Last week’s announcement that the World Health Organization lifted its nearly 30-year ban on the insecticide DDT is perhaps the most promising development in global public health since well, 1943 when DDT was first used to combat insect-borne disease like typhus and malaria.
Overlooked in all the hoopla over the announcement is the terrible toll in human lives (tens of millions dead, mostly pregnant women and children under age 5), illness (billions sickened) and poverty (more than $1 trillion in lost GDP in sub-Saharan Africa alone) caused by the tragic, decades-long ban.
Much of this human catastrophe was preventable, so why did it happen? Who is responsible? Should the individuals and activist groups who caused the DDT ban be held accountable in some way?
Rachel Carson kicked off DDT hysteria with her pseudoscientific 1962 book, “Silent Spring.” Miss Carson materially misrepresented DDT science in order to advance her anti-pesticide agenda. Today she is hailed as having launched the global environmental movement. A Pennsylvania state office building, Maryland elementary school, Pittsburgh bridge and a Maryland state park are named for her. The Smithsonian Institution commemorates her work against DDT. She was even honored with a 1981 U.S. postage stamp. Next year will be the 100th anniversary of her birth. Many celebrations are planned.
It’s quite a tribute for someone who was so dead wrong. At the very least, her name should be removed from public property and there should be no government-sponsored honors of Miss Carson.
The Audubon Society was a leader in the attack on DDT, including falsely accusing DDT defenders (who won a libel suit) of lying. Not wanting to jeopardize its nonprofit tax status, the Audubon Society formed the Environmental Defense Fund (now simply known as Environmental Defense) in 1967 to spearhead its anti-DDT efforts. Today the National Audubon Society takes in more than $100 million yearly and has assets worth more than $200 million. Environmental Defense takes in more than $65 million yearly with a net worth exceeding $73 million.
In a February 25, 1971, media release, the president of the Sierra Club said his organization wanted “a ban, not just a curb” on DDT, “even in the tropical countries where DDT has kept malaria under control. Today the Sierra Club rakes in more than $90 million per year and has more than $50 million in assets.
Business are often held liable and forced to pay monetary damages for defective products and false statements. Why shouldn’t the National Audubon Society, Environmental Defense, Sierra Club and other anti-DDT activist groups be held liable for the harm caused by their recklessly defective activism?
It was, of course, then-Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William Ruckelshaus who actually banned DDT after ignoring an EPA administrative law judge’s ruling that there was no evidence indicating DDT posed any sort of threat to human health or the environment. Mr. Ruckelshaus never attended any of the agency’s DDT hearings. He didn’t read the hearing transcripts and refused to explain his decision.
None of this is surprising given that, in a May 22, 1971, speech before the Wisconsin Audubon Society, Mr. Ruckelshaus said EPA procedures had been streamlined so DDT could be banned. Mr. Ruckelshaus was also a member of, and wrote fund-raising letters for, the EDF.
The DDT ban solidified Mr. Ruckelshaus’ environmental credentials, which he has surfed to great success in business, including stints as chief executive officer of Browning Ferris Industries and as a director of a number of other companies including Cummins Engine, Nordstrom, and Weyerhaeuser Co. He currently is a principal in a Seattle, Wash., investment group called Madrona Venture Group.
Corporate wrongdoers — like WorldCom’s Bernie Ebbers and Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski — were sentenced to prison for crimes against mere property. But what should the punishment be for government wrongdoers like Mr. Ruckleshaus who, apparently for the sake of his personal environmental interests, abused his power and affirmatively deprived billions of poor, helpless people of the only practical weapon against malaria?
Finally, there is the question of the World Health Organization itself. What has the WHO been doing all these years? There are no new facts on DDT — all the relevant science about DDT safety has been available since the 1960s. Moreover, the WHO strategy of mosquito bednets and malaria vaccine development has failed dismally. While the death toll in malarial regions has mounted, the WHO has been distracted by such dubious issues as whether cell phones and French fries cause cancer.
It’s a relief that the WHO has finally come to its senses, but on the other hand, the organization has done too little, too late. The ranks of the WHO’s leadership needs to be purged of those who place the agenda of environmental elitists over the basic survival of the world’s needy.
In addition to the day of reckoning and societal rebuke that DDT-ban advocates should face, we should all learn from the DDT tragedy.
Except for Rachel Carson (who died in 1964), all the groups and individuals above mentioned also promote global warming alarmism. If they and others could be so wrong about DDT, why should we trust them now? Should we really put the global economy and the welfare of billions at risk based on their track record?
Steven Milloy publishes JunkScience.com and is an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.