No, no, it’s not that white stuff. It’s that other white powder. The one that makes some of us go mad with anger, whilst others relentlessly defend its use. That some claim will give you breast cancer, whilst others say you can drink and inhale it without any harm. That some claim will destroy our environment, whilst others oppose by saying it will save millions of lives.
Here’s the story of DDT: Mankind’s most controversial chemical ever. Discovered in 1874 by a chemistry student named Otmar Zeidler. Found to be a superb bug killing chemical in the late 1930s by Swiss chemist Paul Muller. For which he got a Nobel Prize in 1948.
If you read this and live in the Southern USA, Europe, Russia, Australia, Taiwan, or the Carribean, say ‘Thank You’. Millions of houses in these parts of the world were sprayed with DDT between 1940-1960, resulting in the disappearance of malaria. Because of DDT, when you go to sleep tonight you don’t need to worry about malaria anymore.
But hold on. Didn’t we hear about DDT in school as the chemical that led to the (almost) extinction of the American bald eagle? The US national symbol with its white-feathered head? Because of thinning egg shells and loss of reproductive capacity? Yes we did. And weren’t we told that DDT was accumulating in the food chain and causing endless harm to the environment? Yes we were. And was it not thanks to biologist Rachel Carson that published the book Silent Spring in 1962, that the world opened its eyes making the stuff banned in the early 1970s? Indeed. So?
Listen to Carson first…
Lies, scare mongering, and environmentalist lobbying
According to Prof. Don Roberts and co-authors, who recently published the book ‘The Excellent Powder: DDT’s political and scientific history’, we were all fooled by a bunch of liars, including Carson. Roberts goes as far as accusing the greens for deliberately forcing the ban on DDT so that developing countries could not be protected from malaria and thus avoid an unbridled population explosion. Saving Africans from malaria would merely result in a population explosion. Better get rid of DDT.
Roberts uses 432 pages to tell us that the greens lied to us about the fate of the Bald Eagle, the peregrine falcon and robins during the period that DDT was used widely in US agriculture. He blames hunting and habitat loss instead of DDT and uses page after page to show us he is right. Every claim by the greens is met by an anti-claim of Roberts. Why does he do this?
DDT was responsible for freeing a major part of the planet from malaria. It is cheap, very effective, and saves lives because it kills mosquitoes. Roberts wants more widespread use of the stuff in Africa (beyond the 4-5 million kg sprayed there already each year). He argues that not a single person has ever suffered any health effects of DDT, that it biodegrades eventually, and that humans merely store it in the fat tissues and eventually get rid of it.
A report prepared by fifteen US/South African scientists, the Pine River Statement, condemned DDT and held on to what they consider studies that unequivocally demonstrated human health effects of DDT, still officially declared as a carcinogen. Roberts puts the (almost 500!) studies on which the report was based away as ‘un-replicated, contradictory, or statistically insignificant’. Roberts takes on a British Journal of Urology article by accusing them of ‘manipulating data’. Finally, his resentment of one of the foremost scientific journals Science is apparent by accusing them of being biased and guilty of fraud. Heavy statements.
But doesn’t DDT lead to resistance in mosquitoes? Yes it does. But Roberts uses endless studies to defend his point that resistance doesn’t matter. DDT is keeping mosquitoes from entering houses. Fewer bites, less malaria. That mosquitoes are becoming resistant to the stuff is not important, an issue for which Roberts goes head-on with the World Health Organisation. And if this isn’t enough he also accuses them of being weak and subjected to political agendas and falling for the nonsense coming out of environmentalists.
It remains to be seen if Roberts’ book will open the eyes of environmentalists and the broader public. Politicians will be careful to stay away from DDT – it is much too controversial. Scientists seeking new solutions to control malaria will continue to use DDT as the example of how things should not be done. The pesticide lobby producing what they consider more benign chemicals for mosquito control will support a permanent ban of DDT.
The net result: The disease that no longer bears on us is killing a million kids in Africa each year. And that’s our fault, thanks to the greenies, says Roberts.
Roberts and co-authors stand out from the crowd. But what if they are right?
Roberts, D., Tren, R., Bate, R. and Zambone, J. (2010). The excellent powder: DDT's political and scientific history. Dog Ear Publishing, USA. 432 pp. More about this book here.