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