The Economics of DDT

Reader Joe Miller points to this Letter to the Editor debunking the myth that the environmental movement, led by Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, is responsible for millions of needless deaths from malaria as a result of the ban on the insecticide DDT.

The manufacture and use of DDT was banned in the US in 1972, on the advice of the US Environmental Protection Agency. The use of DDT has since been banned in most other developed nations, but it is not banned for public health use in most areas of the world where malaria is endemic. Indeed, DDT was recently exempted from a proposed worldwide ban on organophosphate chemicals...

Reductions in the use of DDT did occur in a number of developing nations after the US ban in 1972. This reflected concerns over environmental consequences of DDT, but was also a result of many other factors...

Most nations where malaria is a problem, and most health professionals working in the field of malaria control, support the targeted use of DDT, as part of the tool kit for malaria control. Most also agree that more cost-effective, less environmentally persistent alternatives are needed. There are some effective alternative chemicals for the control of adult mosquitoes, but preventing their further development is lack of investment by industry, because malaria is largely a disease of the poor.

I wonder, though: what economic effect did the ban on DDT in developed nations have on the cost and availability of the insecticide in undeveloped nations? While we would expect worldwide consumer demand to decrease after the ban, thus lowering prices, we would also expect new production to decrease as well, which would increase prices and make access to DDT more difficult. As the letter writer notes, the production of insecticides is motivated largely by the needs of wealthier countries which have the ability to pay, and the effect on poorer countries seems to be an afterthought - a positive externality. If the developing world was previously free-riding on the DDT production of more advanced countries, we would expect a ban on DDT use in advanced countries to significantly effect the cost and availability of DDT in places where it was still legal.

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"debunking the myth"... If

"debunking the myth"...

If only it were a myth...

I think you are right about the economics side. Most of the focus has been on the charities and aid organizations that won't support the use of ddt's in spite of the fact that they are spending billions on more expensive/less effective chemicals to fight disease in developing nations. Many of the organizations are afraid of a public backlash that could occur because of the general bad publicity around DDT's... and why is there bad publicity around DDT's? Hmmmm... could it be because of the claims of the book Silent Spring which was debunked by actual scientists only a couple years after it was published.

I don't think that the DDT

I don't think that the DDT ban dramatically increased the price of DDT worldwide. The problem is that Western aid agencies provide most of the money which is used for malaria prevention in African. These agencies do not want to encourage the use of a chemical (DDT) that they are unwilling to use in their own nations. Therefore, they encourage the use of other methods of DDT prevention, such as bed nets and other more expensive chemicals.
The New York Times magazine of 3.11.04 (What The World Needs Now Is DDT) and numerous op-ed pieces by Nicholas Kristof have discussed this phenomena.

Interesting, Bob. That makes

Interesting, Bob. That makes a lot of sense, and is sort of tied in to what I was trying to get at (with regards to availability).

I think you are missing the

I think you are missing the most important effect -- banning the use of DDT for agriculture means that it can still be used for malaria control. If it is used for agriculture then mosquitoes develop resistence and it becomes useless against malaria. This is what happened in Sri Lanka. They had been using DDT for decades to control malaria but by the mid 70s it was no longer working and they had over half a million cases a year despite extensive DDT spraying. They switched to the more expensive malathion and banned that from agricultural use.

In places where DDT can still be used, the fact that it can still be useful should be credited to Rachel Carson and the environmentalists.

Wow! What would we do if we

Wow! What would we do if we didn't have environmentalists around to spread misinformation?!? The whole world would be falling apart! :shock:

Rainborough, on this issue,

Rainborough, on this issue, it is the anti-environmentalists spreading misinformation. For example, Roger Bate was advocating the use of DDT in Sri Lanka after the tsunami, even though he knew that mosquitoes there were resistant.