Life-saving chemical escapes United Nations ban

Published April 1, 2001

An international coalition of public health and advocacy groups applauded the United Nations’ recent vote against erecting a global ban on the pesticide DDT.

“This decision is a great victory for public health,” said Dr. Don Roberts, a tropical disease expert and spokesman for the Save Children from Malaria Campaign. “It will help blunt the devastating re-emergence of killer diseases like malaria and should save the lives of millions of people in the next decade alone.”

The decision was made at the recently concluded United Nations convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), held the first week in December in Johannesburg, South Africa. The meeting was the fifth and final POPs negotiating session and was attended by some 600 participants. The treaty will be formally adopted and signed by ministers and other plenipotentiaries at a Diplomatic Conference in Stockholm on May 22-23, 2001. Governments must then ratify the document, and when 50 have done so the treaty will enter into force; this process normally takes several years.

Many of the delegates and observers to the convention arrived with the goal of enacting a global ban on 12 organic chemicals, most notably DDT, which is still used in limited amounts to control malaria and other vector-borne diseases in 23 countries in Africa, Asia, and South America. The 12 targeted POPs include eight pesticides (aldrin, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, mirex, and toxaphene), two industrial chemicals (PCBs and hexachlorobenzene, which is also a pesticide), and two unwanted byproducts of combustion and industrial processes (dioxins and furans).

Delegates to the POPs meeting added DDT to a list of restricted-use chemicals, but voted against an immediate worldwide ban.

According to the World Health Organization, which opposes a DDT ban, malaria affects some 500 million people each year and kills up to 2.5 million annually, mostly women and children, amounting to the death of one child every 30 seconds.

“The use of small amounts of DDT means the difference between life and death for thousands of people in the developing world every day,” said Richard Tren, chairman of Africa Fighting Malaria, a public health nongovernment organization based in Johannesburg and one of five member organizations in the Save Children from Malaria Campaign.

“DDT’s targeted, small-scale use in fighting diseases such as malaria is essential until effective and affordable alternatives are found. At the moment DDT is far more effective than many of the more expensive alternatives,” Tren added.

Fortunately, there are alternatives to most POPs. The problem is that high costs, a lack of public awareness, and the absence of appropriate infrastructure and technology often prevent their adoption. Solutions must be tailored to the specific properties and uses of each chemical, as well as to each country’s climatic and socioeconomic conditions.

“Malaria’s human toll is especially high in the poorest areas of the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa, where alternative means of prevention are often inaccessible and too expensive to use on a large scale,” said Dr. Roger Bate, chairman of the Save Children from Malaria Campaign.

Dr. D.R. Roberts and associates wrote in the July 22, 2000 issue of the British medical journal, The Lancet, “Spraying of DDT in houses and on mosquito breeding grounds was the primary reason that rates of malaria around the world declined dramatically after the Second World War. Nearly one million Indians died from malaria in 1945, but DDT spraying reduced this to a few thousand by 1960. However, concerns about the environmental harm of DDT led to a decline in spraying, and likewise, a resurgence of malaria.”

Today, India again reports millions of cases of malaria every year; there are over 300 million cases reported worldwide, most in sub-Saharan Africa. Roberts said the reported number of malaria cases in South Africa has risen by over 1,000 percent in the past five years. Only countries that have continued to use DDT, such as Ecuador, have contained or reduced malaria.

Noted Bate, “Problems will arise from the restrictions the POPs treaty will erect for DDT use, but of far greater importance is that countries can continue to use DDT without fear of reprisals from western governments–at least official reprisals.”

“For developed nations, and their aid agencies and environmental groups, to pressure countries to abandon DDT for public health uses will kill thousands of people and cost millions,” said Bate. “It’s a mistake that does not need to be made.”

Frances B. Smith, executive director of Consumer Alert, told Environment & Climate News, “The DDT and malaria issue puts a human face on how government proposals to address a risk–in DDT’s case, the risk to wildlife from widespread agriculture use–can themselves lead to greater human risks: the tragic deaths of millions of people, mainly children, in developing countries. DDT, as used for local, indoor mosquito control, poses little, if any, risk to human health or the environment, yet it is one of the most affordable and highly effective tools in the war against malaria.”

For more information . . .

The history of malaria control, and the vital role played by DDT in the developing world, is told in a new study by Richard Tren and Roger Bate, When Politics Kills: Malaria and the DDT Story. It is available online at

For additional information, contact Richard Morrison, director of media relations for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, at [email protected], or by phone at 202/331-1010, ext. 266.