By Graig Mihok
It has been thirty-nine years since William D. Ruckelshaus, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, gave the order to stop the production of DDT, making it illegal in the United States. Ruckelshaus acted in the wake of the growing concern about DDT's effects on the environment and public health. Since then, there have been many discussions about whether the ban of DDT has been good for the world, or bad. Since DDT targets insects - most notably Malaria-carrying mosquitoes – it is possible that the ban of DDT could be having both a negative and positive impact where it has been used and where it currently could be used.
The first thing to consider is the argument to bring DDT back. There are numerous campaigns for DDT's revival and not all for the same reason. Closest to home would be to combat the growing bedbug population in most major cities around the U.S. Although most lists do not appear to have a consistent order of infested cities, certain cities appear on multiple lists and most seem to agree that New York City takes the number one spot.
The fact there is no consistent list for bedbug infestation means the problem is much larger than it appears and is growing. A friend of mine has found bedbugs in several different apartments in Buffalo, a city that did not make any of the lists on a Google search. His problem is most likely the common one; infestation throughout the entire building where some residents actively try to rid themselves of the pests, meanwhile, other residents do nothing and help contribute to the growing infestation.
Many claim that rubbing alcohol and steam will kill the bugs on contact, but in cases where the infestation is too widespread, in walls or under or inside furniture and appliances, the exterminator is usually called in. And thus, the cry for the return of DDT gets louder. The powerful pesticide is responsible for nearly wiping out bedbugs out in the1940's, but now they've returned, many with resistance to pesticides, including DDT.
In Africa, malaria is still a major issue that has had an interesting development over the years. Those who have called out for the return of DDT for the sake of Africa's malaria problem seem to ignore that the amount of annual malaria-related deaths has decreased significantly since the ban on DDT. In 1972, annual malaria deaths were at a staggering two million. Yet, by 2000, that number had been cut in half. Currently, malaria-related deaths are under 900,000, marking the lower number of malaria deaths ever recorded. Insecticide treated nets and other pesticides like pyrethoids are the current popular alternatives to DDT in Africa.
Death from an easily-prevented illness like malaria is still a revolting notion, but seeing the annual death count being more than cut in half in thirty-nine years shows the incredible progress that has been made. Would bringing DDT back into the picture really help in this case? Bill Gates is working on eradicating malaria around the world, but he has not mentioned the use of DDT in any of his efforts.
So where do we go from here? Bring back the pesticide that bedbugs have shown a strong resistance to in an attempt to eradicate them? Of course, all while not poisoning ourselves and the environment again. And what about malaria? The problem seems to be receiving more attention than it ever has before, and with the annual death-toll at a record low, would it be a good idea to reintroduce DDT to the planet again? Misinformation seems like the biggest bug that deserves a squashing, yet it always scurries away only to show up a little later.
DDT advertisement from the 1940's: