I thought we’d eliminated DDT, but …

WHO logoDid I miss the memo explaining how DDT wasn’t really such a bad thing for the environment and so therefore it’s not such a terrible thing that the World Health Organization is now encouraging third world nations to expand the use of DDT?
But that’s just exactly what’s happening, according to the LA Times: WHO May Allow More DDT to Fight Malaria, about a report that “[highlights] DDT as a safe, effective and cheap option for countries to choose” in the fight against malaria.
It’s important to realize, of course, that malaria is a dangerous disease transmitted by mosquitoes and that it kills an alarming number of people every year (it sickens up to 500 million people per year and actually kills over one million people, mostly young children in Africa). It’s bad.

But what about DDT and our $1.2 billion dollar government initiative to fight malaria in Africa with various tools, including DDT. Let’s review…
The LA Times says “DDT is easily history’s most notorious insecticide. While it isn’t classified a human health hazard, it was banned in the U.S. in 1972 after decades of widespread agricultural spraying resulted in environmental damage around the globe.”
More interesting is to read the original release about the ban of DDT from the Environmental Protection Agency: Dec 31, 1972: DDT Ban Takes Effect, but the DDT Information Page from the US Geological Survey has the more interesting info: “DDT is on the list of 12 persistent organic pollutants that are slated for total elimination by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants; however, DDT has been given a provisional exemption due to severe problems with malaria and other insect bourn diseases in tropical areas.”
Or the National Institutes of Health’s page DDT Use in U.S. Linked to Premature Births in the 1960’s: “The scientists said they found elevated levels of DDT’s breakdown product, DDE, in the stored blood of mothers recorded as giving birth to premature or low birth weight infants. Pre-term births are a major contributor to infant mortality.
“DDT levels in the U.S. are now low and likely not causing any harm,” said Matthew Longnecker, M.D., Sc.D., NIEHS, lead author on the study. “But we have to be concerned about what might be happening in those 25 countries where DDT is still used. Also, looking back on earlier decades in the U.S., we may have had an epidemic of pre-term births that we are just now discovering.”
Is it just me, or does it also seem to you that the WHO is basically jumping out of one frying pan and into another, inevitably condemning thousands – or millions – of African women to birth defects (not to mention the environmental impact of more DDT usage on the fragile African ecosystem) in the hopes that death by malaria will be reduced?
There’s more to this too. The CDC notes: “In Africa south of the Sahara, the principal malaria mosquito, Anopheles gambiae, transmits malaria very efficiently. The type of malaria parasite most often found, Plasmodium falciparum, causes severe, potentially fatal disease. Lack of resources and political instability can prevent the building of solid malaria control programs. In addition, malaria parasites are increasingly resistant to antimalarial drugs, presenting one more barrier to malaria control in that continent.”
Did you catch that phrase lack of resources and political instability there? Seems to me that’s the problem, and while spraying DDT on the interior walls of the houses in southern Africa might reduce malaria in the short-term, the real solution is for us to help stabilize the governments in Africa and then offer them the resources necessary to improve the quality of life of Africans, not just send deadly chemicals.
Or maybe I just didn’t get that memo in the first place….

3 comments on “I thought we’d eliminated DDT, but …

  1. I know it’s a bit late to be commenting, but…it is a situation smack in the middle of a rock and a hard place. Do you spray the DDT now and save millions of lives knowing that the quality of future generations is at risk, or do you let the people die and say “hang in there” we’ll figure something else out?

  2. Wow,
    I just finished posting some research on my blog regarding DDT and “polio”! I know this is an old post, but I’m not at all surprised about the encouragement to use this product. What is scary to me is how many products and food sources we import from these countries.

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