World Malaria Day brings out the DDT-poisoned claims – Beware the ill-informed cynics.

April 26, 2009

World Malaria Day is April 25, every year.  It’s not a big deal in the U.S. (but there were several activities this year).  One thing you can count on, however, is the unthinking, often irrational reaction of dozens of columnists and bloggers* who like to think all scientists and health care professionals are idiots, and that government policy makers never consider the lives of their constituents when environmental issues arise.

Here’s a good example:  At a blog named Penraker, in a post cynically titled “Beware the ‘compassionate’ people,” the author suggests that churches around the world are foolish for sending bednets to Africa to combat malaria, since, the blogger claims, DDT would be quicker, more effective, cheaper, and perfectly safe.

So  much error, so little time, and even less patience with people who don’t bother to get informed about an issue before popping off on it.

Penraker wrote:

Today the loopy “On Faith” pages of the Washington Post reminds us to be compassionate about malaria in Africa.

It urges the churches of the world to come together and join a campaign that would spread the use of mosquito nets in Africa so that the incidence of malaria can be gradually reduced.

Nets are a great idea.  They work to reduce malaria by 50% to 85%.  Nets are a simple solution, part of a series of actions that could help eliminate malaria as a major scourge of the world.  The Nothing But Nets Campaign has the endorsement of several major religious sects and the National Basketball Association.  It offers hope.

Churches uniting to save lives — what could be more spiritual?

Currently 750 children die EVERY DAY in Nigeria. So the great hearts on the left want to organize another conference. The conference will demonstrate their compassion for this needless death, and it will urge that mosquito nets be distributed more widely in Africa.

There is only one problem. Nowhere in the article do they mention DDT. DDT is far and away the most effective way to get rid of malaria.

Why should the article “mention” DDT?  DDT is a deadly poison, an environmental wildcard that once upon a time was thought to offer hope of severely reducing malaria, if it could be applied in enough places quickly enough, before mosquitoes developed resistance to it.  The campaign, coordinated by the World Health Organization, failed.  Agricultural and business interests also latched onto DDT, but they over-used it in sometimes trivial applications.  Mosquitoes quickly developed new genes that made them resistant and immune to DDT.

DDT can once again play a limited role in fighting malaria.  It can be used in extremely limited amounts, to spray the inside walls of homes, to kill mosquitoes that still land on the walls of a hut after feeding on a human.  But DDT is not appropriate for all such applications, and it is nearly useless in some applications, especially where the species involved is completely immune to DDT.

DDT was discovered to be deadly.  First European nations banned its use, and then the U.S. banned it.  Continued use after those bans increased the difficulties — manufacturing continued in the U.S. resulted in many nasty Superfund clean-up sites costing American taxpayers billions of dollars when manufacturers declared bankruptcy rather than clean up their plant sites.  The National Academy of Sciences studied DDT, and in 1980 pronounced it one of the most beneficial chemicals ever discovered — but also one of the most dangerous.  NAS said DDT had to be phased out, because the dangers more than offset its benefits.

The cessation of use of DDT, to protect wildlife and entire ecosystems, proved wise.  In 2007 the bald eagle was removed from the list of endangered species, a recovery made possible only with a ban on DDT.  DDT weakens chicks, especially of top predators, and damages eggs to make them unviable.  Decreasing amounts of DDT in the tissues of birds meant recovery of the eagle, the brown pelican, the peregrine falcon, and osprey.

Though it was not banned for ill effects on human health, research since 1972 strengthened the case that DDT is a human carcinogen (every cancer-fighting agency on Earth lists it as a “probable human carcinogen”).  DDT and its daughter products have since been discovered to act as endocrine disruptors, doing serious damage to the sexual organs of birds, fish, lizards and mammals.  Oddly, it’s also been discovered to be poisonous to some plants.

After DDT use against malarial mosquitoes was reduced, malaria stayed low for a while.  Unfortunately, the malaria parasites developed resistance to the pharmaceuticals used to treat humans.  Malaria came roaring back — DDT, an insecticide, was of no use to fight the blood parasite.  Newer, arteminisin-based pharmaceuticals offer hope of reducing the human toll

Still, with some improvements in delivery of pharmaceuticals, improvements in diagnosis, and improvements in education of affected populations about how they can reduce exposure and prevent mosquito breeding, world wide malaria deaths have been kept below 3 million annually.  Recent programs, helped by munificent organizing from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and from other charities, have reduced malaria considerably.  With no magic drug on the horizon, with no magic vector control, efforts have been redoubled to use the time-tested methods for beating the disease — reducing exposure to mosquitoes, improving health care, stopping mosquito breeding.  These methods, which ridded the U.S. of the disease very much prior to the discovery of DDT’s insecticidal properties, appear the best bets to beat malaria.

Once South Africa started using it, the death rate went way down.

South Africa used DDT constantly from 1946 through about 1996.  Other efforts to control mosquitoes worked until changing climate and political turmoil in nations adjoining South Africa produced malaria and mosquitoes that crossed borders.  South Africa turned to DDT as an emergency  measure; but the other, non-pesticide spraying methods, are credited with helping South Africa reduce malaria.

It turns out that DDT is much less harmful than we had been led to believe by scare reports early on. People at the Monsanto plant in California worked around the stuff for years with no discernible effects.

That’s not quite accurate.  Whether DDT seriously crippled workers is still in litigation, a quarter of a century after DDT stopped being manufactured in the U.S. Residual and permanent health damage keep showing up in studies done on workers in DDT production facilities, and on their children.  The Montrose plant in California is a Superfund site, as is the entire bay it contaminated.  In fact, three different bays in California are listed as cleanup sites (was there a Monsanto DDT plant in California?  Which one?).

To say there were “no discernible effects” simply is unsupportable from research or litigation on the matters.  Such a claim is completely misleading and inaccurate.

No matter. The compassionate ones don’t dare to mention it. They are ready to let 750 kids die every day, in Nigeria alone. That’s 273,000 a year.

273,000 kids a year are dying in Nigeria alone. Think about it.

Rachel Carson warned us that would happen if we didn’t control DDT use to keep it viable to fight malaria.  I’ve been thinking about it for more than 40 years.  The “compassionate” ones you try to ridicule have been fighting malaria in Africa for that entire time.  You just woke up — when are you going to do something to stop a kid from dying?  By the way, slamming environmentalists doesn’t save any kid.

The CDC says:

The World Health Organization estimates that each year 300-500 million cases of malaria occur and more than 1 million people die of malaria, especially in developing countries. Most deaths occur in young children. For example, in Africa, a child dies from malaria every 30 seconds. Because malaria causes so much illness and death, the disease is a great drain on many national economies. Since many countries with malaria are already among the poorer nations, the disease maintains a vicious cycle of disease and poverty.

Still the compassionate ones call for the use of bed netting to keep the kids from getting bit. There is only one obvious problem – kids aren’t in bed all day. Mosquitoes can bite them all day long, and the nets have no effect. So, they are proposing a massively stupid remedy.

First point on that section:  Did you bother to read the CDC document?  Nowhere do they call for DDT to be used.  Quite the contrary, they note that it doesn’t work anymore:

Wasn’t malaria eradicated years ago?

No, not in all parts of the world. Malaria has been eradicated from many developed countries with temperate climates. However, the disease remains a major health problem in many developing countries, in tropical and subtropical parts of the world.

An eradication campaign was started in the 1950s, but it failed globally because of problems including the resistance of mosquitoes to insecticides used to kill them, the resistance of malaria parasites to drugs used to treat them, and administrative issues. In addition, the eradication campaign never involved most of Africa, where malaria is the most common.

So, where do you get the gall to claim CDC support for your inaccurate diatribe?  CDC’s documents do not support your outrageous and inaccurate claims for DDT at all.

Second point, mosquitoes don’t bite all day long, and bednets have proven remarkably effective at stopping malaria.  Mosquitoes — at least the vectors that carry malaria — bite in the evening and night, mostly.  Protecting kids while they sleep is among the best ways to prevent malaria.

It appears to me that this blogger has not bothered to learn much about malaria before deciding he knows better than the experts, how to fight it.

Their outrageous and horribly unscientific “religious beliefs” are a firm block to their humanity. No, they just don’t care. No DDT can be used.

Every “ban” on DDT included a clause allowing use against malaria.  In the U.S. we allowed manufacture of DDT for export after the ban on use in the U.S. (and the ban on use in the U.S. had exceptions).  DDT was never banned for use in any African nation I can find.  DDT is manufactured, today, in India and China.  DDT can be used, even under the POPs treaty.  This blogger, Penraker,  just doesn’t have the facts.

You get the impression that their compassion is not about solving the problem. Their compassion seems to be about themselves – about proving they are good people by having compassion, rather than eradicating the problem. In fact, it looks like they have a desire to have the malaria epidemic continue, so they can organize little conferences and wring their hands, put together action plans, and call on somebody else to do something about the problem.

Actually, I get the idea that this blogger wants to whine and pose, and isn’t really concerned about kids with malaria.  He’s getting way too many facts dead wrong.

Nick Kristof of the New York Times, God bless him, is one of the few liberals to react reasonably to reality:

Mosquitoes kill 20 times more people each year than the tsunami did, and in the long war between humans and mosquitoes it looks as if mosquitoes are winning.

One reason is that the U.S. and other rich countries are siding with the mosquitoes against the world’s poor – by opposing the use of DDT.

“It’s a colossal tragedy,” says Donald Roberts, a professor of tropical public health at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. “And it’s embroiled in environmental politics and incompetent bureaucracies.”

In the 1950’s, 60’s and early 70’s, DDT was used to reduce malaria around the world, even eliminating it in places like Taiwan. But then the growing recognition of the harm DDT can cause in the environment – threatening the extinction of the bald eagle, for example – led DDT to be banned in the West and stigmatized worldwide. Ever since, malaria has been on the rise.

…But most Western aid agencies will not pay for anti-malarial programs that use DDT, and that pretty much ensures that DDT won’t be used. Instead, the U.N. and Western donors encourage use of insecticide-treated bed nets and medicine to cure malaria

Yeah, go read that Kristof article.  He’s a bit off about DDT — but notice especially the date.  It’s the Bush administration he’s complaining about. I thought Penraker was complaining about environmentalists and silly “compassionate” types — but he’s complaining about Bush?  What else isn’t he telling us, or doesn’t he know?

But isn’t it dangerous?

But overall, one of the best ways to protect people is to spray the inside of a hut, about once a year, with DDT. This uses tiny amounts of DDT – 450,000 people can be protected with the same amount that was applied in the 1960’s to a single 1,000-acre American cotton farm.

Is it safe? DDT was sprayed in America in the 1950’s as children played in the spray, and up to 80,000 tons a year were sprayed on American crops. There is some research suggesting that it could lead to premature births, but humans are far better off exposed to DDT than exposed to malaria.

Indoor Residual Spraying (IRS) is endorsed even by Environmental Defense, the group that first sued to stop broadcast DDT spraying in the U.S.  It’s not environmentalists who oppose the practice, but businessmen, tobacco farmers and cotton farmers in Africa.  Who is Penraker to substitute his judgment for the judgment of Africans, the people on the ground, the people who suffer from malaria?

Alas, IRS, done right, is expensive.  A treatment with DDT is required twice a year, at about $12 an application when costs of the analysis of the mosquitoes and other circumstances are figured in.  That’s $24/year.  DDT spraying is more than 50% effective in preventing the disease.

Bednets cost $10, last five years at least, and are about 85% effective at preventing the disease.

Maybe Africans just want the cheaper, more effective methods used.  Doesn’t that make sense?

The piece in the Washington Post’s On Faith section is called “Religion from the Heart”

How ironic.

All the Washington Post and the New York Times would have to do is highlight that the use of DDT could save a million lives – most of them children, and they would be saved within a year.

That’s all they would have to do. Keep the spotlight on it, and save a million lives. Instead, they expunge the very idea from their pages, (witness this from the heart stuff)

I will never understand people who are willing to let millions of people die for the sake of their ideology.

And I will never understand people who get in a dudgeon, blaming people who are blameless, or worse, blaming people who are actually trying to fix a problem, all while being blissfully misinformed about the problem they complain about.

Yes, millions of lives could be saved — but not with DDT.  DDT won’t work as a magic potion, and it’s a nasty poison.  Why would anyone urge Africans to waste money, and lives, instead of actually fighting malaria?  Penraker fell victim to the hoaxers who want you to believe Rachel Carson was not accurate (her book was found accurate by specially-appointed panels of scientists), that DDT is a panacea against malaria (it’s not), that environmentalists are stupid  and mean (while they’ve been fighting against malaria for more than 40 years), and that everything you’ve heard from science is wrong.

Malaria gets a lot of deserved attention from people serious about beating the disease, for millions of good reasons.  Those who are serious about beating malaria don’t whine about DDT.

And then he brags about his intolerance for the facts.  Whom God destroys, He first makes mad.


Update: Blue Marble isn’t as offensive and obstreperous as others, but equally in error.  How can people be so easily misled from the facts of the matter?

Great cartoons: The Economist

April 26, 2009

Best, wisest and most cynical cartoon of the week, on the cover of the current North American edition of The Economist:

Cover, The Economist, North American edition, April 25-May 1, 2009

Cover, The Economist, North American edition, April 25-May 1, 2009; illustration by Jon Berkeley

For a week at least, you can get the story behind the cover for free, here.

THE rays are diffuse, but the specks of light are unmistakable. Share prices are up sharply. Even after slipping early this week, two-thirds of the 42 stockmarkets that The Economist tracks have risen in the past six weeks by more than 20%. Different economic indicators from different parts of the world have brightened. China’s economy is picking up. The slump in global manufacturing seems to be easing. Property markets in America and Britain are showing signs of life, as mortgage rates fall and homes become more affordable. Confidence is growing. A widely tracked index of investor sentiment in Germany has turned positive for the first time in almost two years.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

But, welcome as it is, optimism contains two traps, one obvious, the other more subtle. The obvious trap is that confidence proves misplaced—that the glimmers of hope are misinterpreted as the beginnings of a strong recovery when all they really show is that the rate of decline is slowing. The subtler trap, particularly for politicians, is that confidence and better news create ruinous complacency. Optimism is one thing, but hubris that the world economy is returning to normal could hinder recovery and block policies to protect against a further plunge into the depths.

The cover almost says it all, doesn’t it?  Week in and week out, The Economist has great covers, a phase of newsstand-oriented journalism that I hope never goes away, regardless the medium.

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