Bring back DDT: Eco-imperialism is killing African children

Who could possibly object to Earth Day, that benign occasion on which we are encouraged to throw away our pesticides, clean up our environment, and contemplate the damage we have done to Mother Earth?

Niger Innis, for one.

Mr. Innis is neither a shill for industry nor a raging neo-con. He is the spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality, a leading African-American advocacy group, and last week he and other black activists got together to explain exactly what is wrong with Earth Day.

“We must stop trying to protect our planet from every imaginable, exaggerated or imaginary risk. And we must stop trying to protect it on the backs, and the graves, of the nation’s and world’s most powerless and impoverished people,” he said.

Perhaps you didn’t notice, but hard on the heels of Earth Day came Africa Malaria Day. Earth Day got more coverage, and that’s a shame, because malaria is as big a scourge as AIDS, maybe worse. Malaria kills two million people a year and ravages economies. In Africa, a child dies of malaria every 30 seconds, and many who don’t die suffer brain damage.

But we’ve been blinded by environmental paternalism. And so we’re standing back and watching.

The problem is our irrational aversion to DDT, which, in the popular imagination, is the most toxic pesticide known to man. So allergic are we to DDT that the World Health Organization will not fund its use, and most agencies are pushing for a ban worldwide. This, despite massive evidence that DDT as it is used today does no harm to people or the environment — and saves lives.

“Our position is that DDT is perhaps the most effective, inexpensive way to wipe out malaria,” Mr. Innis told me. “What’s outrageous to us is that African countries aren’t even being allowed to have the option of using it.”

The United States banned DDT in 1972, a decade after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring virtually invented the environmental movement. Canada essentially banned it in 1969.

Back then, DDT was sprayed in huge doses over crops. It built up in the food chain, and harmed some bird species. But even then the ban was based on politics, not science. And Ms. Carson didn’t mention that although DDT killed birds, it also saved tens of millions of people.

Today, DDT is sprayed in tiny doses on the inside walls of houses. In one South African district, it wiped out an epidemic that had flooded the local health clinic with as many as 7,000 malaria cases a month.

But agencies and donors have little interest in what actually works. “Probably the worst thing that ever happened to malaria in poor nations was its eradication in rich ones,” wrote Tina Rosenberg a few weeks ago in The New York Times Magazine. Her comprehensively researched story, called “What the world needs now is DDT,” is a damning indictment of First World do-gooders who think they know what’s best for the Third World.

I learned of Africa Malaria Day from a cheery press release issued by our own federal government, which is spending $15-million on malaria research in Africa and Mexico. We, too, abhor DDT. In fact, we’re trying to eradicate its use altogether. I asked one of the helpful program officers why. Is there any evidence that it’s harmful? “No, we just assumed it,” she told me.

Instead, we’re funding social workers to study gender issues in Kenyan villages, although how this will wipe out malaria is a bit unclear. We’re also promoting the use of insecticide-treated mosquito nets, which are all the rage these days with the malaria establishment. Nets are good. “But you can’t permanently surround people with nets,” points out Mr. Innis.

Black leaders say that our prejudice against DDT amounts to ecological imperialism. But this brand of imperialism is even more insidious than the old kind, because it’s done in the name of the weak. As Mr. Innis puts it, First World environmentalists have saddled the Third World with debt and death.

“My friend’s four-year-old child hasn’t been able to walk for months because of malaria,” recounts one Ugandan woman whose own son died from the disease. “She crawls around on the floor. Her eyes bulge out like a chameleon, her hair is dried up, and her stomach is all swollen because the parasites have taken over her liver. All they can do is take care of her the best they can, and wait for her to die.”