The President and his coterie somehow determined that William Ruckelshaus was a worthy recipient of the nation's highest civilian honor. This, despite the fact that as the first EPA Administrator (established Dec. 1970), he single-handedly banned almost all uses of DDT. His own science panel deliberated and reviewed thousands of documents and studies from Jan. 1972 through April, notable for the absence of Ruckelshaus. The committee report exonerated DDT from allegations of adverse effects on humans, animals or "the ecology" in April. Then, one fine day in June 1972, Ruckelshaus signed the rule banning the chemical that had been credited with saving more lives than any other, ever, and whose discoverer (Switzerland's Dr. Paul Muller) won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for its discovery in 1948.
What could possibly have been Ruckelshaus' rationale for this heinous, calamitous decision? He had been a Republican (!) legislator and lawyer in Indiana prior to his EPA appointment, but he had been affiliated with (if not a "card-carrying" member) of the Audubon Society and possibly the Environmental Defense Fund as well. Upon assuming the reins of the EPA, however, it seemed as though his sole training in environmental toxicology came from reading (and re-reading) Rachel Carson's poetic polemic Silent Spring, her heartfelt but fact-free attack on DDT and all chemical pesticides. His knowledge of the history of malaria and DDT as a public health insecticide must have been minimal (unless one postulates his ban as being more than simple criminal negligence, but intentional). But all he had to do was listen to his science chair, Judge Edmund Sweeney, and the panel that labored so long and exhaustively, exonerating DDT from alleged harms.
But no: he consigned DDT to the dustbin of worldwide shunning (true enough, he had no power to effectuate any actions outside of America, but the impoverished African and Asian nations dared not flout the USA and the UN Environment Program, which followed our lead). And that's what happened, and remained so for over three decades. Over those next decades, the best estimates were that malaria (which WE eradicated here and in Europe thanks in large measure to DDT) took the lives of over one-million each year, mainly infants and toddlers and pregnant women.
Only over the past 10 years has movement occurred, with many sub-Saharan nations successfully applying for the use of tiny amounts of DDT in "indoor residual spraying": such spraying kills some anopheles mosquitoes, but mainly works by irritating them so they don't bite, or simply repels them. Along with better diagnostics and treatments (but still no vaccine), the death toll from malaria has dropped below 500,000 per annum — still a horrific number.
Ruckelshaus has never accepted responsibility for his lethal and baseless "political" decision (his words: upon being challenged on the scientific lack for his ban, he countered "that's science, it can help, but this is a political decision"!). Now he has the consummate gall (also known as chutzpah) to accuse Republicans of fleeing from science for political reasons. Before casting stones, he should take a long hard gaze into the mirror and try to hear the echoes of the anguished cries of African mothers over the bodies of their dying and dead children, tiny victims of the largely preventable scourge of malaria.
For the most comprehensive compendium of factual data on the illusory risks and manifold benefits of DDT, "The Excellent Powder" cannot be beat.
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