It’s possibly the most reviled chemical on the
planet. Every adult anywhere in the world could
list its supposed evils. And it’s been the subject
of a long and bitter battle that defies traditional
divisions of liberal and conservative.
But here it is, poised for a comeback.
After decades of being marginalized as a
dangerous pesticide, DDT—short for dichloro-
diphenyl-trichloro ethane—is set to be reintro-
duced into countries that have tried, and failed,
to win the fight against malaria.
On 2 May, the United States Agency for
International Development (USAID), arguably
the most powerful donor agency in the world,
endorsed the indoor spraying of DDT for
malaria control. The World Health Organization
(WHO) is set to follow. In its new guidelines, a
final version of which is expected to be released
later this summer, the WHO is unequivocal in
its recommendation of DDT for indoor residual
For the many African countries riddled with
malaria, this is welcome news. “We in southern
Africa feel extremely happy,” says John Govere,
integrated vector control officer for the WHO’s
Southern Africa Malaria Control Programme.
Malaria kills as many as 1 million people each
year, about 90% of them in Africa. Someone
dies of malaria every 30 seconds—and most of
those are pregnant women and children under
the age of five. Even the millions who survive
can be reinfected, leaving them bedridden and
Little surprise then, that just days after
USAID’s announcement, Tanzania said that it
would lift its DDT ban. Others soon followed.
For these impoverished countries, the choice
may seem clear: DDT is cheap and lasts longer
than other pesticides, so it has to be sprayed less
often. Most pesticides work by killing mosquitoes
on contact, but DDT also repels them.
“DDT is the most effective chemical, the
most effective insecticide in terms of malaria,”
says Arata Kochi, director of the WHO’s Global
If DDT is that effective, why has it been so
vilified? “You’ve heard of Rachel Carson? Well
that’s your answer,” says Maureen Coetzee,
chief of vector control research at South Africa’s
National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
“DDT was so abused in the ‘50s and ‘60s that it
is still suffering from that abuse.”
In the 1940s, DDT was considered a miracle
chemical. Airplanes sprayed thousands of tons of
the pesticide, coating acres of crops, villages and
cities with abandon.
By 1949, the US was malaria free. Between
1955 and 1969, the Global Malaria Eradication
Campaign also relied heavily on DDT. In Europe,
India, South America, Africa, wherever it was
used widely, DDT cut malaria rates dramatically
and saved millions of lives.
Then came Carson’s