DDT was a pesticide that was indiscriminately used in agriculture before researchers understood that it had negative effects on the environment and human health. After the publication of the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962, more and more people became aware of the problems with excessive use of pesticides and it was banned in the United States in 1972. It could still be used for the prevention of human diseases that were transmitted with the help of mosquitos and this acceptable use is still respected among global agreements on pesticides. These bans and agreements were primarily against indiscriminate use in the environment.
However, DDT apologists falsely claim that the ban against DDT led to the deaths of tens of millions of people in malaria and that environmentalism is therefore a dangerous ideology with blood on its hands. This article shows that Carson did not want to ban DDT in Silent Spring, that the EPA ban was only for the U. S. and had an exemption for public health issues, that the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants also allows DDT for malaria prevention and that even the WHO recognizes and encourages this. The anti-environmentalist myth about Rachel Carson and DDT is dangerous misinformation and toxic pseudoscience.
Pseudoscientific environmentalism: fearmongering, ignorance and science denialism
Environmentalism is a political ideology that focus on broad environmental protection on a wide range of issues through an equally diverse set of social and political means. This is a vital goal because we are currently facing tough environmental issues that require action on the part of both individuals and governments to mitigate.
Nevertheless, there is a very vocal group within the environmentalist movement that have become trapped into the ignorant maelstrom of pseudoscience. These individuals oppose GMOs, vaccines, food that contain substances that they cannot pronounce and sometimes even scientific agriculture in general. These individuals attempt to manipulate people with fear and science denial into believing things that are demonstrably false and making decisions that are expensive and sometimes dangerous. There is no doubt that this kind of nonsense has to be opposed politically, intellectually and morally.
When faced with such astonishing irrationality, it is tempting to abandon environmental protection concerns in favor of anti-environmentalist talking points. However, this is a false decision. Just because many of the vocal environmentalists are stupendous wrongheaded does not mean that we should embrace the pseudoscience among their political opponents. This would be disastrous.
What is DDT and what was the problem?
DDT is an early synthetic insecticide that was used to prevent the transmission of diseases that are spread by mosquitos, such as malaria and typhus. It was very effective until resistance to the substance started to emerge due to the fact that it was applied broadly in agriculture. There is mounting evidence that it has negative environmental effects and possible negative health effects for humans in high doses and because of its indiscriminate use. A good survey of the evidence with references to the scientific literature can be found here. There is also a WHO position paper linked below that discuss some of the environment and human health concerns.
Rachel Carson never wanted to ban pesticides in Silent Spring
Issues surrounding DDT burst into the public with the publication of the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962. She highlighted some of the environmental concerns with DDT, questioned the uncritical acceptance of industry claims and made several relevant political and moral arguments about who should get to decide about the environment and our health. However, Carson never called for a ban of DDT. Instead, her problem was the indiscriminate overuse of the substances and she recommended many alternative approaches for combating mosquitos, including sterile insect technique. Thus, it just is not true that Carson aggressively promoted a legal ban.
The DDT ban only applied to the United States and exempted public health issues
The efforts of Carson and many others led to the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency and a national ban on DDT in 1972. However, this is a ban only for the United States and it had a clear exemption for the use of DDT for public health. A press release from the EPA dated 31 December of 1972 made this explicit (my bold):
The general use of the pesticide DDT will no longer be legal in the United States after today, ending nearly three decades of application during which time the once-popular chemical was used to control insect pests on crop and forest lands, around homes and gardens, and for industrial and commercial purposes.
An end to the continued domestic usage of the pesticide was decreed on June 14, 1972, when William D. Ruckelshaus, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, issued an order finally cancelling nearly all remaining Federal registrations of DDT products. Public health, quarantine, and a few minor crop uses were excepted, as well as export of the material.
The effective date of the EPA June cancellation action was delayed until the end of this year to permit an orderly transition to substitute pesticides, including the joint development with the U.S. Department of Agriculture of a special program to instruct farmers on safe use of substitutes.
Thus, it is not true that the EPA ban was worldwide and claiming that it prevented the use of DDT for public health issues such as prevention of the spread of diseases is also completely false.
The Stockholm Convention on POPs allows DDT For malaria prevention efforts
Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants went into effect in 2004 and aimed to be an international ban on certain harmful pesticides, including DDT. However, it included a series of acceptable uses of DDT, which included the use of DDT against mosquitoes spreading infectious diseases for a long list of African and non-African countries. So even the Stockholm Convention is not a blanket ban on DDT and it does not prevent the use of DDT for targeted public health efforts.
Even as late as 2010, the Stockholm Convention hosted a meeting that concluded that “[…] there is a continued need for DDT for malaria vector control, until locally appropriate and cost-effective alternatives are deployed for a sustainable transition away from DDT”.
WHO staunchly defends DDT for malaria prevention indoors
The World Health Organization (WHO) also actively supports the use of DDT for the prevention of malaria and other insect-borne diseases. In a press release from 2006, WHO said that:
Nearly thirty years after phasing out the widespread use of indoor spraying with DDT and other insecticides to control malaria, the World Health Organization (WHO) today announced that this intervention will once again play a major role in its efforts to fight the disease. WHO is now recommending the use of indoor residual spraying (IRS) not only in epidemic areas but also in areas with constant and high malaria transmission, including throughout Africa.
A position paper by the WHO published in 2011 reached similar conclusions. Thus, the claim that WHO recommended against DDT for public health use is wrong.
Scientific skepticism, not pseudoscientific anti-environmentalism, is the answer
All the central claims made by DDT apologists turn out to be wrong. Rachel Carson never called for a ban on DDT in Silent Spring, the EPA never banned DDT for malaria prevention efforts, the EPA ban was not global, the Stockholm Convention did allow public health issues as acceptable usage of DDT and the WHO never promoted a blanket condemnation of DDT. This shows that the claim that Rachel Carson somehow “killed more people than Hitler” is demonstrably wrong.
While vocal environmentalists promote some of the most absurd nonsense currently in circulation on social media, the solution is not to fall for polarization and dichotomous thinking or embrace pseudoscientific anti-environmentalism. Instead, the solution is to apply scientific skepticism to questionable claims within both the environmentalist and anti-environmentalist movements.