Saturday, April 10, 2004

On DDT, Malaria and the legacy of Silent Spring 

In normal life, when not blogging, I study the environment. The goal is to be a small part of forming a kind of "user's manual" for the planet so informed decisions can be made about our future. Which is all by way of saying that my profession is caring and thinking about environmental issues. For me, and others of my ilk, Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring is critically important. The foundation of the american environmental movement, such as it is, Carson's book was the first to lay out the damage that man could inflict on his surroundings. Looming large in this chronicle of damage is the pesticide DDT and its effect on such things as the ability of birds to bring their offspring to term.

In today's NY Times Magazine Tina Rosenberg makes the interesting case that Carson may have been too sucessfull: that because DDT is so reviled in the US its use in small (relatively environmentall benign) quantites in developing countries is strongly discouraged. The practicaly consequence of not using DDT is simple: more people die from malaria, a lot more (the difference varies from country to country but single digit numbers of deaths when DDT is employed vs. hundreds of thousands when it is not are not uncommon). Here, I want to argue, is one case in which american environmentalists have lost their way. Chemistry shouldn't be demonized, it should be critically evaluated and, when we can without causing profound harm for our future, used to help make lives better. To just standby when deaths happen that could be easily prevented - shame on us.

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