Published September 21, 2006
Last week’s announcement that the World Health Organization lifted its nearly 30-year ban on the insecticide DDT is perhaps the most promising development in global public health since… well, 1943 when DDT was first used to combat insect-borne diseases like typhus and malaria.
Overlooked in all the hoopla over the announcement, however, is the terrible toll in human lives (tens of millions dead — mostly pregnant women and children under the age of 5), illness (billions sickened) and poverty (more than $1 trillion dollars in lost GDP in sub-Saharan Africa alone) caused by the tragic, decades-long ban.
Much of this human catastrophe was preventable, so why did it happen? Who is responsible? Should the individuals and activist groups who caused the DDT ban be held accountable in some way?
Rachel Carson kicked-off DDT hysteria with her pseudo-scientific 1962 book, “Silent Spring.” Carson materially misrepresented DDT science in order to advance her anti-pesticide agenda. Today she is hailed as having launched the global environmental movement. A Pennsylvania state office building, Maryland elementary school, Pittsburgh bridge and a Maryland state park are named for her. The Smithsonian Institution commemorates her work against DDT. She was even honored with a 1981 U.S. postage stamp. Next year will be the 100th anniversary of her birth. Many celebrations are being planned.
It’s quite a tribute for someone who was so dead wrong. At the very least, her name should be removed from public property and there should be no government-sponsored honors of Carson.
The Audubon Society was a leader in the attack on DDT, including falsely accusing DDT defenders (who subsequently won a libel suit) of lying. Not wanting to jeopardize its non-profit tax status, the Audubon Society formed the Environmental Defense Fund (now simply known as Environmental Defense) in 1967 to spearhead its anti-DDT efforts. Today the National Audubon Society takes in more than $100 million per year and has assets worth more than $200 million. Environmental Defense takes in more than $65 million per year with a net worth exceeding $73 million.
In a February 25, 1971, media release, the president of the Sierra Club stated that his organization wanted “a ban, not just a curb” on DDT, “even in the tropical countries where DDT has kept malaria under control." Today the Sierra Club rakes in more than $90 million per year and has more than $50 million in assets.
Business are often held liable and forced to pay monetary damages for defective products and false statements. Why shouldn’t the National Audubon Society, Environmental Defense, Sierra Club and other anti-DDT activist groups be held liable for the harm caused by their recklessly defective activism?
It was, of course, then-Environmental Protection Agency administrator William Ruckelshaus who actually banned DDT after ignoring an EPA administrative law judge’s ruling that there was no evidence indicating that DDT posed any sort of threat to human health or the environment. Ruckleshaus never attended any of the agency’s hearings on DDT. He didn’t read the hearing transcripts and refused to explain his decision.
None of this is surprising given that, in a May 22, 1971, speech before the Wisconsin Audubon Society, Ruckleshaus said that EPA procedures had been streamlined so that DDT could be banned. Ruckleshaus was also a member of — and wrote fundraising letters for — the EDF.
The DDT ban solidified Ruckelshaus’ environmental credentials, which he has surfed to great success in business, including stints as CEO of Browning Ferris Industries and as a director of a number of other companies including Cummins Engine, Nordstrom, and Weyerhaeuser Company. Ruckelshaus currently is a principal in a Seattle, Wash., -based investment group called Madrona Venture Group.
Corporate wrongdoers — like WorldCom’s Bernie Ebbers and Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski — were sentenced to prison for crimes against mere property. But what should the punishment be for government wrongdoers like Ruckleshaus who, apparently for the sake of his personal environmental interests, abused his power and affirmatively deprived billions of poor, helpless people of the only practical weapon against malaria?
Finally, there is the question of the World Health Organization itself. What’s the WHO been doing for all these years? There are no new facts on DDT — all the relevant science about DDT safety has been available since the 1960s. Moreover, the WHO’s strategy of mosquito bednets and malaria vaccine development has been a dismal failure. While the death toll in malarial regions has mounted, the WHO has been distracted by such dubious issues as whether cell phones and French fries cause cancer.
It’s a relief that the WHO has finally come to its senses, but on the other hand, the organization has done too little, too late. The ranks of the WHO’s leadership need to be purged of those who place the agenda of environmental elitists over the basic survival of the world’s needy.
In addition to the day of reckoning and societal rebuke that DDT-ban advocates should face, we should all learn from the DDT tragedy.
With the exception of Rachel Carson (who died in 1964), all of the groups and individuals above mentioned also promote global warming alarmism. If they and others could be so wrong about DDT, why should we trust them now? Should we really put the global economy and the welfare of billions at risk based on their track record?