Millions of deaths later: The birth of the green movement and junk science

The story of how DDT was banned on the back of flimsy scientific evidence is revealing of the green movement more generally

DDT was used to remarkable effect during WWII
David Atherton
On 24 September 2012 15:16

This is the story of how dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), previously used to treat malaria, was banned based on flimsy evidence and ideology, seeing the beginnings of the green industry.

Millions have died as a result. Malaria is a disease that is caused by a bite from a female mosquito, which induces protozoan parasites into the blood stream of the recipient. Reproducing in the liver it can lead to headaches and fever at best, coma and death at worst. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimate in 2010 there were 260 million cases with 665,000 deaths, 86 percent under the age of five.

One of the most effective ways of dealing with malaria is to spray swamps with DDT. Discovered in 1874, the insecticidal qualities of DDT were not realised until 1939 thanks to Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Muller who was later awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1948.

DDT was first used for this purpose in the Second World War in Italy in 1943. Merck & Company produced and delivered 500 gallons of DDT to Italy to stem an epidemic of louse-borne typhus. The U.S. Army also supplied troops with rations of 10-percent-DDT dust to kill lice.

DDT protected millions of Allied troops from contracting malaria and other infectious diseases like typhus and the plague and also importantly saved the lives of concentration-camp survivors by treating the typhus-carrying lice. Malaria was also wiped out in Italy for good.

In the 1950s and 1960s DDT was also used to startling effect in Sri Lanka. Annual malaria cases in 1948 were 2.8 million, reducing to 17 in 1963. Post spraying saw a rise in cases to 2.5 million. Zanzibar in 1958 saw a drop in prevalence of malaria from 70 percent of the population to 5 percent in 1964. It rose to 55 percent in 1984.

The chief malaria expert for the U.S. Agency for International Development said that malaria would have been 98 percent eradicated had DDT continued to be used. Drs. Michael Arnold Glueck and Robert J. Cihak estimate the widespread use of DDT up until 1970 saved 500 million lives. The benefits are obvious.

Then, in 1962, "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson was published – supposedly documenting the effect of DDT on the environment in harming and even killing not only animals and birds, but also humans. More specifically, the book details alleged causal links between DDT and breast cancer and diabetes in humans, as well as the effects of DDT on egg shell fragility in birds of prey in particular, leading to reductions in population.  

The book’s publication and its influence were profound. It is no coincidence that Al Gore, on its reissue in 1994, wrote an introduction extolling Carson’s book: “Because Carson’s work led to a ban on DDT, it may be that the human species...or at least countless human lives, will be saved because of the words she wrote.” The clown prince of man-made global warming can’t help himself. 

Ultimately, DDT was banned in the USA in 1972, with most developed countries following in the 1970s and 1980s.

Finally the Stockholm Convention, signed under the authority of the United Nations Environment Programme in 2001, called for the restriction and elimination of DDT. It was implemented on 17th May 2004 with 173 legally-binding signatures. The only circumstance left open to the use of DDT was “vector control”, where it is sprayed inside homes and on mosquito nets. The World Health Organization as usual likes to get involved in the junk science.

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