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The DDT Controversy

DDT is a pesticide discovered in 1939 by Paul Müller, a lifesaving scientist with a page on our site.  It was widely used in the United States and Europe to wipe out malaria by killing the mosquitoes that carry the disease. Its reputation problem began in the 1960s when Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, saying that pesticides such as DDT were ruinous to wildlife. In the 1970s DDT was banned in the United States and many other countries.

The ban set into motion a major controversy between two camps:
  • Those who wanted to use DDT because it didn’t harm humans.
  • Those who wanted to ban DDT because it hurt the environment.

After the almost forty years since the ban, scientific studies have suggested a truce that has been tepidly accepted, albeit reluctantly, by both camps. Many people now believe DDT can be used as a last resort to save human life as long as its use is limited so that it cannot hurt wildlife. This can be done by spraying it indoors on walls in malaria infested areas.

The controversy has not ended. Some still press for a ban. Others press for more liberal use of DDT.

The controversy we choose to address stems from this history. Words can easily change their meaning, especially when they become associated with vitriolic rhetoric. DDT’s name has been besmirched. The very mention of it conjures up images of anti-environmentalism. Is this right?
To form your own opinion, we provide below an article on the history of DDT, along with trivia, quotes, and a timeline. Additionally, we provide links where you can read the arguments of various interest groups. Some are objective information. Others are heated, self-righteous arguments that illuminate how emotional people become discussing DDT.

The Historical Story of DDT

Malaria is a big killer today. In 2006 it killed over 800,000 people. It is a disease caused by protozoan parasites that are deposited into people by infected Anopheles mosquitoes. Think of your child receiving a mosquito bite, then dying. In parts of the world that is common, because malaria is especially deadly for children. Once infected, if the person survives, fevers can recur for years, widely limiting economic productivity. It is especially a problem, both in mortality and economically, in Africa.

The pesticide DDT has been proven very effective at killing and deterring the mosquitoes that carry the disease. DDT was discovered by Paul Müller (see his lifesaving page here) in 1939 and was used to wipe malaria, which was then quite common, out of the United States. Between 1947 and 1951 over 4,650,000 homes were sprayed with DDT in thirteen southern states, after which no more cases occurred.

DDT was thought to be a miracle pesticide and was eventually used on over 300 agricultural products. By the late 1950s over half a pound per person was sprayed in the United States. Then in 1962 Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, sprang onto the scene. It claimed that bird’s egg shells were thinning (especially those of birds such as the eagle) and other environmental problems were arising as a result of pesticides such as DDT. Because of pesticides and air and water pollution, which were also rampant, the environmental movement was born. In 1970 the Environmental Protection Agency was created. It banned DDT’s use in the United States.

The Controversy

Environmentalists pushing for a DDT ban seemed to have won. Other countries also banned it and some developing countries, threatened with a cut off of their economic aid, also quit using it.

But some humanitarians were upset. They claimed the ban was a death sentence to millions of people. And they had statistics. In Sri Lanka, the country’s malaria burden shrunk from 2.8 million cases in the 1940s to just 17 in 1965, due to the use of DDT. Five years after the country stopped using DDT, the number of cases had risen to 500,000. In the 1980’s Madagascar stopped using DDT and immediately had an epidemic of malaria, resulting in the death of more than 100,000 people. The humanitarians’ rage over the ban was summed up by Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park. One of his characters in the novel State of Fear says that banning DDT was “arguably the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century” and that the ban “killed more than Hitler.”

In 1998 a worldwide treaty to ban polluting chemicals known as POPS began being discussed. DDT was on their list, nicknamed the dirty dozen. Humanitarian groups formed to fight DDT’s inclusion, since malaria is a huge problem in Africa and DDT has proven to work well there. Scientific studies were performed. Confronted with their evidence, the parties to the POPS treaty agreed to grant DDT a “health-related exemption” until cost-effective, environmentally friendly alternatives could be found.

DDT Trivia

Prior to 1950,  malaria was common in the southern US, infecting 15,000 people a year and killing about the same number as scarlet fever.

Beginning in 1947, 4.6 million houses were sprayed in the United States, completely eradicating malaria from the country. Similar sprayings eradicated malaria from Europe.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) began as an organization to eradicate malaria. When malaria was gone, it sought other ways to benefit America. That’s why it’s located in Atlanta, GA, in the southern US.

In India when the DDT campaign began in 1953 there were 75 million malaria cases a year and 800,000 deaths. By 1966 there were fewer than a million annual cases of malaria and no deaths.

In parts of Indonesia, 25% of the population was infected by malaria. When DDT was introduced, the rate fell to 1%.

In Venezuela, the number of malaria cases dropped from 8 million to 800 when DDT was used.

Today,malaria still kills about 2,000 children a day, most in Africa.

Quotes About DDT

Paul Müller, on his discovery of DDT:
“My fly cage was so toxic after a short period that even after very thorough cleaning of the cage, untreated flies, on touching the walls, fell to the floor. I could carry on my trials only after dismantling the cage, having it thoroughly cleaned and after that leaving it for about one month in the open air.”

“The excellent DDT powder, which has been fully experimented with and found to yield astonishing results, will henceforth be used on a great scale by the British forces in Burma, and the American and Australian forces in the Pacific and India and in all theatres.”                     Winston Churchill

“After having tested different chemical combinations, you…made one of the greatest discoveries within the recent history of prophylactic medicine. DDT… kills the mosquito, which spreads malaria; the louse, which spreads typhus; the flea, which spreads the plague; and the sandfly, which spreads tropical diseases.”
- Gustaf Hellström, at the Nobel Prize ceremonies

“DDT is the single most effective agent ever developed for saving human life.”
- British politician Dick Taverne

“You could eat a spoonful of it and it wouldn't hurt you."
– Dr. Donald Roberts, Professor Uniformed Services University, on DDT

“Not even one peer-reviewed, independently replicated study linking exposure to DDT with any adverse health outcomes exists.”
- Amir Attaran, 2000 British Medical Journal essay

“If there’s nothing else and it’s going to save lives, we’re all for it. Nobody’s dogmatic about it.”
- Greenpeace spokesperson Rick Hind, after Greenpeace stopped their effort to completely ban DDT

DDT Timeline

1930s - Malaria was common in the Southern United States.
1935 - Paul Müller begins a search for a new and better pesticide in Switzerland.
1939 - DDT discovered by Paul Müller.
1947 - In 13 southern states, over 4,650,000 houses were sprayed with DDT.
1948 - Paul Müller awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.
1949 - Malaria eradicated from Italy.
1951 - Malaria eradicated from the U.S.
1955 - The World Health Organization (WHO) makes plans to eradicate malaria worldwide.
1959 - More than 80 million lbs of DDT was sprayed over the US (half a pound per person).
1961 - DDT use reaches its peak. It is registered for use on 334 agricultural products.
1962 - Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring blamed environmental destruction on DDT.
1964 - Rachel Carson died.
1965 - Paul Müller died.
1969 - Residues of DDT and its metabolites (such as DDE) found worldwide.
1970 - WHO announces that malaria has been eradicated in 37 countries.
1972 - EPA bans DDT in the U.S.
1976 - WHO gives up on eradicating malaria.
1998 - POPS Treaty proposes banning DDT.
2001 - POPS Treaty grants a temporary health-related exemption for use of DDT for malaria.

Further Reading

Positions in Favor of the use of DDT to Curtail Malaria

American Council on Science and Health
The DDT Ban Turns 30 – Millions Dead of Malaria Because of Ban, More Deaths Likely
By Todd Seavey
A 2002 Article giving the history of DDT’s use and arguing for its continued use to prevent malaria.

DDT Works
by Roger Bate
An article in support of DDT.

Environmentalist Positions

Rehabilitating Carson
by John Quiggin and Tim Lambert
An article in support of Rachel Carson.

The DDT Ban Myth
By Jim Norton
An article claiming that DDT was banned only because mosquitoes are resistant to it.

Environmental Defense Fund
The U.S. Ban on DDT: A Continuing Success Story
April 4, 2005
A  paper stating that the treaty granting some indoor use of DDT is temporarily ok, but DDT should eventually be completely banned.

Does DDT Harm The Eggshells of Birds?

DDT, Eggshells, and Me
Cracking open the facts on birds and banned pesticides
Ronald Bailey, January 7, 2004
An article on whether or not Eggshells are harmed by DDT.

General DDT and Malaria Information and News
Daily Monitor: UN Seeks Ban DDT Pesticide, And Fight Malaria
A news article stating that the United Nation seeks to stop the use of DDT worldwide by 2020.

World Health Organization
World Malaria Report 2008
A comprehensive look at the problem of malaria.

Centers for Disease Control
Malaria: Vector Control
An article on various methods of eliminating mosquitoes, the carriers of malaria.