2008-06-05

World Perspective II

Okay, so my post about organic foods causing the apocalypse might have been a bit alarmist and a bit of a slippery slope argument. But I think it still makes the point that the trends and policies in first world countries (that's basically anyone who might read this) may have unintended negative consequences on the world at large. So while we think that we are very benevolent and magnanimous, we are also at the same time hurting those less fortunate than us. Need proof? Here's another example...

In the 1962, a book called Silent Spring was published that questioned the side effects of DDT. DDT was, at the time, an inexpensive pesticide that was used widely to control insect pests, particularly mosquitoes. There were questions, however, about the overall healthiness of DDT as well as its effect on the environment. One of the most disturbing claims was that the catastrophic collapse of eagle populations in the US was caused by the thinning of their eggs' shells, which was, in turn, caused by the birds' food sources being contaminated by DDT.

Indeed, Silent Spring was a wake up call. We realized that we could wreak havoc on the environment through inappropriate chemical use. This led to a complete ban of DDT in the US. European and other developed countries followed suit. The environment responded positively to the ban, and bird populations recovered when we switched to newer, more targeted, and necessarily more expensive pesticides. In most respects, the DDT ban appeared to be a great success -- proof that we were willing to pay the price to do the right thing to care for the Earth.

The thing that we forget in this story is that by this time malaria was really no longer a problem in the US. What used to be a common and debilitating illness was pretty much eradicated in this country draining swamps, lots of spraying, and high standard of medical care. Ironically, we ended up banning DDT about the same time we no longer needed it.

But what about the rest of the world that still suffered from endemic malaria? For them, the reality is that DDT remained (and remains) an excellent repellent with little environmental impact when used to for home treatment rather than general mosquito abatement. Despite this potential, many Western aid organizations working in malaria prevention refused to fund DDT use, despite its very low cost. Can you imagine trying to solicit donations from charitable Americans to use a banned pesticide? In effect, the ban had stigmatized DDT.

It's a bit revisionist to claim that DDT use might have impacted malaria, but the statistics from the CDC and WHO are telling regardless. Every year, there are nearly half a billion cases of malaria, causing more than one million deaths -- the vast majority of them being children. It doesn't take a calculator to realize that even a very small percentage of half a billion remains an enormous number. In the US, we happily paid the cost to eliminate DDT -- an inconsequential sum for a wealthy nation -- but was there a global cost?

To be continued...