Despite this overuse, there was no surge in cancer or any other human injury. Scientists found no evidence that spraying DDT seriously hurt people. It did cause some harm: It threatened bird populations by thinning the shells of their eggs.
In 1962, the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson made the damage famous and helped instill our fear of chemicals. The book raised some serious questions about the use of DDT, but the legitimate nature of those questions was lost in the media feeding frenzy that followed. DDT was a "Killer Chemical!" and the press was off on another fear campaign.
It turns out DDT itself wasn't the problem-the problem was that much too much was sprayed. That's often true with chemicals; it's the dose that matters. We need water, for example, but six feet of it will kill us.
In the 1950s we sprayed DDT indiscriminately, but it only takes a tiny amount to prevent the spread of malaria. If sprayed on walls of an African hut, a small amount will keep mosquitoes at bay for half a year. That makes it a wonderful malaria fighter. But today DDT is rarely used to fight malaria because environmentalists' demonization of it causes others to shun it.
That frustrates Dr. Amir Attaran, who researched the issue at Harvard University. "If it's a chemical, it must be bad," he told us. "If it's DDT, it must be awful. And that's fine if you're a rich white environmentalist. It's not so fine if you're a poor black kid who is about to lose his life from malaria." Uganda's health minister angrily asked us: "How many people do they want us to lose before we use DDT?" Good question.
The U.S. government does spend your tax dollars trying to fight malaria in Africa, but it has not spent a penny on DDT. The money goes for things like mosquito netting over beds (even though not everyone in Africa even has a bed). The office that dispenses those funds, the Agency for International Development, acknowledges DDT is safe.
I went to the State Department to interview the USAID official in charge of international health. With a straight face, she denied that their no-funds-for-DDT policy had anything to do with being "environmentally correct." I felt like I was talking to a robot.
DR. ANNE PETERSON I would recommend that if those who want to use [DDT for] indoor spraying, that they can and should. And it is definitely less harmful than dying and being exposed to malaria.
STOSSEL But you won't pay for it?
DR. ANNE PETERSON Currently we don't pay for it.
STOSSEL This is pathetic. Millions of people are dying and you, to be politically correct, are saying, "No, we don't want to pay for DDT."
DR. ANNE PETERSON I believe that the strategies we are using are as effective as spraying with DDT. And we are getting them out as far and as fast as we can. So, politically correct or not, I am very confident that what we are doing is the right strategy.
The right strategy? Dr. Attaran has a better perspective: "If I were to characterize what USAID does on malaria, I'd call it medical malpractice. I would call it murderous."
After my interview with Dr. Peterson, USAID said it has reconsidered its policy, and it may fund spraying of DDT.
We'll see. For now, millions die while USAID dithers.
The agency was simply responding to media hysteria. Media hysteria invites politicians to do the wrong thing. In this case, the result of the media getting it so wrong is millions of deaths.