Posted by: Jack | June 12, 2008

Exploiting malaria for chemical profits

Rachel Carson

I’m currently about ¾ of the way through Rachel Carson’s trilogy, ‘The Sea,’ which, aside from a few things that are out of date, I’ve really enjoyed. For those that don’t know, Rachel Carson was a natural scientist who wrote eloquently about the natural world and ecology. The middle book of the trilogy I’ve been reading, ‘Under the Sea Wind,’ is a brilliant and evocative series of fictional stories about different sea creatures, their lives and relationships to each other. The book manages to realistically depict the lives of several different animals without ever being anthropomorphic and ascribing human thoughts and feelings to creatures that don’t have them.

Rachel Carson is most famous for her book ‘Silent Spring,’ which I haven’t read but I’m intending to get a copy of ASAP. This book had a massive impact on the whole world and propelled Carson to the forefront of public consciousness. The subject is the chemical pesticide industry, and in particular the most popular insecticide of the time, DDT. Its publication is often cited as a decisive moment in launching the environmental movement.

The book details how DDT kills wildlife apart from the insects it targets, and even poses a threat to human health. The title makes real the threat of a year where there will be no songbirds, as DDT accumulates in the bodies of the insects it kills, which are then eaten by birds. The chemical has been linked to the thinning of eggshells, disruption of birds’ reproductive systems and their death.

Tern eggs damaged by exposure to DDT

Monthly Review (IMHO the best socialist magazine in the world and essential reading if you want to know what’s really going on) has a great article about how Rachel Carson’s work was part of a wider revolt of scientists in the 50s and 60s against the ecologically destructive consequences of modern capitalist society. This began with scientists attacking the huge long term damage done by nuclear weapons, which the US military (the only military to have ever actually used them) was trying to hide.

She was well known as a natural history writer before the publication of Silent Spring, but this book pushed her into the limelight as a social critic. She wrote of how the “gods of profit and production,” were destroying the environment, and that our society is unable to have a proper relationship with the natural world because we live “in an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at any cost is seldom challenged.”

Spraying DDT

‘Silent Spring,’ was hugely damaging for chemical companies, and led to widespread criticism of the indiscriminate use of pesticides. The discoverer of the insecticidal properties of DDT had been awarded the Nobel Prize in 1948, and it had been hailed as a panacea in the fight against mosquito borne diseases, especially after being used widely in World War 2 to keep troops safe when they moved into malarial areas. But now people were for the first time beginning to wake up to the consequences of widespread chemical warfare against other species.

The chemical industry recognised the threat and attacked her even before the book’s publication, denouncing the eminent scientist as “a hysterical woman.” Companies such as Monsanto, Velsicol and American Cyanamid mobilised a massive campaign against Rachel Carson and her book in the media, and they were supported by their friends in the US Government Department of Agriculture.

But the facts marshalled by Carson are pretty irrefutable. DDT isn’t soluble in water, but it is soluble in fats and lipids, indeed it’s often referred to as “lipophilic” or fat loving. This means it accumulates in the bodies of creatures that eat the insects that have been poisoned with it, whose bodies are then eaten by more creatures and so on up the food chain. This means that every step you take up the chain, the more DDT will be concentrated in a creature’s body. This was seen most dramatically in raptors, birds that hunt and kill other animals. Their reproduction was disrupted and their eggshells became dangerously thin because of the large amounts of DDT in their bodies.

The banning of DDT in the US is credited as a major reason the bald eagle has been able to come back from the brink of extinction in that country.

Bald eagle

It also lasts very long in soil and the atmosphere, meaning it can travel around the world to areas where we would never expect to find it. Because of various processes of the Earth’s climate and water cycle for example, large quantities of DDT have been found in the Arctic, and it poses a particular threat to the peoples and wildlife of the region.

DDT attacks the nervous system, causing nervousness and hyperactivity. It alters the way animal bodies use their hormones to absorb calcium, making the hard body substances such as bones, and how animals reproduce. These are threats to human as well as animal populations.

Rachel Carson’s book caused an uproar, and the modern environmental movement grew up to a large extent around the effort to ban DDT and end the chemical war on our natural environment. First Sweden and then the US banned DDT in the 70s, and it has now been recognised at an international level through the Stockholm Convention. This recognises banning of DDT as a long term goal, although it allows some exemption for the prevention of malaria.

This brings us to why I thought of writing this in the first place: the chemical industry’s push to re-introduce widespread use of DDT. For years the chemical industry has attacked Rachel Carson and through her the environmental movement on the grounds that we supposedly don’t care about deaths in Africa and Asia from the deadly disease malaria. Malaria, so the reasoning goes, isn’t much of a threat to people in the western world, and so we only fixate on the damage it does us and our wildlife, ignoring how much it could help poor people avoid a killer disease.

In some of the more vitriolic attacks this even leads some writers to claim that the environmental movement is responsible for millions of deaths, and is the equal of Hitler as a mass murderer.

Now UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has made a speech as part of a new World Health Organisation drive against malaria calling for renewed use of DDT. Why? Well, like nuclear power and a whole lot of other environmentally unsound technologies, the makers of DDT are trying to jump on the bandwagon of climate change and portray it as the lesser of two evils.

Ban Ki Moon

Ban Ki Moon argues that climate change is going to increase heat and precipitation in a lot of environments around the world, creating warm wet conditions that will allow mosquitoes to expand their range into new areas, and with them will come the malaria they carry.

This is of course is important and true. And even without climate change, malaria is a major health crisis in Africa, killing at least a million people per year, most of them women and children. It’s estimated that a child is killed every 30 seconds by malaria.

So of course initiatives to try and do something about this are welcome and necessary, and Mr Ki Moon, launching the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) drive to “Roll Back Malaria” has announced: “The aim is to put a stop to malaria deaths by ensuring universal coverage by the end of 2010. This initiative will offer indoor residual spraying and bed nets treated with long-lasting insecticide to all people at risk, especially women and children in Africa.”

The move follows the controversial decision by the WHO to give DDT a “clean bill of health” as a means of preventing malaria, and encourage its use. This was met with protest and criticism from around the world. The problem isn’t just the damaging effects of DDT on living organisms, including humans, and the knock on effect on the biodiverse ecosystems that many developing world communities depend on. It’s also the fact that as DDT is used more and more, the limited usefulness it does have as a means of preventing malaria will be eroded by growing mosquito resistance.

Resistance to pesticides is evolution in action. If you spray a large area with DDT, and a small portion of the population has some resistance, then they will be the only mosquitoes that survive and breed. They will spread their resistance to the next generation, and if they get sprayed as well then the process will repeat itself, with ever increasing insect resistance.

To combat this threat Mr. Ki Moon is proposing to use limited amounts to treat cracks and crevices in people’s homes. But the real problem is that the chemical industry is still producing DDT and pushing it on countries where there’s weak regulations and environmental law enforcement, in Africa, Asia and Latin America. This has led to widespread illicit spraying, on a much wider scale than small amounts in people’s homes. If more of it is going to get produced for, and endorsed by, UN health programmes, then it will give the big chemical conglomerates a chance to produce more of the formerly very successful product.

The Bush administration has been one of the major international movers behind the bid to rehabilitate DDT. At the news conference last year when the WHO announced its newfound support for the pesticide, Admiral R. Timothy Ziemer, who leads President Bush’s $1.2 billion malaria programme, described spraying with insecticides as a tool “that must be deployed as robustly and strategically as possible.”

The health organization’s news release quoted Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma: “Finally, with the W.H.O.’s unambiguous leadership on the issue, we can put to rest the junk science and myths that have provided aid and comfort to the real enemy – mosquitoes.”

Senator Tom Coburn

Coburn is among the most right wing of the Republicans in Congress, an anti-abortion doctor who has been quoted as saying “The homosexual agenda is the greatest threat to American freedom,” as well as that he favours the death penalty for doctors practicing abortion. He also tried in Congress to block any official celebration of the centenary of Rachel Carson’s birth.

However, there can be little doubt that the massive agro-chemical corporations will be the force that lies behind the US stance on DDT.
In Africa and other countries affected by malaria the issue of DDT is very controversial. For example, DDT spraying in Northern Uganda was recently stopped by court order following a petition until there is a ruling in a lawsuit brought by farmers and environmentalists. The farmers fear that if their produce is contaminated by DDT they will be unable to sell it to Europe.

The fact that neither the international agencies, nor conservative US politicians and their chemical industry backers want to face, is that insecticide ultimately can’t prevent the spread of malaria. Sooner or later the insects will develop an immunity, and then the only ones hurt by DDT will be the much slower reproducing creatures further up the food chain, including humans.

Unspoken in the international drive to see DDT as the solution to malaria is that what can’t be considered is the path that really does work and has been proved in practice: providing universal, free high quality health care for people in developing countries. This has been proven to work by the example of the Cuban revolution. Malaria has been eliminated since 1959 in Cuba, despite the fact it is surrounded by malarial countries. This was principally achieved vaccinations, and high quality health care keeps it the disease at bay.

But this was only possible in Cuba after socialists seized power and started using the limited resources the small poor country had for the benefit of everyone. When we see what Cuba can achieve with so little and under a ferocious economic blockade from the US, its clear that there’s nothing inevitable about the huge death toll from malaria in Africa.

The problem is that these countries have been pillaged for centuries by the rich world, and that now the international financial institutions that we control force their governments to slash government spending as part of the neoliberal economic programme. This means that the existing governments simply can’t fund basic healthcare that would start to address the problem, or they risk retaliation from the US and its allies.

The US and the chemical countries would far rather see their profitable products used as the solution to malaria, regardless of the havoc they wreak on the ecosystem and human health. They have to be fought, both by environmentalists aware of the damage their doing, and people in countries affected by malaria who know that they have to stand up to these forces if they are ever to get decent healthcare and an end to the malarial plague.



  1. Good article Jack, you gonna do something for the voice on it?

    I first came across the DDT controversy a few years ago – on boards like Revleft, arguing with pro-DDT folk, and some socialists who agreed with them (ever heard of spikedonline?).

    Had doubts as towards whether DDT should be kept universally banned or not – there are figures showing massive increases of malaria since DDT’s banning – but with no direct link proven.

    As you outlined, eventually mosquitoes will develop a resistance to it and insecticides will be useless. I think this process actually started before DDT was banned.

    But the basic principle is universal free health care is the best weapon against malaria, and obviously a move to such a system takes power away from western corporations who make insecticide and into third world countries themselves.

    PS: On Jared Diamonds doc Guns, Germs and Steel – I dunno if they had this bit in the book – but he was outlining how the previous advantages of Europeans were still relevant to inequality in the world today.

    He didnt spend a lot of time on it, which was dissapointing but he did mention malaria – one virologist mentioning that the 1% negative growth is directly attributable to malaria deaths.

    And the reason this existed was cos previously, before European domination Africans lived on high ground – because they knew living near water would make them succeptible to malaria.

    The European settlers didn’t and got the wrong end of germs for once. But this didn’t stop them establishing their cities, mines etc in areas geographically they didn’t know were malaria prone, and obviously using the natives as slaves to work there.

    Its out of those areas that todays modern African – malaria prone – cities developed.

  2. Hi Jack,

    I also really liked the Monthly Review article on Rachel Carson. She also gets bigged up in the mini-book I’m reading just now on Thomas Kuhn and the science wars, regarding her importance to the sociological study of science:

    “Neither the pro- nor the anti-Kuhn groups of the 1960s noticed that another book, published just after Kuhn’s, had changed the debate forever. This was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1965), in which harm to the environment caused by science-based technology was vividly displayed to the public. It became clear that who pays the wages of Kuhn’s puzzle-solvers, who decides what problems they study, who controls the publication of their results, Kuhn’s academic “normal science” has been replaced corporate, industrialised science…”

    Andy – I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this to you before, but did you know the same group who made that dodgy documentary on Channel 4 about climate change (and other ones before or GM food and more) are also behind spiked-online.

    It’s the same people that used to be behind the magazine Living Marxism (LM), formerly the “Revolutionary Communist Party” – they went from far left to right-libertarian, I think the original theoretical reason was meant to be that they want to make capitalism so bad that the revolution will come about sooner(!)


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