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ENVIRONMENT/HEALTH: Despite Int’l Agreement, DDT Will Not Disappear Overnight

Raúl Pierri

PUNTA DEL ESTE, Uruguay, May 5 2005 (IPS) - The signatories of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) pledged Thursday to search for alternatives in order to eventually eliminate the use of the insecticide DDT in the fight against malaria.

The signatories of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) pledged Thursday to search for alternatives in order to eventually eliminate the use of the insecticide DDT in the fight against malaria.

Although DDT is one of the 12 POPs that the international community has agreed on eliminating as soon as possible, it is still widely used as an effective and low-cost weapon against the mosquitoes that transmit malaria, which kills over a million people around the world every year, primarily in Africa. Around 300 million people contract the disease annually.

The delegates to the 1st Conference of Parties to the Stockholm Convention, taking place Monday to Friday in the Uruguayan resort town of Punta del Este, agreed to ask the World Health Organisation (WHO) to draft a report on alternative methods for fighting malaria and their potential effectiveness.

They also called on the international financial institutions to support efforts to develop other strategies for combating this disease which do not necessarily involve the use of chemical products.

WHO Assistant Director-General Kerstin Leitner stressed the need to monitor the use of DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) while seeking out economically sustainable alternatives at the same time, and said that her organisation was prepared to lead the search for new options.


The Stockholm Convention, which was signed in 2001 and entered into effect in May 2004, is aimed at eliminating or reducing levels of 12 specific POPs.

This so-called “dirty dozen” comprises nine chemicals used as pesticides (aldrine, chlordane, DDT, dieldrine, endrine, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene, mirex and toxaphen), two unintentional byproducts of chemical production and the burning of chlorinated substances (dioxins and furans), and a group of industrial pollutants known collectively as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

These and other POPs are chemicals that remain intact in the environment for long periods, become widely distributed through the air and water, accumulate in the fatty tissue of living organisms – and can thus be passed along the food chain – and are highly toxic to animals and humans.

Exposure to these 12 toxins has been shown to increase the risk of cancer, hormonal imbalances, neurological disorders, infertility, diabetes and a weakened immune system.

The delegates meeting in Punta del Este resolved that the countries that have been granted an exemption allowing them to keep using DDT can continue to do so in the short term, but they stressed that it is essential to begin a “transition” towards eliminating its use completely.

Some observers attribute the devastating effects of malaria to the restrictions imposed by governments and environmentalists on the use of DDT. The controversial insecticide was patented in 1937 by Swiss chemist Paul Müller, who was awarded the 1948 Nobel Prize for Medicine.

Mexican Deputy Minister of Environmental Protection Francisco Giner de los Ríos underlined the importance of regional cooperation in developing alternative strategies for fighting malaria.

“In Mexico we have succeeded in adopting an integrated approach to preventing and combating malaria, without having to use DDT, and we have also cooperated with countries in Central America to help them do the same. We hope that this example will be followed by others,” he told the conference Thursday.

Mexico was a major producer of DDT from the 1950s until the year 2000, when it completely eliminated its use. It currently implements an integrated malaria control programme that includes community participation in cleaning out gutters and other sources of water where mosquitoes can breed, as well as volunteer work to raise awareness of the disease and distribute preventive medications.

This is precisely the strategy proposed by environmentalists.

“We believe that DDT can be eliminated and malaria can be brought under control at the same time. The disease can be fought without the need for this particular pesticide,” Mexican environmentalist Fernando Bejarano González of the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN) commented to IPS.

“What is needed is an integral approach involving community participation. It is not simply a matter of replacing one chemical with another, but rather of developing a comprehensive strategy,” said the activist, who is participating in the conference as an observer.

India, currently the world’s largest producer of DDT, has begun to implement original, alternative methods to fight malaria, such as the use of fish that eat the larvae of the mosquitoes that spread the disease, he noted.

But Bejarano González stressed that the banning of DDT should be accompanied by large-scale public information campaigns, especially aimed at farmers.

Otherwise, “there is the risk that they will go back to using the pesticide illegally, because it is cheap, effective and can be easily smuggled in thanks to the lack of customs controls, which has been made worse by free trade agreements,” he warned.

For his part, Paul Saoke of the Kenya Association of Physicians and Medical Workers for Social Responsibility told IPS that governments should seek ways of fighting this disease without the use of chemical products.

However, he added, when it is absolutely necessary, it is better to use pyrethroid pesticides, which are considered “non-persistent” chemicals (meaning that they break down easily) to fumigate homes.

The conference in Punta del Este is being attended by some 800 representatives from over 70 countries, including 50 government ministers and deputy ministers. On the last day of the meeting, a speech is scheduled to be given by Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez, an oncologist.

In the negotiations on DDT, Togo, Botswana and Yemen asked for further exemptions, to allow them to use the pesticide against new outbreaks of malaria, while Venezuela reported that it still has small reserves of the chemical for experimental purposes.

 
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ENVIRONMENT/HEALTH: Despite Int’l Agreement, DDT Will Not Disappear Overnight

Raúl Pierri

PUNTA DEL ESTE, Uruguay, May 5 2005 (IPS) - The signatories of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) pledged Thursday to search for alternatives in order to eventually eliminate the use of the insecticide DDT in the fight against malaria.
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