Most people would consider the June 1972 ban of DDT by the Environmental Protection Agency the beginning of the end for widespread use of the insecticide, the most effective anti-malaria pesticide still in existence. For his role in promulgating the ban in the face of a contrary finding by the EPA hearing, then Administrator William Ruckelshaus has become almost a hate figure amongst the anti-malaria community. Now it appears though that the hate figure should actually be then President Richard Nixon.
In February 10th 1970, President Nixon announced, "we have taken action to phase out the use of DDT and other hard pesticides." In December 1970, the administration created the EPA to implement executive environmental policy. As a 1975 study out of Northern Illinois University notes, "This is important ... before the EPA hearings were convened and even before the EPA was created, Ruckelshaus' boss, President Nixon, had stated that DDT was being phased out. This leaves the hearings themselves superfluous, satisfying only a court requirement. As long as the head of EPA was responsible for the final order, it was impossible for the result to be other than as occurred." Thus, the exhaustive studies and hearings conducted to "decide" the fate of the chemical in the two years following President Nixon's statement were nothing but a political farce designed to add ex post science to a political decision. The decision had already been made rendering the hearings, studies and litigation pointless.
What a disappointment this revelation must have been to Judge Edmund Sweeny. Thirty-two years ago this week, Judge Sweeney impartially presided over the final stages of EPA hearings on DDT. The hearings were in many ways the first "environmental" trial. Judge Sweeny clove closely to the balance inherent in the structure of a formal legal hearing. His insistence on oral testimony corroborating the written caused the DDT detractors to make significant retractions in their claims about DDT's harm. Based on the evidence before him, Judge Sweeny concluded in his summation that there was no reason for an immediate ban on DDT. DDT was safe for humans. While it might harm the environment in large doses, this was as yet unproven, and DDT should continue to be used for most agricultural and public health needs.
Nonetheless, without even bothering to read them, Administrator Ruckelshaus overruled Judge Sweeney's findings and proceeded with a ban. This decision had tremendous impact on malaria control around the world. Although when used in small quantities on the interior of houses DDT remains the most effective anti malaria pesticide known, Western countries, including the United States, refuse to fund its use and push for its abolition world-wide.
In last Sunday's New York Times Magazine an article titled, "What the World Needs Now Is DDT," asked Mr. Ruckelshaus what he thought about the effects of his decision. He admitted that he regrets that his decision has been used to restrict use of DDT internationally. "It's not up to us to balance risks and benefits for other people. There's arrogance in the idea that everybody's going to do what we do." he said. But he unfairly shoulders all the blame for the EPA's decision. Nixon forced his hand. According to the Northern Illinois University study "Ruckelshaus was faced with a threat to his security (through dismissal) if a ban was not imposed."
Why did Nixon push for a ban? We may never know. A few older Washington DC policy experts have suggested that some of his election campaign supporters were chemical companies that produced alternatives to DDT and so stood to gain handsomely by the DDT phase out. Others say that it is more likely that senior officials in his administration pressured Nixon into the decision given the potential votes he stood to lose in his native and very green state of California. But the why of his decision pales beside what this decision has wrought: two million deaths a year from malaria alone.
"The proceeding, as a whole, was closer to a star chamber than an open hearing," concludes the Northern Illinois University study. Although Ruckelshaus should have resigned rather than implement such bad policy, the real blame appears to lie elsewhere. We may not have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore, but his political policy to ban DDT at all costs -- a policy now ardently supported by environmentalists everywhere -- continues to kick Africa's hopes for economic progress and to condemn millions to death from mosquito and lice borne diseases.
Dr Roger Bate is a Director of the health advocacy group Africa Fighting Malaria and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.