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The Continuing Value of DDT:

Donald Roberts, emeritus professor of tropical medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, writes in yesterday's NYT:

DDT, the miracle insecticide turned environmental bogeyman, is once again playing an important role in public health. In the malaria-plagued regions of Africa, where mosquitoes are becoming resistant to other chemicals, DDT is now being used as an indoor repellent. Research that I and my colleagues recently conducted shows that DDT is the most effective pesticide for spraying on walls, because it can keep mosquitoes from even entering the room.

The news may seem surprising, as some mosquitoes worldwide are already resistant to DDT. But we've learned that even mosquitoes that have developed an immunity to being directly poisoned by DDT are still repelled by it.

UPDATE: For more on my views about DDT, see here.

plunge (mail):
This is a rather misleading tidbit if its meant to be part of the old debate over how environmental concerns are supposedly responsible for millions of malaria deaths.

Here's a much more sober take on things from Bug Girl
8.21.2007 11:11am
Jonathan H. Adler (mail) (www):
plunge --

Neither Dr. Roberts nor my post makes any claim that limits on the use of DDT caused millions of deaths. The point here is straightforward: DDT still has valued uses. There is nothing misleading about that simple claim.

JHA
8.21.2007 11:19am
J. F. Thomas (mail):
There is nothing misleading about that simple claim.

Of course not, but it always leads to the larger claim that the ban on DDT was reckless and led to millions of unnecessary deaths that can be laid at the feet of a bunch of no-nothing luddite eagle and pelican hugging hippies. Of course if we were so concerned about the plight of the poor in the tropics we would have spent the last sixty years developing more effective anti-malarial drugs rather than more and better drugs to maintain erections.
8.21.2007 11:29am
Montie (mail):

Of course if we were so concerned about the plight of the poor in the tropics we would have spent the last sixty years developing more effective anti-malarial drugs rather than more and better drugs to maintain erections.


However, that would also force us to talk about weak patent protection in countries with high malaria rates as well.
8.21.2007 11:37am
Jonathan H. Adler (mail) (www):
J.F. Thomas --

Efforts to impose a blanket, global ban on DDT were reckless. So was the indiscriminate tarring of DDT which served to discourage its use in developing countries. As I note in my update above,DDT, like many chemicals, is valuable when used safely and responsibly, but harmful when used recklessly.

JHA
8.21.2007 11:45am
Tom H (mail) (www):
"Silent Spring", "Population Bomb", alar on apples, "Coming Ice Age", " Inconvenient Truth". Seems to me that we will not only believe anything, we always have an tendency to panic and over react in some ways that lead not only to unexpected consequences but in some cases cause more harm done that we are trying to *fix*.
8.21.2007 12:02pm
rarango (mail):
JT Thomas: and just why is it the responsbility of US pharma companies to develop anti-malarial drugs for the rest of the world?
8.21.2007 12:10pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
rarango:

Thomas and others may not like the answer:

Because we're the best. Noblesse oblige.
8.21.2007 12:34pm
Justin (mail):
I'm not Thomas, but I don't know where you got the word "US," particularly given that most drugs these days are made by international drug companies, many of whose roots are in Europe (like GKS).

But I think many have claimed that the responsibility (which is global) comes from a moral one, if nothing else. Whether you agree with corporate citizenship or not is an interesting debate, and I don't want to get into it here - but if one looks there is certainly no lack of authorship on the subject.
8.21.2007 1:40pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
and just why is it the responsbility of US pharma companies to develop anti-malarial drugs for the rest of the world?

Apparently, it is the responsibility of U.S. pesticide companies to eradicate malaria carrying mosquitoes all over the world.

Efforts to impose a blanket, global ban on DDT were reckless.

But of course, despite the best efforts of the reckless hippies there never was a blanket, global ban on DDT. And of course widespread area spraying of DDT continued in developing countries long after it was banned in most western nations. When the agricultural use of DDT was finally banned in 2001, it specifically permitted the use of the chemical for disease control.

As for the "indiscriminate tarring" of DDT. I'm not sure what you mean by this. Are you denying that DDT had a devastating effect on the environment, especially raptors and fish-eating birds? Because, that is something else that is also often implied, but never stated outright, when this subject is discussed; that DDT never even caused the environmental damage that its critics claimed.
8.21.2007 1:49pm
Jonathan H. Adler (mail) (www):
J.F. Thomas --

No one is calling on U.S. pesticide companies to eradicate malaria with DDT. U.S. companies have not manufactured DDT for many years. The issue is whether its use should be limited or discouraged, as it was for a time by various development agencies.

Widespread agricultural use of DDT ended in most of the world long before 2001, when the POPs convention was adopted. During the negotiations over the POPs convention, most major environmentalist groups initially called for a complete ban of DDT for all uses. These groups only later accepted a disease-control exemption after being confronted by public health experts who argued that DDT remains an important tool (but by no means the only tool) in malaria control efforts.

As for the "indiscriminate tarring" of DDT, I am referring to the various allegations that DDT is responsible for cancer and various other human ailments -- allegations that have never been substantiated, and widespread arguments that because indiscriminate spraying of DDT harmed several raptor species, any and all use of the pesticide is harmful -- claims that have been made repeatedly over the past several decades. Of course, some DDT proponents overstate the benefits of DDT, and overstate the documented costs of limiting its use, as well.

For more on my views on DDT, see here.">here.



JHA
8.21.2007 2:10pm
Smokey:
Tom H:
"Silent Spring", "Population Bomb", alar on apples, "Coming Ice Age", " Inconvenient Truth". Seems to me that we will not only believe anything, we always have an tendency to panic and over react in some ways that lead not only to unexpected consequences but in some cases cause more harm done that we are trying to *fix*.
Which brings to mind H.L. Mencken's spot-on comment:

''The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.''
8.21.2007 2:11pm
rarango (mail):
JF: You dodged my question about why US pharma companies should make anti-malarial drugs. That has nothing at all to do with pesticide companies and I suspect anyone, at this point, could make DDT. As to Justin's point about the globalization of pharma, he's absolutely right. And I will stipulate his point about moral responsibility is correct. Malaria is a global problem (less the so-called developed nations) So why doesnt the World Health Organization, or the Organization of African States take over this research effort? That makes the global response at least global in name.
8.21.2007 3:05pm
Guest 17 (mail):
The ban on DDT WAS reckless and libs have killed millions and millions and millions more than any warrior ever could, all in the name of them taking one more bong hit without ever sacrificing anything personally and without ever feeling guilty....you have the blood of millions if not billions on your hands, Mr. plunge....now, doesn't that bong hit feel good???
8.21.2007 3:16pm
amper:
This is a very interesting discussion. I, for one, believe that it is irresponsible to dismiss out of hand Rachel Carson and others (especially having recently returned from a vacation to Mt. Desert Island), but it is equally irresponsible *not* to continue to investigate the possible usage of DDT and other chemicals for the control of vector-borne diseases. I particularly enjoyed the reference to Bug Girl's article (especially the last couple of paragraphs, and in particular, the last line--"An integrated strategy will work much better than ideology." Some people here would do well to heed her wisdom.

I also found the comment by "Montie" worthy of further discussion: "However, that would also force us to talk about weak patent protection in countries with high malaria rates as well."

Is weak patent protection suddenly such a bad thing after all? IP rights are a major topic of discussion in this country, and all over the world, right now, and the general consensus from the public seems to be that IP rights need to be weaker than they are.

One side of my family comes from the Philippines, a country that has benefitted immeasurably from malaria control programs, so you'll pardon me if I think that the human race deserves better than arbitrary dismissal of strong scientific evidence.
8.21.2007 3:42pm
BGates (www):
JF Thomas, I don't think 'we' have spent any amount of time developing any kind of drugs. The pharma company that produced Viagra was trying to produce an antihypertensive, though I am sure they would be mortified to discover that you would have preferred they spend more time on antimalarials. (Especially since Pfizer spent tens of millions of dollars on clinical trials on an antimalarial treatment regimen within the last 5 years.)
8.21.2007 3:57pm
Montie (mail):

Is weak patent protection suddenly such a bad thing after all? IP rights are a major topic of discussion in this country, and all over the world, right now, and the general consensus from the public seems to be that IP rights need to be weaker than they are.


I have no position on that. However, any discussion regarding why drugs such as Viagra recieves so much investment compared to anti-malarials should be at least recognize that difference in IP regimes. I read a few policy pieces about tropical diseases that make the Viagra vs. antimalarial point, but none of them ever addressed the issue that the weak patent protections of countries with high malaria rates.
8.21.2007 4:43pm
rarango (mail):
BGates: you make an excellent point re pharma R and D and the costs that have to be recovered at some point. There is also what I would call a serendepity factor in the production of drugs that permits alternative uses for existing pharmaceuticals. Critics also overlook the thousands of drugs that have been produced by "big pharma" that have allieviated all kinds of illnesses and improved our health. I suspect that as flawed as the current pharma system might be, it, like democracy, is better than any of the alternatives. Who really wants the government dictating which drugs get produced.
8.21.2007 4:53pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
As a matter of fact, quite a bit of money was spent on antimalarials and quite a bit more on vaccines.

The results were meagre with the antimalarials and zilch with the vaccines, but the money is gone.

'general consensus from the public seems to be that IP rights need to be weaker than they are'

That may be correct, but it is also wrong. Intellectual property only exists where IP protection is strong. The law creates the thing.

Otherwise, China would be the world center of innovation.
8.21.2007 5:16pm
Elliot123 (mail):
J. F. Thomas: "Of course if we were so concerned about the plight of the poor in the tropics we would have spent the last sixty years developing more effective anti-malarial drugs rather than more and better drugs to maintain erections."

If you are implying that we have little concern for the poor, then it is even more important that our meager margnal efforts be as effective as possible.
8.21.2007 5:29pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
(Especially since Pfizer spent tens of millions of dollars on clinical trials on an antimalarial treatment regimen within the last 5 years.)

Gee, I bet Pfizer spends more than that marketing Viagra on a yearly basis. So call me unimpressed.
8.21.2007 5:59pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
I am not impressed by your lack of being impressed.
8.21.2007 6:27pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
Gee, I bet Pfizer spends more than that marketing Viagra on a yearly basis. So call me unimpressed.
And I'll bet you don't spend anything at all on treating malaria. So color me a lot more impressed with Pfizer than with you.
8.21.2007 7:12pm
Jay Myers:
J. F. Thomas:

Of course not, but it always leads to the larger claim that the ban on DDT was reckless

"Science, along with other disciplines such as economics, has a role to play, but the ultimate judgment remains political."
- William Ruckelshaus, the Environmental Protection Agency's first Administrator, in an April 26, 1979 letter to the the American Farm Bureau Federation, explaining why he issued a ban on DDT against the recommendations made by scientists during a three-month hearing.

That doesn't sound reckless to you? Considering that the Bush administration regularly gets blasted for allegedly putting political concerns ahead of the recommendations of scientists, I don't see why the Nixon administration should get a free pass for doing so just because you happen agree with the result in that case.
8.21.2007 11:44pm