Thomas Sowell, Malaria, and DDT

by Anita on October 13, 2011

Controversial Essays is a volume of columns written by Thomas Sowell, economist, author, and independent thinker. Here is a passage where Sowell points out the unintended consequences of banning certain substances, including DDT:

“There has not been a mass murderer executed in the past half-century who has been responsible for as many deaths of human beings as the sainted Rachel Carson [who advocated a world ban on DDT].  The banning of DDT has led to a huge resurgence of malaria in the Third World, with deaths rising into the millions.” (p. 126)

What is DDT? dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, a chemical that was little used before World War II.  In 1942, as American troops fought their way across the Pacific, more men were being lost to malaria and other jungle diseases than to combat wounds.  Word came back to scientists in the U.S.:  “We need a way to prevent our soldiers from coming down with malaria. And we need it fast.”

Scientists in Florida proved that DDT was effective against mosquitoes that carried malaria as well as against body lice that spread typhus. (FDR Goes to War, pp. 143-44) By 1944, U.S. industry produced 10 million pounds of DDT. Soldiers in the Philippines in ’44 and ’45 experienced the benefits of DDT, which was sprayed over entire Army encampments, giving the men relief from the constant swarms of insects.  In many areas, combatants were given small containers of DDT to spray in their tents at night.  Rates of malaria, typhus, and other recurring fevers dropped dramatically.  Even in Europe, DDT proved to be a life-saver when a typhus epidemic threatened the people of Naples, Italy. DDT was used to end that threat.

Fast-forward to the post-World War II period. In 1962, Rachel Carson published her best-selling text, Silent Spring, in which she protested the effects of pesticides on the environment.  Ten years later, DDT was banned.

Thomas Sowell points out that such bans, while passed with the best of intentions, have unleashed growth in the numbers of mosquitoes and a huge recurrence of malaria in parts of the world where it had been under control. The same is true of modern pesticides in the U.S. today.  One reason for the rise in the incidence of bedbugs, which bite humans and  spread disease, is that the federal government has banned the use of chemicals that were effective against such insects.

The issue is one of balance.  While it is every citizen’s responsibility to take an interest in a clean environment, it is also a responsibility to avoid over-zealous regulators who cause harm by banning useful chemicals.  Perhaps what is needed is a substance that will cause bureaucrats to leave citizens alone, both immediately and in the future.

Just released FDR Goes to War is available from amazon by clicking HERE.

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Burt Folsom’s blog distorts history of DDT « Millard Fillmore's Bathtub
October 13, 2011 at 1:39 pm
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October 17, 2011 at 4:04 am

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