Saturday, January 08, 2005
I'm thrilled that we're pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the relief effort, but the tsunami was only a blip in third-world mortality. 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.
That last point isn't quite as snarky as it sounds -- the United States withholds aid to governments and NGOs that spray DDT. There's a bit of perverse consistency in that policy. In light of the impact of DDT on avian reproduction, you can think of DDT as abortion for birds.
Kristof argues that the benefits of targeted use of DDT to fight malaria would far outweigh the costs:
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.
If the Bush administration is as contemptuous of the environment as leftists claim (it is not, by the way), you would think that it would take Kristof's advice and quickly revise America's policy on DDT. If it isn't, it is because it does not want to spend a lot of time defending itself from the environmentalists, who attack Bush even when he does something that helps the environment. Kristof seems to understand this without saying as much, and calls in some close air support to help:
I called the World Wildlife Fund, thinking I would get a fight. But Richard Liroff, its expert on toxins, said he could accept the use of DDT when necessary in anti-malaria programs.
"South Africa was right to use DDT," he said. "If the alternatives to DDT aren't working, as they weren't in South Africa, geez, you've got to use it. In South Africa it prevented tens of thousands of malaria cases and saved lots of lives."
At Greenpeace, Rick Hind noted reasons to be wary of DDT, but added: "If there's nothing else and it's going to save lives, we're all for it. Nobody's dogmatic about it."
I stand second to none in my love of eagles, but Kristof is right. Malaria kills millions of people a year, and targeted use of DDT to prevent those deaths is surely worth the cost to the environment.
I have to wonder just how solid the link between DDT use and thin eggshells and a decline in Eagle populations is. It may be very good, but with most of this stuff a little scepticism is in order.
They used to douse soldiers with the stuff during WWII and they seemed to be okay. But maybe it had some adverse effects on the next generation. :)
DDT whacks mosquitoes and it is pretty safe for humans. More to the point, malaria is deadly for humans, and it is prevalent in parts of the world where lifespans aren't that long, anyway. Even if DDT caused a few miscarriages or gave you cancer in 30 years, would that be too high a price to pay to prevent 3,000,000 deaths and staggering morbidity every year from malaria? Almost all public health measures involve trade-offs, and this seems like a good one even if DDT is not totally harmless to life forms that we care about.
Don't miss the Junk Science website, with the 100 things you should know about DDT page. Section VII, items 72, 73 and 74:U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists fed large doses of DDT to captive bald eagles for 112 days and concluded that "DDT residues encountered by eagles in the environment would not adversely affect eagles or their eggs."
Authorities attributed bald eagle population reductions to a "widespread loss of suitable habitat", but noted that "illegal shooting continues to be the leading cause of direct mortality in both adult and immature bald eagles."
Every bald eagle found dead in the U.S., between 1961-1977 (266 birds) was analyzed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists who reported no adverse effects caused by DDT or its residues
You can bet this has been studied within an inch of it's life. Yes "there are fears" and "studies have suggested a possible link" but no one has ever demonstrated any ill effect in humans. You could bathe in the stuff (if you really have a thing about mosquitos). In fact the shell-thinning effect seems confined to raptors.
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