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What are the Pros and Cons of Using DDT for Malaria?

By Caitlin Kenney
Updated Jan 24, 2024
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Since Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, launched the chemical DDT to infamy, the powerful pesticide has been the subject of controversy. Responsible for the devastating environmental and health impacts that have won the chemical its bad name, DDT’s potency as an insecticide also won it a Nobel Prize and the support of many health activists fighting malaria. The use of DDT for malaria has many pros and cons that cause environmentalists, health organizations, and governments to fall on either side of the fence. The main questions to ask in this nuanced argument is whether the long-term health and ecological impacts of DDT outweigh the health benefits of DDT for malaria, and whether there are alternatives that might work better at lower cost.

DDT, an abbreviation for dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, is an insecticide that kills insects by disrupting their nervous systems, causing convulsions and death. Malaria is a potentially deadly disease caused by a parasite that lives on certain types of mosquitoes. Because the parasite itself is so hard to kill in great numbers, focus has generally been set on killing the carrier. Since World War II, people have been using DDT for malaria, as well as in agriculture, with great success. There are, however, some big problems with DDT.

DDT was banned, first in the United States and then worldwide, for its harmful effects on health and the environment. As a persistent organic pollutant, DDT stays in the environment, especially in the soil, for a long time and doesn’t dissolve in water. As it accumulates and animals become exposed, health impacts begin to appear in fish, other marine animals, birds, and even mammals, such as humans. In birds, DDT has shown to cause shell-thinning in eggs and is thought to be partially responsible for the near extinction of the bald eagle. In humans, there is evidence that DDT causes deterioration of genetic integrity, cancer, difficulty breastfeeding, early miscarriage, and lower semen quality, amongst other negative health impacts.

There are also compelling reasons why we should use DDT for malaria, however, and the World Health Organization (WHO) has supported limited use of DDT for such health purposes. Malaria is most common in poorer nations, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, so DDT is an attractive choice as a relatively inexpensive insecticide. The climates in these regions also lend themselves to faster degradation of the chemical, reducing its persistence. When so many people are dying of malaria, many DDT supporters cannot see any justification for not fighting the disease with whatever tools available.

Many DDT critics, such as Rachel Carson, support cautious, limited use of DDT for malaria. Still, even the restricted use of DDT in malaria stricken regions has led to serious health issues, negative environmental impacts, and a very dangerous rise in DDT resistant mosquitoes. Some proponents argue that the limitations on DDT should be lifted for a more effective fight against malaria. Others say that this would just increase the aforementioned problems and would not eradicate the disease, especially in places where the climate allows mosquitoes to survive year-round. Alternative pesticides, physical barriers to mosquitoes, and drugs to prevent and treat malaria are also available as substitutes or tools to use in tandem with DDT for malaria.

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Discussion Comments
By SteamLouis — On Dec 07, 2013

@Ana1234-- I completely agree.

If DDT is banned in all developed countries including Europe and the US, it can't be a good thing right? So why is it being used in Africa? I'm sure alternatives to fighting malaria can be found.

Someone said that the issue of DDT and malaria is about finding the lesser evil. But that's just it, they're both evil and it doesn't make sense to harm living things to save living things.

By turquoise — On Dec 06, 2013

@literally45-- Mosquito nets are used but they're not enough. There is a reason why DDT is so popular against disease carrying mosquitoes -- because it works. And it's not as bad as some other pesticides. I don't believe that it causes cancer in humans, at least not in amounts used for mosquito control. I'm not sure if it harms animals, I think that's something that needs to be studied further.

I'm not saying that DDT is the ultimate solution to malaria but for now, it's the best treatment out there. Have you seen malaria statistics? It's taking a million lives annually and most of those are children. At the end of the day, people's lives are at stake. So we have to decide what we value more.

By literally45 — On Dec 06, 2013

I don't understand why people don't just use mosquito nets for malaria prevention. I doubt that it's more expensive than DDT and it has no negative side effects for human, animal health or the environment.

By clintflint — On Dec 05, 2013

@Iluviaporos - The problem is that DDT does linger for a long time and that mosquitoes eventually become immune to it. So it's, at best, a short term solution and at worst it might actually make malaria more difficult to combat in the long run.

Not to mention that it's been quite well documented that it can cause problems in people and especially in babies. That's not the kind of risk people should be taking when there are other ways to get rid of malaria.

By lluviaporos — On Dec 04, 2013

@Ana1234 - Well, the fact that the eagle is starting to make a comeback shows that DDT isn't going to stick around in an ecosystem forever. And malaria is a massive problem. People think of malaria in Africa just in terms of the deaths, which is bad enough of course, but it's much more than that. Many people who have it don't die from it, they just feel sick all the time, to the point where they can't get out of bed.

How do those people provide for their families when they can't even move for half the week? How does an economy improve (which would also benefit the environment) when a huge percentage of the adult population is chronically ill?

If DDT is used carefully just in areas where people are living then it's not that dangerous. It's still being used in some countries under the sanction of the UN. And those countries all show a drop in malaria rates.

By Ana1234 — On Dec 04, 2013

I read somewhere that if they hadn't taken the measure of banning DDT the bald eagle would have become completely extinct, but now it's making a comeback. I think it's interesting that they always advocate using DDT in areas where the animals aren't all that well documented and where we probably wouldn't even realize if some of them went missing.

In the long run that's going to harm everyone, including the people of the region. There are other ways to prevent malaria deaths that don't include completely killing off an ecosystem.

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