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An Invaluable Insecticide

Friday, June 13, 2008

DDT has come under fire from large corporations and environmentalists. But it is saving lives in Southern Africa.

Uganda’s High Court recently ordered the health ministry to stop spraying the insecticide DDT in the northern part of the country. Until there is a final ruling on a lawsuit brought by nine companies (including those supplying British American Tobacco), no life-saving DDT can be sprayed. The companies allege that their exports of organic produce, including tobacco, might be harmed if they became contaminated with traces of DDT. Given that more than 300 Ugandan children die each day from malaria, delaying the indoor spraying of DDT will surely cost lives.

In part, the Court’s decision reflects environmentalist hostility to DDT, which has made many African officials unduly skittish about using the chemical. European governments have issued mixed messages, privately advising against DDT use and publicly saying they will boycott produce imports if traces of the chemical are too high. Only those governments and companies courageous and rich enough to ignore Western environmental pressure—notably those of Southern Africa—are using significant and useful amounts of DDT.

Over the past month, a series of commentators in various magazines and blogs have claimed that “Big Tobacco” is behind the conservative defense of DDT. Rather than admit that blinkered opposition to DDT for most of the past 20 years has been harmful, those on the political left have tried to pretend that pro-DDT conservatives have supported the chemical because they’ve been paid to do so. (My response to such charges can be found here.)

But as the latest incident in Uganda demonstrates, Big Tobacco is against DDT, as are many large corporations. A representative of the German chemical company Bayer even argued against its use in 2006 when sitting on a United Nations committee. I am probably the only person who ever actually tried (in 1998) to raise funds from the tobacco industry to renew the use of DDT. I failed. But conservatives, private foundations, and African businesses and political leaders have succeeded in rehabilitating DDT’s image, and the life-saving chemical is now being used every day throughout Southern Africa.

It is not being used so widely in East Africa, where local politicians—supported by Western green activists—have repeated lies about its alleged harms. Many businesses in the region are scared that their exports will be boycotted by Europe. The High Court Order issued by Justice Arach Amoko in Uganda says that any spraying of DDT will be “null and void or otherwise illegal.” It was issued about six weeks after indoor spraying of DDT had begun, and it is now disrupting malaria control efforts.

The anti-DDT campaigners have even influenced those who should know better. For example, the World Health Organization’s regional office in Brazzaville, Congo, recently issued a press release that misleadingly attributes success in controlling malaria to bednet distribution. The release highlights the “cross-border activities carried out under the Lubombo Project covering Mozambique, Swaziland and South Africa.” We are encouraged “to take inspiration from such activities which have significantly reduced malaria transmission in the Lubombo Project’s target areas. This progress is attributed to enhanced access to health services and the distribution of LLINs [long-lasting insectide-treated nets] of a duration of 3-6 years.”

But the Lubombo Project succeeded because of indoor house spraying with DDT and other insecticides and the distribution of the best new anti-malaria medicines. It was a triumph of everything that many on the political left want to despise: DDT, mining companies, and aid-rejecting Southern African nations. Only when the campaign was obviously successful did the UN-backed Global Fund and other agencies step in to support it. Yet now the history is being rewritten to remove any mention of DDT.

Conservatives need to continue to defend the use of DDT. To be sure, the chemical is no panacea for malaria, and it may not be appropriate everywhere. But the pro-DDT forces must push back against the people—including prominent Western businessmen and greens—who ignore its obvious life-saving benefits.

Roger Bate is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Image by CDC.

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