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The Most Dangerous Substance of All


For all our preoccupation with ridding society of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana, little thought is given to the most dangerous mind-altering substance of all: ink.

Do you doubters need proof? Take Rachel Carson’s famous book, Silent Spring. In 1963 Carson wrote a book claiming that the insecticide DDT was damaging the ability of birds to reproduce. In truth, she misrepresented the research of James DeWitt, whose work, reported in 1956, did not indicate that pheasants and quail were less likely to hatch their eggs when fed lots of DDT. She also charged that DDT caused liver cancer in human beings. Again, there was no evidence for that. DDT has actually been found to reduce tumors in animals. That was reported, among other places, in a National Cancer Institute journal in 1975.

Nevertheless, her book set off a panic that led to the banning of the insecticide in the United States in 1972 by Richard Nixon’s EPA chief William Ruckleshaus, despite an EPA administrative law judge’s ruling that DDT isn’t hazardous. Moreover, the environmental movement has pressured the developing countries to stop using it. The attempt to adopt a treaty to ban it or regulate it out of existence goes on, with the rich part of the world using economic pressure against the poor part.

There is one small problem. DDT kills mosquitoes that carry malaria. It stands to reason that if DDT use were stopped or curtailed, the mosquito population would thrive — and the human population would not. That’s exactly what has happened. The poor people of the world have been the chief victims.

Deaths from malaria in the developing world had been falling precipitously — until the anti-DDT campaign got under way. Then infections and deaths skyrocketed. The number of cases in Sri Lanka has tracked the use and non-use of DDT in that country: 2.8 million in 1948; 17 — yes, 17 — in 1963; 500,000 in 1969. Sub-Saharan Africa is the worst hit: a child dies from the disease there every 40 seconds. The United Nations Environment Program says that each year 400 million people are at risk and that “about 1.5-2.7 million people, mainly children, die each year from malaria…. In some parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, one in 10 infant deaths, and one in four deaths of children under four years are attributed to malaria.” And it’s on the rise. Why? “Although many factors contribute to increasing malaria, the strongest correlation is with decreasing number of houses sprayed with DDT,” says Dr. Donald R. Roberts of the U.S. Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.

Thankfully, more and more people are realizing that the campaign against DDT has been a catastrophe. The Wall Street Journal reports that South Africa is turning the tide on malaria by resuming its use of DDT. Thanks to the pesticide, the country had kept the disease in check. But in 1996 South Africa stopped using DDT in order to be in step with the developed world. Soon malaria was on the rise, the Journal reported, “outstripping even the number of new HIV/AIDS cases in parts of the country.” The expensive alternatives to DDT turned out to be poor substitutes. Now South Africa has resumed use of DDT and the number of cases is falling.

The continuing campaign against DDT by the UN and the environmental movement is outrageous. In the time it has taken to write this article, more than 83,000 more people have contracted malaria and more than 600 have died. (See the Malaria Clock at the ProBiotech Web Site.) No doubt about it. Rachel Carson’s use of ink has led to the deaths of tens of millions of people, more than have ever been killed by pesticides or illegal drugs. But is she vilified? No. She’s been sainted by the ruling establishment. The post office even put her picture on a stamp.

I’m not implying that the government should ban or control the use of ink, just as it shouldn’t control the use of DDT or drugs. What I’m saying is that people ought to use their common sense and not give in to the latest environmental hysteria.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.