Americans' fear of chemicals has caused us at times to obsess needlessly about everything from hair dye and dry cleaning to coffee and artificial sweeteners, even though there's no proof that the small amounts of the chemicals in those products have harmed anyone.
Cancer death rates are actually declining in America. But our fear is contagious and sometimes deadly.
Health Minister Jim Muhwezi of Uganda points out that as many as two million to three million people may die annually because of DDT. But not because DDT is bad, but because Americans' fear of it has deprived much of the world of the DDT that could have saved them.
How did this happen? Well, 50 years ago, Americans sprayed tons of DDT everywhere. Farmers used it to repel bugs, and health officials to fight mosquitoes that carry malaria. Nobody worried much about chemicals then.
Today DDT is rarely used. America's demonization of it caused others to shun it. The U.S. government does spend your tax dollars fighting malaria in Africa, but it will not spend a penny on DDT.
The result has been a huge resurgence of malaria. More than 50 people million have died — most children — since the U.S. banned DDT.
"If it's DDT, it must be awful. And that's fine if you're a rich, white environmentalist," says Amir Attaran, a scientist leading a campaign urging the use of DDT to fight malaria. "It's not so fine if you're a poor black kid who's about to lose his life from malaria."
The U.S. Agency for International Development defends its approach saying its programs are as effective as DDT. Yet, it fights malaria with drugs that the government's own Web site admits fail up to 80 percent of the time. USAID acknowledges DDT is safe as currently used, but won't pay for it.
Myth No. 3 — Guns are Bad
America is notorious for its culture of gun violence. Guns sometimes do cause terrible harm, and many kids are killed every year in gun accidents. But public service announcements and news stories make it seem as if the accidents kill thousands of kids every year.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, fewer than 100 kids 15 and under are killed in gun accidents every year. Of course that's horrible, and I understand why demonstrators say we need more gun control.
But guess what? The Centers for Disease Control recently completed a review of studies of various types of gun control: background checks, waiting periods, bans on certain guns and ammunition. It could not document that these rules have reduced violent crime. The government wants to say things like the Brady Gun Control Law are making a difference, but they aren't. Some maximum security felons I spoke to in New Jersey scoffed at measures like the Brady law. They said they'll have no trouble getting guns if they want them.
A Justice Department study confirmed what the prisoners said. But get this: the felons say that the thing they fear the most is not the police, not time in prison, but, you, another American who might be armed.
It's a reason many states are passing gun un-control. They're allowing citizens to carry guns with them; it's called concealed carry or right to carry. Some women say they're comforted by these laws.
Many people are horrified at the idea of concealed carry laws, and predict mayhem if all states adopt these laws.
But surprise, 36 states already have concealed carry laws, and not one reported an upsurge in gun crime.
Myth No. 2 — We're Drowning in Garbage