Banning DDT is a great idea whose time has not yet come
4-10 September 1999
ALMOST four decades have passed since Rachel Carson, in "Silent Spring", exposed the dangers of DDT. She horrified Americans by showing that some pesticides are transmitted through the food chain until they can destroy the reproductive systems of such birds as the robin and the bald eagle. Her book proved a clarion call for the modern environmental movement in America. It also seemed to sound the death-knell for DDT: in the years since, every country in the developed world has banned the stuff. Not all pesticides are equally harmful; and there is even evidence that some birds know how to avoid them (see article). However, there is little doubt about the nasty effects, on humans as well as on wildlife, of such persistent organic pollutants as DDT and dioxins. These accumulate in the body over time, and have been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption and other ills. Worse, they can travel thousands of miles: polar bears have been found with them.
Now, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is co-ordinating negotiations for a new international treaty to curb the use of 12 of the worst pollutants. But even before officials meet next week in Geneva to work on a first draft of such an accord, a bitter row has broken out over, guess what: DDT. For it so happens that this notorious pesticide is used by two dozen poor countries to fight malaria.
The green lobbies argue that because the harmful effects of DDT are so clear, it should be banned worldwide by 2007. Public-health officials retort that this would condemn millions to misery or death from a preventable disease. The health argument is the stronger. The greens' impulse to ban this thoroughly nasty pesticide is well-intentioned, but malaria still plagues hundreds of millions of the world's poorest people; and worse, it is on the rise. Malaria exacts a heavy economic price, in lost productivity, and it means sure death for several million children every year. And the only effective defence many have against it is to spray DDT inside their homes. There are alternatives, such as bed nets and prophylactic drugs, but limitations of cost, user acceptance and infrastructure mean that they offer no easy fix.
There are, however, three useful steps against DDT that the treaty negotiators could agree on. For a start, rich countries should concede that they will not push for a complete ban, even if it is dressed up with "exceptions" for emergencies, unless and until malaria is no longer a menace. Achieving that could take many years, for it will require technological advances in drugs and pesticides, as well as a development of public-health infrastructure in poor countries. Such a move would help win over poorer countries, whose co-operation is essential for the second step: a complete ban on the use of DDT outside the home, notably in farming. Although many countries already have such a ban in theory, poor enforcement means that it often leaks into agriculture. UNEP reckons that as much as half of the DDT used today is for purposes other than fighting malaria inside homes.
Pay and play
The third and hardest step is for rich countries to put some cash on the table. Some should be used to boost incentives for firms in the rich world to look for malaria vaccines, therapeutic drugs or alternative pesticides to DDT. That will take time. Meanwhile, though, more money would help agencies such as the World Health Organisation to expand the use of non-chemical measures against malaria, such as draining swamps or biological control, that would reduce DDT use.
These three measures will not satisfy all those who lie awake at night worrying about bald eagles. But they would tilt the scales toward compassion for the avoidable suffering of the world's poorest people. And they could produce something that will benefit both the world's haves and its have-nots: a widely observed treaty to phase out some of the worst pollutants that man has ever invented.
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