Jewish World Review April 30, 2004 /9 Iyar 5764
Drs. Michael A. Glueck & Robert J. Cihak
DDT vs. Death by Malaria
The pervasive superstition that DDT is utterly noxious remains immune to
scientific evidence to the contrary. These myths are much more persistent in
some minds than DDT is in the environment.
That DDT prevented 500 million deaths by 1970 and that the banning of its
use in poor countries has resulted in millions of unnecessary deaths holds
no sway with true believers in this doctrine.
Where did this myth originate?
In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, arguably the most important
American book since "Uncle Tom's Cabin" kicked off the Civil War. Silent
Spring, with its apocalyptic claims of the effects of the insecticide DDT,
became a founding tract of the environmentalist movement. Today, many of her
claims are now known to be the result of sloppy science, or worse. But the
superstition that DDT is always and forever evil persists in too many minds,
along with murderous disregard of its life-saving properties.
In a remarkable article in the April 11th New York Times Magazine, "What the
World Needs Now Is DDT," Tina Rosenberg, a Times editorial writer, describes
how DDT should be used more extensively in Africa, and points out why it is
not. She writes:
" . . . South Africa is beating the disease with a simple
remedy: spraying the inside walls of houses in affected regions once a year.
. . . sprayed in tiny quantities inside houses - the only way anyone
proposes to use it today - DDT is most likely not harmful to people or the
environment. Certainly, the possible harm from DDT is vastly outweighed by
its ability to save children's lives."
So why is DDT not being used in this benign manner, let alone more
aggressively against malarial mosquito breeding areas? The answer: wealthy
Western funders won't allow it. And they won't allow it because of a
combination of outdated science and pseudo-science, coupled with a truly
breath-taking faux morality.
Ms. Rosenberg notes "wealthy countries' fear of a double standard" and
quotes E. Anne Peterson, assistant administrator for global health at the
U.S. Agency for International Development:
"For us to be buying and using in another country something
we don't allow in our own country raises the specter of preferential
treatment. We certainly have to think about 'What would the American people
think and want?' and 'What would Africans think it we're going to do to them
what we wouldn't do to our own people?'"
What would Americans want? If millions of Americans were dying from malaria,
we'd be spraying DDT furiously.
This current "beggar thy neighbor" approach reflects a kind of Western
imperial arrogance - and ignorance - that would rather let people suffer and
die than face the fact that some secular pieties may be wrong.
But a deeper hypocrisy is involved. A wetland, it has been said (not
entirely in jest) is a swamp that certain elites care about. Apparently,
this holds true even when the swamp is a breeding ground for a disease that
kills millions of people, and when the problem can be cured without hurting
the swamp; there's no limit on the ability to ignore suffering as long as
banning DDT provides the swamp lovers with their jollies.
Ms. Rosenberg notes her surprise when she reread Silent Spring in
preparation for writing her article: "In her 297 pages, Rachel Carson never
mentioned the fact that by the time she was writing, DDT was responsible for
saving tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of lives."
This would be equivalent to writing a book about the horrors of penicillin
poisoning, without mentioning the good it does. Carson's silence about DDT's
life-saving power was irresponsible.
Even today true believes ignore the testimony and scientific evidence
presented by real scientists. J. Gordon Edwards, Ph.D., Emeritus Professor
of Biological Sciences at San Jose State University testified at the
1971-1972 EPA hearings on DDT when the EPA was considering its dreadful
blanket DDT ban. He has been telling the truth about DDT ever since. For
many more scientific facts and demystified myths see
Rachel Carson's Silent Spring launched the modern environmental movement by
spinning tales about the intricacy and inter-connectedness of ecosystems in
a way that laypeople could grasp. This might have been good if not linked
with false dogmas that have proven utterly disastrous such as the myth that
human beings are destroying the planet with DDT.
The truth is that discriminating use of DDT kills mosquitoes and eradicates
malaria wherever it's adequately used. It does not destroy our environment;
it saves lives. It's time to let go of a phony belief system lethal to
millions of less-affluent humans elsewhere.
Editor's Note: Robert J. Cihak wrote this week's column.
Michael Arnold Glueck, M.D., is a multiple award winning writer who comments
on medical-legal issues. Robert J. Cihak, M.D., is a Discovery Institute
Senior Fellow and a past president of the Association of American Physicians
and Surgeons. Both JWR contributors are Harvard trained diagnostic radiologists.
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