The Student News Site of University of Arizona

The Daily Wildcat

84° Tucson, AZ

The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    The deadly price of environmental extremism

    Lauren Myers columnist
    Lauren Myers

    Thanks to Rachel Carson, every educated American knows about the perils of the insecticide DDT, that Slayer of Bald Eagles and the Queen Mother of all Evil Chemicals. Environmental groups around the world are fighting for a total ban on this ecological menace. And that’s a good thing ð- right?

    Actually, it’s not. While DDT should indeed be banned in agriculture, the chemical has another often overlooked but critical use: disease prevention. DDT has long been sprayed inside homes to ward off the mosquitoes that transmit malaria to human hosts. This application of DDT requires a tiny fraction of the chemical used in agriculture and consequently produces a relatively small environmental impact. And with more than 500 million malaria infections and more than a million deaths annually, this practice is crucially important.

    However, despite the human carnage of the malaria pandemic, environmental organizations have embarked on a global campaign to totally eradicate DDT use. Bending to this pressure, many malaria-prone countries stopped spraying DDT in the early and mid-’90s, with dramatic and devastating results. Malaria incidence skyrocketed by more than 90 percent in some nations. Ecuador, alone among Latin American nations, actually increased home spraying and saw malaria incidence plummet by 60 percent, a major public health achievement. But the clear health benefits of spraying DDT did not sway the environmental lobby, which has continued to push for a totally DDT-free world. This campaign has shown a total disregard for its own impact on poor nations and the lives, health and prosperity of their citizens.

    The DDT/malaria controversy is clear evidence of the differential value placed on life in the Third World. What if, instead of hundreds of thousands of African children, huge numbers of American children were dying from malaria every year? Can you imagine the public outcry? A rabid horde of enraged parents would descend upon Washington. The public would be convulsed by rage until the government sprayed DDT like rain on every city and suburb in the nation. Can you imagine if Congress then tried to ban the best-available technology to combat such a problem? The Capitol building would be ripped apart brick by brick before the bill even made it out of committee.

    Of course, there has been no such outrage over the deaths of poor Africans, South Americans, Asians and others. Instead, DDT opponents offer up bland half-measures and band-aid solutions to the malaria problem.

    The DDT/malaria controversy is clear evidence of the differential value placed on life in the Third World.

    The environmental lobby frequently argues that more eco-friendly insecticides should be used. However, these substitutes are not as effective as DDT, must be applied much more frequently and are more likely to lose efficacy. Most importantly, they cost more than DDT – sometimes five times as much. Most malaria-stricken countries are also poverty-stricken and can’t afford to pay for these pricey substitutes.

    Given these realities, the drive for a total ban on DDT is the height of hypocrisy. Few people know that malaria used to be endemic throughout the United States and Europe, where it killed with ferocity. Western nations managed to eradicate malaria in large part through a sustained, decades-long program of spraying – you guessed it – DDT. The same tools the West used to defeat malaria should be available to Third World nations now. These nations are engaged in battle with one of the great infectious scourges of our time, and they can’t possibly win with a weakened arsenal of insecticides. And with hundreds of millions of illnesses and millions of deaths each year, the resistance to adding DDT to this arsenal is not just hypocritical, it’s immoral as well.

    DDT may not be an environmentalist’s dream solution to the malaria crisis, but it is by far the cheapest and most effective strategy currently available. And with millions of lives at risk, placing this chemical at the center of a comprehensive prevention scheme is morally imperative. The lives of the world’s poor and disempowered peoples should never be seen as a legitimate sacrifice on the altar of extreme environmentalism.

    Lauren Myers is a sophomore majoring in math and microbiology. She can be reached at

    More to Discover
    Activate Search