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WHO flip-flops on DDT

May 26, 2009


In 1958, The National Malaria Eradication Program used an entirely new approach implementing DDT for spraying of mosquitoes. Courtesy of the CDC.

In 1958, The National Malaria Eradication Program used an entirely new approach implementing DDT for spraying of mosquitoes. Courtesy of the CDC.

Once a formidable weapon in the battle to eradicate malaria, DDT has been the bane of environmentalists since the 1960s, when Rachel Carson outlined its nasty side effects in her book Silent Spring. The insecticide is so toxic, it has been banned in most developed countries and restricted in many more. Even the World Health Organization turned away from DDT in the 1980s. Yet in 2006, the organization reversed its stance and began promoting the chemical again.

Now, however, the short-lived love affair is apparently over. Just days after a panel of epidemiologists, environmental scientists, physicians and other experts published a consensus statement emphasizing the potential hazards of DDT exposure in Environmental Health Perspectives, WHO backed down. WHO officials said they hope to cut the organization’s reliance on DDT over the course of the next decade or so, with a complete phase out by the early 2020s or sooner.

“WHO faces a double challenge – a commitment to the goal of drastically and sustainably reducing the burden of vector-borne diseases, in particular malaria, and at the same time a commitment to the goal of reducing reliance on DDT in disease vector control”, said Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General.

Why the change of heart? An editorial in the Wall Street Journal says WHO officials caved to the anti-insecticide lobby. But I don’t think it’s quite so simple. DDT has been linked to developmental problems, miscarriage, low sperm counts, and the EPA classifies it as a probable carcinogen. Yes, DDT does a good job of killing malaria-carrying mosquitoes. But should an organization dedicated to world health promote a chemical that has the potential to make people sick? Isn’t it time to find safer, more-effective ways to control malaria?

On May 6, WHO along with the United Nations Environment Programme announced that they would be looking for alternatives to DDT via 10 projects aimed at testing the effectiveness of non-chemical methods of mosquito control. According to the press release

The new projects follow a successful demonstration of alternatives to DDT in Mexico and Central America. Here pesticide-free techniques and management regimes have helped cut cases of malaria by over 60 per cent.

The success of the five year-long pilot indicates that sustainable alternatives to Dichloro-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane (DDT) are emerging as cost effective solutions that may be applicable regionally and globally.

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