Mentally unbanning DDT

The World Health Organisation has unbanned DDT and now considers that pesticide a major tool in the fight against malaria, the dreaded disease that hits half a billion people and kills 1-2.7 million each year ( mostly sub-Saharan children). Many have expressed their happiness about this and expect that malaria will soon be dealt a final blow,  but that may be a bit too early because this WHO decision may be one barrier less for the use of this ‘weapon of mass survival’: the resistance against the use of it is still considerable. From inside the the WHO, from Africa, and from Europe and other tradepartners.  Africans fear malaria, but they have learned to fear DDT just as much.

Least important of that resistance seem organisations like Greenpeace and the World Wild Life Fund. They hate DDT and everyone who uses it, no doubt about that, but since DDT proponents have accused them of saving birds (not very many though) at the cost of the lives of millions they have given in and published statements  that as far as they are concerned DDT can be used in the fight against malaria. It still reads as ‘if you absolutely must kill yourself, we will not stand in your way’, but they appear not to be a major block anymore.

But inside the World Health Organisation there is a faction that is less dependent on its public profile because it consists of governmental delegates and other people from the grey world between activism, science and government: the Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety (IFCS). This is an organisation that may not be entirely WHO, but their website nevertheless is a subfolder at the WHO-site, so they are very close at least and they are  also very dissatisfied with the new DDT-policy judging by reports from their last meeting in Budapest. Some required an internal investigation as to how this could happen at all.

The report of that  IFCS-meeting brings back memories of the seventies. Commercially DDT is hardly an interesting product: several countries have banned it or do not need it, and those that do need it, only use very small quantities since the current mode of use, spraying it on the walls of residences, requires dramatically less DDT then when used for agricultural purposes and sprayed over a field from an airplane. That is the reason that DDT is still only synthesized in India ( 1 factory that Greenpeace tries to close) and China (that seems to work mainly for its local market) and a few third world based small factories ( in e.g. Ethiopia). Nevertheless  one of the attendants, Romeo Quijano, president of the Pesticide Action Network in the Philippines explains the unbanning of DDT thus:  "We think industries are behind this, If this is true, it shows the triumph of greed over health.".

At the meeting a representative of the WHO defended the new view on DDT by emphasizing that the view was not so new at all since it was completely in agreement with two international Conventions ( Stockholm and Rotterdam) that do indeed call for the banning of DDT, but allow its use in the fight against malaria, but apparently the partcipants saw that differently. Acccordig to the New York Times the change in WHO-policy can largely be traced back to one person, the new anti-malaria-chief Arata Kochi. If only one person is really that important then he is also rather vulnerable and there is the possibility that the new policy will be reversed at a next meeting or, more likely, that it will not be offcially canceled but  never receive enough financial support to be realized.

Many Africans are also dead afraid of the chemical. For instance  Dr Paul Saoke, director of Physicians for Social Responsibility in Kenya, says it is ‘criminal’ that WHO should make a politically motivated announcement like this under the guise of protecting the health of children in Africa. "This approach takes us in exactly the wrong direction. DDT is a shortsighted response with long term consequences and WHO should be helping countries fight malaria with safer and more effective alternatives."

Or John Ken Lukyamuzi, president of the Conservative Party in Uganda:’DDT is one of those notorious pesticides. It was globally outlawed by the World Health Organisation nearly 40 years ago because of the harm it can cause to humans, animals, fish, insects, soil and the environment. The compound is not biodegradable and can cause liver cancer, abnormal births, blindness, brain distress, genetic defects and impotence. It can also contaminate the water chain and soils through accumulation and assimilation in the food chain’.  

All this is plain nonsense. DDT is a  remarkably innocuous substance for humans, both on the short and on the long term. It is not carcinogenic ( according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer). The dangers for birds are still contested and probably restricted to predatory birds.  Of course: it is a chemical, if you take a sensitive species and stuff it enough with that chemical then you get adverse outcomes, but although these are a gift from heaven for chemofobic environmentalists, they tell nothing about real world use. It is true that DDT is found all over the planet, but what’s so special about that ? This is a dynamic planet, everything is in flux: when a dangerous microbe shows itself in China, there is reason to worry and do research, when in northern Europe thousands of cars are dusted with sands from the Sahara there is no reason for worrying (though it is annoying), and when a chemical shows up somewhere you check whether it is harmful. Well with DDT we now know that it is all over the place, but not harmful.

But is the irrational fear for DDT so strong that people in Africa refuse the DDT-squad that comes to spray the walls access? Yes according to research: ‘people may object to the spraying because of the inconvenience, the residue left on the walls, the smell, or fears about the health effects of inhaling the fumes. For example in Namibia, householders have refused entry to the spray teams, and in Zimbabwe 21% of villagers refused to have some rooms in their homes sprayed.’

Commercial barriers to the use of DDT

Malaria costs Africa 12 billion dollar/year in lost productivity and health care and is thus a fenomenal barrier for  development. Many fear however that the use of DDT will only bring the economy further down.

Patrice Hakizimana the Director of the Rwanda Agricultural Development Authority (RADA): "The ministry has already made its position known to all; applying DDT will mean losing even the little progress we have gained from agriculture export. Our export market for coffee and tea will have been suffocated because all the European countries that buy our products are against the use of DDT".  

‘Non-tariff barriers are still a major obstacle to Ugandan exports, says the Uganda Export Promotion Board. (…) Most affected is the non-traditional export sector, on which the EU has already warned it will further tighten non-tariff barriers if Uganda goes ahead to use DDT in the fight against malaria’

British American Tobacco (BAT) in Uganda has also  protested against the reintroduction of DDT,  claiming that it would harm its exports: ‘(…) some particles of the insecticide would be diverted and used in agriculture, which in turn raised discomfort that this would result in agricultural produce being rejected from the European Union (EU).’ Chemical giant Bayer supports the European stance on DDT admitting that its use will be a commercial threat for the company.

Kenia is one of the countries with a legal ban of the use of DDT and apparently it will  remain in force for some time to come, not because Kenya has a shortage of malariapatients - far from that - but because Kenya is also the world main producer of pyrethrum, the raw material for pyrethroids, which is an alternative for DDT.

And then there is also a very cynical commentator from Kenya: "Doctors will lose their jobs en mass if malaria is wiped out and the effect on the pharmaceutical industry would be disastrous," says a pharmacist who requested anonymity. He added that it was malaria that kept most doctors in the country busy adding that if the disease were to be wiped out the medics would be rendered redundant. "Tell me how many people go to hospital because of a sore throat or flu. Not even the deadly HIV/Aids and Tuberculosis can rival malaria in hospital bed occupancy in this country,"

DDT is certainly not the only weapon against malaria, the war has to be fought on all fronts. Sometimes resistance calls for other pesticides ( though that is not so much the case in Africa), sometimes insecticide treated nets are part of the solution (though sofar they have been very disappointing), sometimes the drying of a marsh will help and so on, there is no need for DDT-fetishism. It is to be feared however that even after this  unbanning of DDT many people involved, the western environmentalists, the western government officials, their counterparts in the third world, the people in the infested homes themselves will still not use DDT because of thei mental ban which makes it very likely that at any one time someone decides not to use DDT, banned or unbanned, simply because he has learned that you can save the environment that way. So it stays important that those in the know continue to explain that ‘saving the environment’ means that you consider  he fact that polar bears have DDT in their fat ( and thrive nevertheless) and the possibility that the population of some birds will decrease substantially for a few decades is more important then the lives of one million children every year.

 

Theo Richel

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