Should DDT Be Banned Worldwide?
Anne Platt McGinn, a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, argues that although DDT is
still used to fight malaria, there are other, more effective and less environmentally harmful methods. She
maintains that DDT should be banned or reserved for emergency use.
Roger Bate, director of Africa Fighting Malaria, asserts that DDT is the cheapest and most effective
way to combat malaria and that it should remain available for use.
(May 14, 2001)
DDT is a crucial element in the story of environmentalism. The chemical was first synthesized in 1874.
Swiss entomologist Paul Mueller was the first to notice that DDT has insecticidal properties, which, it was
quickly realized, implied that the chemical could save human lives. It had long been known that more
soldiers died during wars because of disease than because of enemy fire. During World War I, for
example, some 5 million lives were lost to typhus, a disease carried by body lice. DDT was first deployed
during World War II to halt a typhus epidemic in Naples, Italy. It was a dramatic success, and DDT was
soon used routinely as a dust for soldiers and civilians. During and after the war, DDT was also deployed
successfully against the mosquitoes that carry malaria and other diseases. In the United States cases of
malaria fell from 120,000 in 1934 to 72 in 1960, and cases of yellow fever dropped from 100,000 in
1878 to none. In 1948 Mueller received the Nobel Prize for medicine and physiology because DDT had
saved so many civilian lives.
DDT was by no means the first pesticide. But its predecessors-arsenic, strychnine, cyanide, copper
sulfate, and nicotine-were all markedly toxic to humans. DDT was not only more effective as an
insecticide, it was also less hazardous to users. It is therefore not surprising that DDT was seen as a
beneficial substance. It was soon applied routinely to agricultural crops and used to control mosquito
populations in American suburbs. However, insects quickly became resistant to the insecticide. (In any
population of insects, some will be more resistant than others; when the insecticide kills the more
vulnerable members of the population, the resistant ones are left to breed and multiply. This is an example
of natural selection.) In
(Houghton Mifflin, 1962), marine scientist Rachel Carson
demonstrated that DDT was concentrated in the food chain and affected the reproduction of predators
such as hawks and eagles. In 1972 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned almost all uses of
DDT (it could still be used to protect public health). Other developed countries soon banned it as well, but
developing nations, especially those in the tropics, saw it as an essential tool for fighting diseases such as
It soon became apparent that DDT is by no means the only pesticide or organic toxin with environmental