no alternative to DDT to which poor countries can switch without encountering significant new costs, costs that cannot be met out of their current health budgets. Switching to an alternative is difficult even for a fairly developed country such as South Africa," they say, "and it may verge on impossible for poorer countries."

Bate and Okonski call for the continued use of DDT "until technological advances derive a better, less-costly alternative. Once it becomes unnecessary," they predict, "it will fall into disuse on its own. Developed nations . . . pressuring countries to abandon DDT for public-health uses will kill thousands of people," Bate and Okonski warn, "and cost millions of dollars."

There were open drainage ditches on the clamshell-topped, moss-draped lane I grew up on in New Orleans, and standing water in most of the yards after a good rain. We delighted in catching tadpoles and crawfish in these miniature bayous and marshes, but we never developed fond feelings for the mosquitoes that bred there and fed on us. In fact, the only guy more popular than the ice cream man back then was the mosquito control man, "the fogger." As soon as we heard him driving down the street in the early evening, we'd jump on our bikes and ride behind in the thick malathion mist issuing from the back of his truck. We weren't poisoned -- as far as we know -- and, somehow, we managed not to be hit by cars. Instead, we grew up healthy, with a healthy respect for pesticides.