The Case for DDT

Roger Bate | 05 Nov 2007
Malaria is as old as mankind and still going strong, infecting hundreds of millions (and killing between one and three million) each year. A cure was known in 17th-century Europe. But because it was brought to the continent by Catholic missionaries (who actually learned of it from South American natives), many malaria sufferers, included Oliver Cromwell, thought the medicine was part of a "Popish plot" and refused to take it. Cromwell died of the disease in 1658. It took his death, and the subsequent curing of King Charles II, to shift public opinion in favor of "quinine," as the anti-malaria agent is now called.

A similar situation confronts us today. Mankind now has all the scientific and economic tools to virtually eradicate malaria. But some influential groups are refusing to sanction one of the most effective prevention measures. Here's the twist: in 17th-century Europe, those who rejected quinine sacrificed their own lives. Today, those who block the proven anti-malaria insecticide DDT are mainly condemning poor children in Africa.

It is unfortunate that DDT has become so politicized. Indeed, it is now associated with "right-wing" politics, largely because it has been demonized by environmental activists on the left. Over the past few years, malaria bureaucracies and aid agencies have been harried by American conservatives to account for their reluctance to use DDT. At more than one Senate hearing, Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn has asked why DDT was not being purchased with U.S. tax dollars, given its demonstrated efficacy. Conservative talk-radio hosts, notably Rush Limbaugh, have helped create a groundswell of support for DDT across the country, which has prodded the Bush administration to change its policies.

Mosquito control is a smallish market; but for those selling products in it, DDT can create quite a crimp. The German pharmaceutical giant Bayer was embarrassed a couple of years ago when The Financial Times reported that it was arguing against the use of DDT while trying to sell competitor products. At the time, Bayer actually had a representative sitting on a United Nations anti-malaria committee. Still, its decision to oppose DDT was consistent with corporate self-interest.

In 17th-century Europe, those who rejected quinine sacrificed their own lives. Today, those who block DDT are mainly condemning poor children in Africa.

Having attempted to raise funds for a pro-DDT campaign in the 1990s, I can attest that most businesses simply were not interested. Even though DDT had great potential for fighting malaria, not a single European or American firm I contacted was interested in defending it. The typical response from industry directors was something along the lines of, "We have enough other battles," or, "Yes, it's harmless and shouldn't have been banned, but DDT is a lost cause." After at least 100 separate letters, emails, and phone calls, I quit trying to raise support from industry. The only companies that seemed to have any interest were mining firms operating in southern Africa, which had already deployed DDT to save lives.

But over the past decade, a new pro-DDT campaign has gained momentum, with the notable backing of conservative political commentators. Left-wing activists often accuse the pro-DDT crowd of being corporate shills for industry. Yet the only factories that still produce DDT are government-owned shops in China and India. Western companies have no real financial interest in the promotion of DDT. But to many people, industry funding invariably calls research into question, regardless of the topic.

Indeed, even attempting to solicit funding from industry can blemish one's reputation in the eyes of anti-corporate crusaders. Although I thought it unlikely to succeed, I wrote a letter to the tobacco company Philip Morris in 1998 requesting funding for my pro-DDT campaign. Today, this letter is making the rounds on assorted left-wing blogs. To them, it is the "smoking gun"—the root explanation of why conservatives have embraced DDT—even though Philip Morris denied my request.

Though you wouldn't know from the anti-DDT bloggers, Western tobacco firms have consistently opposed DDT use. In their view, it threatens to "contaminate" tobacco leaves (even though no tobacco products have ever been denied importation because of DDT contamination). Tobacco companies have rarely issued public statements on the matter; but when they have, the statements have been anti-DDT. Despite these facts, the storyline of tobacco money funding a right-wing pro-DDT campaign is just too good to check.

Of course, support for DDT is hardly confined to the political right. Ottawa University scientist Amir Attaran used to work for Ralph Nader. Journalist Tina Rosenberg writes for The New York Times. They are both enthusiastic champions of DDT. So is scientist Donald Roberts, who recently won the prestigious Frank Brown Berry Prize in federal healthcare for his research on malaria. None of these people can objectively be called "right-wing." Nor can the post-apartheid government of South Africa, which has been another vital advocate of DDT spraying.

The fact that the right has supported it does not suggest a conspiracy. Using DDT should be a no-brainer. If they truly want to help fight disease in developing countries, leftist advocacy groups in the United States and Europe should support DDT. For whatever their politics, anti-malaria activists are all working toward the same goal: saving lives.

Roger Bate is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His "Health Policy Outlook" on DDT was released today.