Opinion: DDT Isn’t All Bad, And Other Lessons

Opinion: DDT Isn’t All Bad, And Other Lessons

David Eddy


My son and I were watching “Jeopardy!” on TV the other night — we watch pretty much every night unless there’s a ballgame on, because guys have got to have priorities — when the subject of insecticides came up. Specifically, it was DDT, though I can’t recall the exact question.

All I remember is saying something to the effect that DDT wasn’t all bad. He gave me a look like I was a completely ignorant fool — it’s a look I know well because he’s a teenager — and said that basically DDT almost ruined our environment all by itself. I started to protest, and he said that he knew all about DDT because he studied it in his environmental science class. (Though he said it as if he were explaining he chaired the Environmental Science Department at Stanford.)

I again started to argue — I know, as a parent of a teen I should know better — then stopped, because I realized I was once him. When I was his age, my teachers had taught me exactly the same thing. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned that DDT had in fact saved perhaps hundreds of thousands and likely millions of lives.

I realized I hadn’t ever really done any research on the subject, so I took a little time to bone up as I had a lot to learn. For instance, I knew that malaria was still a problem, but I didn’t know that it killed about a million people every year, mostly children. Assuming I can ever get my son to listen to me, he is in for a big surprise.

Teach The Teachers

Years ago, DDT saved a lot of lives. When it was first introduced in World War II, DDT was very effective in reducing malaria morbidity and mortality. The World Health Organization’s anti-malaria campaign, which consisted mostly of spraying DDT, was initially very successful as well. For example, in Sri Lanka, the program reduced cases from about 3 million per year before spraying to just a few in the early 1960s.

DDT was far from perfect, of course. Resistance developed from over-spraying — an important lesson for another day — and it did cause environmental problems. Along with the passage of the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. ban on DDT is cited by some scientists as a major factor in the comeback of the bald eagle, our national bird, from near-extinction in the contiguous U.S.

I’m not going to argue how many lives were saved by DDT or how much environmental damage it did. All I’m saying is our sons and daughters — and their sons and their daughters — should know that an argument exists. They should learn that there are two sides here. They should not be spoon-fed just one side as my son and I were.

It makes me wonder how many kids are taught that pesticides are bad, period. I’ll bet there are an awful lot of them. Here’s where you come in. Any chance you get it, talk to those not involved in agriculture about pesticides. Even better, volunteer to speak at schools. Or church groups. Or garden clubs. Wherever there are people — though it would be preferable to get them when they are young and impressionable — take the time to give them the other side.

Don’t tell me people don’t care about farming. The “So God Made A Farmer” video that aired during the Super Bowl was viewed on-line more than 18 million times in the 10 days following the game. Give them “the rest of the story.”

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Ed Darrell says:

DDT is properly the poster child for stuff that is supposed to create miraculous solutions, but which turns into a bit of a Frankenstein's monster — bombs and bullets do good, too, when they kill bad guys, but that's not an argument for the bad guys just because they used bombs and bullets, you know? If we don't forget the whole story of DDT when we tell it, our kids won't look at us like we did: http://timpanogos.wordpress.com/ddt-chronicles-at-millard-fillmores-bathtub/

Michael W. Klaus says:

I appreciated your article on DDT in the recent Western Fruit Grower Magazine. My sons had a similar reaction when we discussed the issue. I took a course in college called Pesticides and the Living Landscape taught by Dr. Howard Smith at the U. of Idaho back in the early 1980’s. He was a wise old professor who just sat back and let the class argue the issue. We were required to read Silent Spring and then a book called “The DDT Myth” to make sure we had both sides of the story. It changed my view of Silent Spring and helped me to be a more open minded critical thinker. I had both of my WSU Ag student sons read the book as well. It was more effective than me trying to lecture them. There is a new book out now with a similar title: http://www.eco-imperialism.com/myths-and-facts-about-ddt/ and as I’m sure you already know, there is a tremendous amount of other material on the subject found on the internet. While I am not really a proponent of renewing DDT use, I have been on a technical assistance assignment to Niger, Africa and served in Iraq and realize that some proponents have a valid point with respect to human health issues. Your point is well taken. Teachers nowadays should be more like Dr. Howard Smith and present many sides of an issue instead of touting only one side of what some call an “eco- imperialist” view…. But don’t get me started on that topic! Thanks for the thoughtful article.