In 1939 the Swiss scientist Paul Müller developed the synthetic pesticide DDT (Dichloro-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane), which proved to be a remarkably effective means of killing the mosquitoes responsible for the transmission of malaria, the deadly infectious disease that had afflicted the human race since the dawn of time (and which, by one estimate, had killed approximately half the people who had ever lived on earth). The Müller and the Geigy Corporation subsequently patented DDT in Switzerland (1940), England (1942), and the United States (1943).
Wherever DDT was used in significant quantities -- North America, southern Europe, the Caribbean, and much of eastern and southern Asia -- the incidence of malaria was virtually eliminated. The National Academy of Sciences summarized the efficacy of DDT as follows: “To only a few chemicals does man owe as great a debt as to DDT. It is estimated that, in little more than two decades DDT has prevented 500 million human deaths, due to malaria, that would otherwise have been inevitable.”
Unfortunately, tropical Africa was, for the most part, unable to share in the great benefits of DDT because: (a) with only a few exceptions, the nations of that region did not possess infrastructures capable of disseminating the pesticide in an effective and comprehensive manner; and (b) Africa’s Anopheles mosquitoes and malaria parasites differed slightly from their counterparts on other continents and thus were more resistant to eradication campaigns.
But the scientific community was working—and with promising signs of success—to overcome those obstacles. Their work, however, was derailed by a series of events triggered initially by the September 1962 publication of biologist/zoologist Rachel Carson’s bestselling book, Silent Spring, which warned that DDT was a carcinogenic that posed great danger to all manner of plant, animal, and human life. These threats were so immense, said Carson, that on balance they more than negated whatever benefits were to be gained from using the pesticide to prevent malaria.
Receiving voluminous media coverage, Carson’s book, though based on shoddy science, enjoyed immediate critical acclaim and spent 30 weeks on the New York Timesbestseller list. It was the subject not only of congressional discussion and debate, but also of consideration by the presidential Science Advisory Committee.
Activist organizations like the Sierra Club and the World Wildlife Fund quickly jumped aboard Carson’s bandwagon of doom; within a few years, they would be joined by other, like-minded groups such as Greenpeace and the Environmental Defense Fund. Some of these groups initiated lawsuits seeking to ban the use of DDT and pressuring the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to hold hearings on the subject. Their persistence eventually paid some dividends when DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972. That ban was due, in large measure, to the influence of then-EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus, an attorney with close ties to the Environmental Defense Fund.
The American environmental movement’s campaign against DDT spearheaded other, similar efforts all over the world. In 1975, for instance, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) jointly called for a greater emphasis on alternatives to the use of DDT and other insecticides for the control of vector-borne diseases such as malaria.
Four years later the WHO announced a global strategy de-emphasizing vector-control measures for combating malaria, and focusing instead on improvements in case-detection and treatment. That is, efforts to kill the mosquitoes that transmitted malaria would be scaled back; the new approach would allow people to become infected in whatever numbers nature might dictate, and would focus chiefly on the development of more effective treatments for the disease.
In 1980 the WHO and UNEP helped create the Panel of Experts for Environmental Management for vector-borne disease control. Shortly thereafter, the WHO’s vector biology and control program (whose centerpiece had been the use of DDT and other insecticides) was eliminated entirely—for reasons of so-called “environmental” impact.
Insisting that DDT could be replaced by alternative pesticides and by procedures such as “integrated vector management” (treating, with “environmentally sensitive” pesticides, the water sources where mosquitoes breed), environmentalists pressured countries around the globe to discontinue their use of DDT and to cut off government funding for DDT projects.
The environmentalists were joined in this effort by such entities as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the European Union, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Environment Program, and UNICEF. These aid bureaucrats warned impoverished countries whose populations were at high risk of contracting malaria, that if they continued to use DDT as the lynchpin of their anti-malaria programs, grants to their governments would be withheld.
Additional support for the environmentalist crusade against DDT came from a coterie of powerful and immensely wealthy leftist foundations, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Turner Foundation, and the Heinz family philanthropies. Like the aid bureaucrats listed in the preceding paragraph, these foundations threatened to withdraw their grants to impoverished nations if their governments were unwilling to forego the use of DDT.
Only a few nations—among them Ecuador, Mexico, and South Africa—possessed the financial resources necessary to fund their own DDT programs without the help of the aforementioned foundations and organizations. And for as long as they continued to use DDT, they remained malaria-free. Eventually, however, a number of these nations bowed to pressures from the environmental lobby and abided by the DDT ban. When they did so, malaria rates quickly soared.
The effects of the anti-DDT campaign were cataclysmic. As recently as 2005, 500 million people around the world (approximately one-twelfth of the earth’s population) were contracting malaria on an annual basis; and each year, 2 to 3 million of them died as a result. Between 1972 (when DDTR was first banned) and 2005, more than 50 million people—about 90 percent of whom resided in sub-Saharan Africa, and most of whom were children younger than five—died of malaria.