Africans need DDT, not ‘blah, blah, blah’

Africans have paid a heavy price for the West's misplaced demonising of the mosquito-killing pesticide.

Dave Hallsworth

Topics Science & Tech

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As Africa becomes big news – in the run-up to Live 8 on 2 July and the G8 summit in Edinburgh on 6 July, and with the start of an Africa season on BBC TV – there is one way we could help Africans that very few people are talking about: by lifting the restrictions on DDT, the pesticide that fights malaria by killing off the mosquitoes that carry it.

We have heard a lot about ‘African voices’ and ‘what Africans want’ recently. One thing they want is to be able to use DDT, or at least a reliable alternative. During a visit to Berlin in May, Alcinda Abreu, foreign minister of Mozambique, called on the industrialised world to ‘provide alternative methods to fight malaria or else drop opposition to using DDT against mosquitoes’. Following reports that DDT was harmful to the environment, it was banned in the USA by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1972. This led to an effective worldwide ban, as countries dependent on US-funded aid agencies curtailed their use of the pesticide.

Now, as malaria death rates rise in Africa and other parts of the third world, some Africans are demanding change. When she was asked about environmentalist campaigners in the West who oppose the use of DDT, Alcinda Abreu said: ‘They have to give us alternatives…not blah, blah, blah.’ She proposed the development of an ‘effective and easy-to-administer vaccine’, and revealed that Mozambique intended to start re-testing the use of DDT in the battle against malaria, because no reliable alternative had been developed (1). Other countries, including Zimbabwe, have also said they will start using DDT again.

DDT came to be seen as an enemy of the environment following the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. My younger brother – who despite his denials is an out-and-out green (if it quacks like a duck and waddles like a duck, it’s a duck) – recently sent me a new copy of Carson’s book, published by Penguin Classics. And after re-reading it for the first time in years, I am amazed that so many people found it credible.

We used to have a slogan in the Royal Navy: ‘Bullshit Baffles Brains.’ In her book, Carson lumps together chemicals used for fighting weeds and insects that were proven to have sometimes terrible side effects – such as 2,4-D, DDD, DDE, BHC, aldrin, lindane and heptachlor – with DDT, for which there was little proof of such side effects. Even her dedication to Albert Schweitzer is a distortion. She quotes him saying: ‘Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the Earth.’ (1) The implication is that Schweitzer was opposed to insecticides; in fact, he was talking about the dangers of nuclear warfare, not DDT. Indeed, in his autobiography Schweitzer wrote: ‘How much labour and waste of time these wicked insects do cause us…but a ray of hope, in the use of DDT, is now held out to us.’ (2)

Carson focused much of her attention on the apparent harm caused to birds by DDT. She wrote about robins at Michigan State University that were apparently dropping dead as a result of DDT. Michigan ornithologist George Wallace theorised that the robins were dying because they had eaten earthworms contaminated by DDT. Neither Wallace nor Carson bothered to mention that there were high levels of mercury at Michigan, as a result of soil fungicide treatments on campus, and that the dead robins displayed symptoms of mercury poisoning (3). At the EPA hearings on DDT in the late 1960s, Joseph Hickey of the University of Wisconsin said that, in tests, he had been unable to overdose robins with DDT because they passed it through their digestive tracts and eliminated it in their faeces.

Carson also wrote of Dr James DeWitt’s ‘now classic experiments’ which showed that, while DDT may cause no observable harm to birds themselves, it may seriously affect their reproduction and reduce the number of eggs that hatch successfully (4). In fact, DeWitt came to a very different conclusion. He reported no significant difference in egg hatching between birds fed DDT and birds not fed DDT. Carson also omitted to mention DeWitt’s report that DDT-fed pheasants hatched about 50 per cent more eggs than ‘control’ pheasants.

In the late 60s, Dr Joel Bitman and his associates at the US Department of Agriculture found that Japanese quail fed DDT produced eggs with thinner shells and lower calcium content. Yet further examination of Dr Bitman’s study revealed that the quails under experiment had been fed a diet with a calcium content of only 0.56 per cent, where a normal quail diet consists of 2.7 per cent calcium. And calcium deficiency is known to cause thin eggshells (5).

After much criticism, Bitman repeated the test, this time with sufficient calcium levels, and the birds produced eggs without thinned shells. Following years of feeding experiments, scientists at the Department of Poultry Science at Cornell University ‘found no tremors, no mortality, no thinning of eggshells and no interference with reproduction caused by levels of DDT which were as high as those reported to be present in most of the wild birds where “catastrophic” decreases in shell quality and reproduction have been claimed’.

Various things cause thinning eggshells, including season of the year, nutrition (in particular insufficient calcium, phosphorus, vitamin D, and manganese), temperature rise, type of soil, and breeding conditions (for example, sunlight and crowding). But environmentalists, it seems, rarely let scientific evidence get in the way of their campaigns against DDT and other ‘modern evils’.

Carson died in 1964, two years after her book was published. So she missed the demolishing of her theories by the scientific community. Yet her book became the bible of the greens and Carson their Holy Mother.

The anti-DDT bandwagon rolled on after Carson’s death. In 1969, a study found a higher incidence of leukaemia and liver tumours in mice fed DDT than in non-exposed mice. But many scientists protested that the laboratory-animal studies flew in the face of epidemiology, pointing out that DDT had been used widely during the preceding 25 years with no increase in liver cancer in any of the populations among whom it had been sprayed. When the World Health Organisation (WHO) investigated the 1969 mice study, it discovered that both cases and controls had developed a surprising number of tumours. Further investigation revealed that the foods fed to both mice groups were mouldy and contained aflatoxin, a carcinogen. When the tests were repeated using non-contaminated foods, neither group developed tumours.

Most importantly, DDT is not hazardous to humans or the environment. Tests conducted by Dr Philip Butler, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Sabine Island Research Laboratory, found that ‘92 per cent of DDT and its metabolites disappear’ from the environment after 38 days. And humans have nothing to worry about when it comes to small exposures to DDT (even little robins shit it out with no trouble).

In 1969, the director of the World Health Organisation said: ‘DDT is so safe that no symptoms have been observed among the 130,000 spray men or the 535million inhabitants of spray houses [over the past 29 years of its existence]…. Therefore WHO has no grounds to abandon this chemical which has saved millions of lives, the discontinuation of which would result in thousands of human deaths and millions of illnesses. It has served at least two billion people in the world without costing a single human life by poisoning from DDT. The discontinuation of the use of DDT would be a disaster to world health.’ That has proven to be the case in recent decades.

Even if DDT were harmful to robins and mice, what should come first: robins and mice or human beings? I like seeing cheeky robins in my garden and don’t mind mice, but if preventing deaths of children in the third world meant wiping out robins and mice around the world, so be it. The real issue is not saving songbirds, but saving the lives of people in Africa and the Far East. Since 1981 around 20million people have died from malaria – deaths that could have been prevented by DDT.

It seems that hard-held beliefs can change with circumstances over a long period. In The New York Times on 8 January 2005, Nicholas Kristof quoted representatives from the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace on the issue of DDT: ‘I called the World Wildlife Fund, thinking I would get a fight, but Richard Liroff, its expert on toxins, said he would accept the use of DDT when necessary in anti-malaria programs. “If the alternative to DDT isn’t working, as they weren’t in South Africa, geez, you’ve got to use it. In South Africa it prevented tens of thousands of malaria cases and saved lots of lives.” At Greenpeace, Rick Hind noted reasons to be wary of DDT, but added, “If there’s nothing else, and it’s going to save lives, we’re all for it. Nobody is dogmatic about it”‘.

That last sentence might well raise a few eyebrows throughout the West. White man speak with forked tongue. Ask the rank-and-file member of your average green group whether he is dogmatic about DDT, and see how he responds.

We could do with a bit of DDT in the West too, it would appear. I spent my first five years of life living in cottages that had been converted from the stables of Lord Dukinfield’s horses. They were filled with the honeycombed tunnels of rats and mice. When we turned off the gaslight while listening to the radio, we would see the little red eyes of the mice. A less pleasant type of wildlife shared our abode and lived and bred in the lining of the wallpaper – bed bugs. During the night they crawled under our bedclothes and sucked our blood, the incision from their barbed proboscis leaving a very itchy wound.

Converted stables may be a thing of the past, but are bed bugs making a comeback? Under the headline ‘Bed bugs bite back in US hotels’, the Daily Telegraph recently reported that a businessman sued Helmsley Park Lane Hotel – a posh hotel overlooking Central Park in New York – after he and a companion suffered numerous bed bug bites while sleeping there. Hotels and motels are especially vulnerable, apparently, because of the transient nature of their customers and the ease with which the bugs travel in luggage and clothing. Reportedly, an ‘epidemic’ of bed bugs, not only in hotels but also in people’s homes, has led to a rise in business for pest control firms.

As Reuters reported on 12 May: ‘People are complaining that their homes and particularly their bedrooms are becoming infested. Entomologists are not sure what has caused the recent surge in bed bugs. Although common in many countries, bed bugs were all but eliminated in America in the late 1940s and 1950s when the insecticide DDT was used to rid infestations in hotels, houses and boarding rooms. DDT was banned in the 1960s for environmental reasons….’

Well, as the Scots say: ‘There’s many a muckle in a mickle.’ Make of that what you will.

Read on:

Without DDT, malaria bites back, by Roger Bate

(1) Silent Spring, Rachel Carson, Penguin Classics, 1962/2005

(2) Out of My Life and Thought, Albert Schweitzer, 1933

(3) Silent Spring, Rachel Carson, Penguin Classics, 1962/2005

(4) Silent Spring, Rachel Carson, Penguin Classics, 1962/2005

(5) Nature magazine, 1969

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Topics Science & Tech


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