Most of us don't know a whole lot about the pesticide DDT other than it almost caused the extinction of bald eagles and it was banned decades ago. Well, the first part is true—and we can thank the US ban on DDT, the Endangered Species Act, and the efforts of scientists and volunteers for bringing the eagles and other affected species back to a state of robust health. But the second part of the statement—that DDT was banned decades ago—is only partly true. DDT was banned in the United States but it is still used in a number of countries around the world.
Now, promoters of this toxic pesticide are linking DDT and malaria as a means for getting DDT un-banned. They argue that people in areas with malaria problems are being unfairly denied access to DDT,
which the flacks claim is the only solution possible for areas infested with malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
Is this true? Or is it just a ploy by corporations and their front men to restart the profit stream from the pesticide DDT? We'll find out in today's guest article, which was authored by
Pesticide Action Network North America
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DDT and Malaria: Setting the Record Straight
DDT is in the news again, promoted by a handful of aggressive advocates as a silver bullet solution to malaria in Africa. The DDT promoters' story goes something like this:
Malaria is killing people in Africa, but environmentalists care more about saving birds and are blocking the use of DDT to save people. DDT wiped out malaria in the US, but is now being denied to Africans. DDT is the best way to fight malaria. There are no health effects from DDT exposure, and its use should be widespread.
The only accurate part of this story is that malaria does kill millions of people in Africa every year, a preventable public health tragedy of catastrophic proportions. The rest of the story is false, but it is being pitched aggressively and effectively by well-funded sources to mainstream media outlets and members of Congress. A New York Times columnist even titled a recent article "What the World Needs Now is DDT."
Hold your horses, says Paul Saoke, M.D., Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility in Kenya: "DDT is a short-sighted response with long term consequences. While it may be effective in some cases where mosquitoes haven't yet developed resistance, it won't solve the malaria health crisis. Technical expertise and better malaria control methods already exist in Africa. It's only resources and political will that are lacking."
Public health experts, government officials, and environmentalists around the world support the approach to DDT taken by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). The treaty targets DDT (along with eleven other dangerous chemicals) for global phase out, but allows exemptions for malaria control in countries that request it. This approach recognizes that in some cases, DDT can be an effective temporary tool for malaria control. Most importantly, the treaty also mobilizes desperately needed funds for malaria control and prevention, with an emphasis on safer, more effective strategies that don't further jeopardize the health of current and future generations.
Below are some basic facts to dispel the new myths about DDT.
"DDT wiped out malaria in the US."
Malaria had been largely eliminated in the US by the time the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) first used DDT in spray campaigns in 1947. CDC's four-year spray effort was designed to prevent the reintroduction of malaria from troops coming home from World War II. Almost twenty years earlier, in 1928, the Public Health Service had already noted the decline of malaria in the US. The pockets that persisted in the South until the late 1930s were controlled by the Tennessee Valley Authority's efforts to:
- cut down on mosquito breeding sites by draining swamps, and
- protect the population by building well-screened houses.
According to one journalist investigating the issue, "About the best one CDC physician involved in the campaign could say about [the DDT campaign] was that 'we kicked a dying dog.' "
"DDT only hurts birds, not people."
Both human health and the environmental impacts led to the 1972 DDT ban in the US, and we know even more today about DDT's human health effects than we did back then. DDT is classified by US and international authorities as a "probable" human carcinogen, and exposure is linked to human developmental disorders. Reproductive disorders associated with DDT are well documented in animal studies (which are scientists' primary tool for predicting human effects).
Recent studies have also linked DDT exposure to reduced breast-milk production among nursing women, and US researchers have found that the DDT breakdown product DDE is associated with increased risks of premature delivery and reduced infant birth weight. DDT and its breakdown products have also been found in human blood and breast milk in dozens of studies around the world.
"DDT is the best tool to fight malaria."
The World Health Organization (WHO) tried to eradicate malaria worldwide with a massive DDT spraying program in the 1950s and '60s. While the program helped to control malaria in many places, wiping out malaria with DDT was an unrealistic goal that could not be met. One of the many reasons for the failure of this ambitious effort was resistance to DDT among malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Resistance was identified in Africa as early as 1955, and by 1972 nineteen species of mosquito worldwide were resistant to DDT.
DDT intended for public health use is often diverted to illegal agricultural use, hastening the development of resistant mosquito populations. More effective and safer approaches to malaria control are now being used in many countries. For example, Mexico uses an integrated approach that combines:
- early detection of malaria cases and prompt medical treatment,
- community participation in notification of malaria cases and cleaning of streams and other sites where mosquitoes breed; and
- low-volume chemical control with pyrethroid pesticides.
"DDT use for malaria control is completely harmless."
When DDT is used for malaria control, it is usually sprayed on the walls inside homes, so risk of exposure is very high. Researchers in Mexico and South Africa found elevated levels of DDT in the blood of those living where DDT was used to control malaria, and breast-fed children in those areas received more DDT than the amount considered "safe" by WHO and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
Evidence also shows that long-lasting residues from DDT house spraying seep into nearby waterways, creating additional pathways of exposure. For example, elevated DDT levels have been found in cow's milk in areas using indoor DDT treatments. In many countries, this adds to exposure from old stockpiles of DDT that are not properly contained or controlled. FAO estimates there are more than 100,000 tons of obsolete pesticide stockpiles in Africa, mostly older chemicals such as DDT.
"All countries with malaria need DDT."
Many countries are controlling malaria with effective alternative approaches:
- Vietnam reduced malaria deaths by 97% and malaria cases by 59% when they switched in 1991 from trying to eradicate malaria using DDT to a DDT-free malaria control program involving distribution of drugs and mosquito nets along with widespread health education organized with village leaders.
- A program in the central region of Kenya is focusing on reducing malaria by working with the rice growing community to improve water management, use livestock as bait, introduce biological controls, and distribute mosquito nets in affected areas.
- The World Wildlife Fund has documented success in the Kheda district in India, where non-chemical approaches were demonstrated to be cost-effective.
- In the Philippines, the successful national program has relied on treated bed nets and spraying of alternative chemicals.
What countries fighting malaria need is strong support for effective solutions, not increased reliance on DDT.
"DDT is being denied to those who need it most."
The few countries that still do need to use DDT to control malaria are able to obtain it. Eighteen of the fifty-four countries in Africa have requested an exemption under the Stockholm Convention for DDT use for malaria control, and an estimated eleven of these are currently using DDT. The Stockholm Convention calls for the ultimate elimination of DDT as soon as these countries are satisfied that alternatives are workable for their specific needs. This approach is supported by public health experts and governments around the world, together with those in the environmental, development, and public interest communities in virtually all countries.
"Millions of people will die without DDT."
Millions of people are dying now and will continue to die without effective malaria control. In a handful of countries, this may still include spraying with DDT in the short term—until more effective controls are in place. The public health community learned long ago not to rely on any single solution in fighting this deadly disease, with failed reliance on DDT providing the original lesson. Fortunately, experiences in Vietnam, Ethiopia, Mexico, the Philippines and other countries show that effective malaria control is possible, and that it requires a real commitment of resources, integrated strategies, and community participation.
WHO'S PROMOTING DDT?
A handful of advocates have mounted an aggressive campaign accusing environmental advocates of racism and promoting widespread use of DDT in Africa. Who are they?
Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) — CORE, founded as an advocacy group for African-Americans, played an early leading role in the US civil rights movement. In the late 1960s, CORE moved to the far right of the political spectrum. CORE's 2005 Martin Luther King celebration honored scientist Norman Bourlag, father of the disastrous "Green Revolution" and Karl Rove, George W. Bush's political strategist. Hugh Grant, Chairman and CEO of Monsanto (world champion of genetically engineered crops), the first producer of DDT in the US and one of CORE's corporate partners, chaired the reception. In 2005, CORE produced a Monsanto-funded video called "Voice from Africa," promoting the use of genetically modified crops in Africa.
Africa Fighting Malaria (AFM) — Established in 2000 and based in Washington DC and South Africa, AFM "seeks to educate people about the scourge of malaria and the political economy of malaria control." Its staff members have current or former links with a range of right-wing or free-market think tanks critical of the environmental movement, including the Competitive Enterprise Institute, American Enterprise Institute, Institute of Economic Affairs, and Tech Central Station.
Paul Driessen — Driessen is Senior Policy Advisor for CORE and for the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, a "Wise Use" think tank that includes Ron Arnold, a man who has been a spokesman for Dow and Union Carbide—responsible for the still-festering Bhopal disaster—and who has called publicly for the killing of environmentalists. Driessen has consulted as Senior Fellow for several anti-environmental, corporate-funded think tanks, including the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, and Frontiers of Freedom. He edited the book Rules for Corporate Warriors and authored Eco-Imperialism: Green Power, Black Death, a 2003 book asserting that environmentalists are responsible for poverty in developing countries. He has also received funding from EXXON Mobile to spin information as a climate change skeptic.
Roy Innis — A member of CORE since 1963, Innis became national chairman in 1970. He is known for controversial stances on racial issues, including hailing as a "bold step" the deportation of 50,000 Asians from Uganda by president Idi Amin in the 1970s.
Niger Innis — Roy's son, Niger Innis, is the national spokesman for CORE. He also serves as an Advisory Committee member for Project 21, an initiative of the National Center for Public Policy Research—a conservative free market foundation with a strongly anti-environmental agenda.
Henry Miller — Miller is a research fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution. He has called for reintroduction of DDT in the US to combat West Nile Virus. Miller is also on the Scientific Advisory Board of the George C. Marshall Institute, a Washington think tank focused on global warming, supported in part by the Exxon Education Foundation and American Standard Company.
Clearly, what the world needs now is NOT more DDT. If we're serious about fighting malaria, what we need is realistic long-term funding for community-based control strategies combined with improved housing, basic sanitation and effective policies to fight poverty. It's true that this more genuine solution is more complicated than spraying a "quick, cheap-and-dirty, silver-bullet" chemical from a by-gone era. But it will also save more lives and provide long term malaria control, which DDT cannot.
PANNA (Pesticide Action Network North America) works to replace pesticide use with ecologically sound and socially just alternatives. As one of five PAN Regional Centers worldwide, they link local and international consumer, labor, health, environment and agriculture groups into an international citizens' action network. This network challenges the global proliferation of pesticides, defends basic rights to health and environmental quality, and works to ensure the transition to a just and viable society. Visit them at www.panna.org.
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