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Who's Afraid Of DDT?

John Quiggin and Tim Lambert have a nice piece in the British Prospect debunking the longstanding right-wing myth that environmentalists have supposedly caused the deaths of millions of people by pushing for a ban on using DDT to fight malaria. As Quiggin and Lambert detail at length, that's just not true. Interestingly, this little fable seems to have been first ginned up in the early 1990s by Steven Milloy, who at the time was busy trying to cast doubt on the link between smoking and lung cancer. The purpose of the DDT smear, presumably, was to discredit both the scientific community and entities like the World Health Organization.

Now, as best I've been able to trace it, the real history of DDT is considerably more boring than Milloy's version. Yes, the WHO and various environmental groups have, with good reason, worked to phase out DDT, especially for agricultural use—but they've consistently carved out exceptions for indoor spraying and disease control. And, true, aid donors  have sometimes insisted on alternatives to DDT for tackling malaria in the developing world—largely because DDT earned such a horrid reputation in the '50s and '60s after widespread misuse. But it's never been shunned outright, and the setbacks that health officials have endured in the battle against malaria generally have little to do with interference from greens.

At the moment, some conservatives are trying to swing the pendulum far in the other direction by promoting the idea that DDT is some kind of cure-all in the fight against malaria. It's not. Back in the 1960s, Sri Lanka thought it had vanquished malaria once and for all, until mosquitoes developed a resistance to DDT, the disease quickly resurfaced, and the country was forced to pursue new strategies. Fortunately, despite all the sniping, a sensible position on this issue seems to be carrying the day:

Sanity now appears to be returning to the malaria debate. At meetings on the implementation of the Stockholm convention, WHO put out another restatement of its position, this time stressing the commitment to an eventual phase-out of DDT, while noting that its use would continue until adequate substitutes were found.

In 2007, the WHO concluded that long-lasting insecticide treated bed nets were more cost-effective than DDT spraying in high malaria transmission areas. Earlier this year, it announced dramatic progress against malaria in Rwanda and Ethiopia based on a strategy of long-lasting insecticidal nets and artemisinin-combination therapy drugs.

There's no grand conspiracy here, it's just that eradicating malaria is a bit more complicated than The Wall Street Journal's editorial page would have us believe.

--Bradford Plumer