Debating the dilemma of a global DDT ban


Here is an excerpt of an editorial from the San Francisco Chronicle, which was published Tuesday.

IN A classic clash of good intentions, environmentalists and public health officials are facing off in a passionate debate over whether the pesticide DDT should be banned worldwide.

Environmentalists argue that DDT should be outlawed as a dangerous, long-lasting poison that is harmful to humans, lingers in the soil, accumulates in the food chain and disperses widely through water, air and in the flesh of fish and migrating birds.

While it is an extremely effective insecticide, DDT is so stubbornly toxic, especially to birds, that in 1972 it was banned in the United States.

To fight malaria

Most other countries no longer use it for agriculture, but about two dozen -- including China, India and Mexico -- continue to spray DDT to control malaria.

On the other side, many health officials say malaria, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, is on the upswing, at least partly due to a decrease in the use of DDT.

The World Health Organization estimates that 300 million to 500 million new cases of malaria are contracted every year. About 2.7 million malaria victims die annually, 90 percent of them pregnant women and children in poor, undeveloped countries.

"A child dies of malaria every 12 seconds," says Dr. Dyann F. Wirth, president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

"That could go up dramatically if we lose this important control tool."

Dr. Wirth and 370 scientists and physicians from 57 countries urged the United Nations not to ban DDT before an alternative is found.

"The relevant question is not whether DDT can pose health risks [it can], but whether these risks outweigh the tremendous public health benefits of DDT for malaria control [they do not]," they said in a letter to diplomats who will meet in Geneva next week to negotiate a treaty on 12 toxic pesticides and chemicals known as "the dirty dozen."

Helping poor countries

DDT is the most controversial of the chemicals to be discussed. The scientists and doctors suggest a two-phase process that would guarantee poor countries the financial and technical help to obtain alternatives, and to phase out DDT only after the new mosquito-killing methods have been established for the long term.

U.N. negotiators must resolve this agonizing dilemma in favor of human health, but they should seek creative methods that eventually do away with DDT once and for all.

Pub Date: 9/02/99

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