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Debate: Should the developing world use DDT?

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Should the developing world use DDT?

Background and context

DDT stands for dichloro-diphenyl-trichloro-ethane, an insecticide. Its inventor, Dr Paul Muller, won the Nobel Prize for it in 1948. DDT was first used in disease control in 1944, among typhus-ridden soldiers released from prison camps. In subsequent years DDT has been successful in reducing mosquito populations – and thus malaria rates – but is banned in many countries because of its allegedly dangerous side-effects. An exemption was granted at the 2000 United Nations Environment Programme meeting in Johannesburg for use in malaria control. However, bans in the West have led to decreased production and opposition to DDT's use in the developing world. Many nations that receive funding for their public health budget are given money by organisations which insist that DDT is not used, such as the Norwegian Development Agency, the Swedish International Development Agency, the Swedish Aid Agency, and USAID.

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Argument #1

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Yes

Indoor Residual Spraying (IRS) is a method of application in which DDT is used on inside walls where the female Anopheles mosquito rests. The IRS use of DDT was so successful that in the post-war years malaria was eradicated in Europe and the USA, and the burden of the disease was reduced in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The benefits of this can hardly be exaggerated. The mosquito-borne malaria parasite kills over 2 million people annually. Africa, where 90 percent of those fatalities occur, bears most of the human and economic costs of the disease. The effective ban on DDT has increased the mosquito population and made both mosquito control and malaria treatment more difficult. DDT works: Europe and North America have not harboured malarial mosquitoes since the 1940s. In one of the most miraculous public health developments in history, Greece saw malaria cases drop from 1-2 million cases a year to close to zero, also thanks to DDT. Meanwhile, in India, malaria deaths went from nearly a million in 1945 to only a few thousand in 1960. In what is now Sri Lanka, malaria cases went from 2,800,000 in 1948, before the introduction of DDT, down to 17 in 1964 — then, tragically, back up to 2,500,000 by 1969, five years after DDT use was discontinued there. In South Africa, for example, malaria cases increased by 1000% in the late 90s alone (but dropped 80% in 2000 alone in KwaZulu Natal, the one province that made extensive use of DDT). Some 300 million people a year are debilitated by malaria, at immense cost to both human health and the economies of poor nations. Most of those who die are children under the age of five. In some parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, one in 10 infant deaths, and one in four deaths of children under four years are attributed to malaria. Survivors often suffer from impaired cognitive development and face a blighted future.

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No

DDT is banned because it is a poison that can kill any living creature, including humans, and can cause sterility. It does great, potentially irreparable damage to the environment. For this reason, the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, Physicians for Social Responsibility and 250 other environmental groups advocated a ban in 2000. Therefore, whilst it’s true that DDT is a useful tool in fighting malaria, its side-effects are simply too bad: there’s too much cost and not enough benefit. That doesn’t mean that the opposition is callous to the suffering of victims of malaria – they should receive the best possible treatment, and alternatives to DDT should intensively be sought. But DDT should not be used.

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Argument #2

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Yes

DDT wouldn’t be used forever. There are many things that can be used against malaria: medicines, draining stagnant water, screens on windows, bug repellent, bednets treated with insecticides, and hopefully, an eventual vaccination against the disease. But in the short term, DDT is by far the most effective way of limiting and reversing the plight of malaria sufferers.

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No

DDT is tremendously damaging even if used only for a short time. It kills insects other than mosquitoes. Not only the target insect is killed, but other wildlife too. The target insects easily develop resistance. Then the target insect returns to the treated area and has no predators to keep it in check; the problem becomes worse than before. It thus greatly interferes with the food chain and the ecosystem. Even if only used for a month, DDT’s damaging effects could be permanent. Investigations are still ongoing into the pollution done by DDT drives in the 1950s.

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Argument #3

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Yes

DDT’s obvious benefits are deliberately being overlooked by the West because it offers medical companies the opportunity to market much more expensive medical solutions to nations that desperately need to combat malaria. The Ugandan government explicitly states this.

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No

This is the same kind of paranoid nonsense that sees conspiracy theories suggesting AIDS was caused in the West to harm Africans. DDT is opposed because it’s very bad for people and the planet. Medical solutions are supported because they’re good for people and don’t harm the planet.

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Argument #4

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Yes

It’s true that other solutions exist – but the nations concerned can’t afford them. And, of course, malaria is one of the main reasons that they are so poor. It is hypocritical of the West to impose its political and environmental views on developing countries, especially when many western countries have benefited hugely from the use of DDT in the past.

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No

The cost of alternative medicines is not that high and is falling all the time. Moreover, an important principle is being defended here – the environment must be protected from overwhelming damage even when it’s in man’s interests to harm it. Nor should western governments and charities fund the use of poisons that would be banned in their home countries - to do so would be hypocritical and unethical.

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Argument #5

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Yes

The opposition to DDT is based on an anti-chemical sentiment that is fashionable but totally without scientific basis. Rachel Carson evocatively titled ‘Silent Spring’ suggested that first birds and then mankind would perish if DDT use continued, predicting a ‘100% cancer rate.’ Her figures were based on a 1961 epidemic of liver cancer in middle-aged rainbow trout that was later attributed to aflatoxin, nothing to do with DDT. Anti-DDT activism led to legal hearings in 1971-72. After 7 months and 9,000 pages of testimony, the judge concluded “DDT is not a carcinogenic hazard to man.. DDT is not a mutagenic or teratogenic hazard to man... The use of DDT under the regulations involved here do not have a deleterious effect on freshwater fish, estuarine organisms, wild birds or other wildlife.”

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No

For every source that debunks Carson, there’s one that supports her – see the organisations listed at point 1. It’s true that things are not clear-cut, and that some evidence now supports the position that DDT is less harmful than previously believed. But where there is doubt, the status quo, non-polluting position should be taken. History is littered with the damage done when this rule has not been obeyed.

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Argument #6

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Yes

Todd Seavey of the American Council on Health and Science noted: "No DDT-related human fatalities or chronic illnesses have ever been recorded, even among the DDT-soaked workers in anti-malarial programs or among prisoners who were fed DDT as volunteer test subjects -- let alone among the 600 million to 1 billion who lived in repeatedly-sprayed dwellings at the height of the substance's use." Even if there is harm done to man, which there is not, would one rather have traces of DDT in one’s body, or be dead from malaria?

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No

Whilst no human fatalities have been recorded (which doesn’t mean they haven’t occurred), the effects of DDT may be tremendously harmful to man. Chemical pollutants may build up within biological material – in human beings, in food and water sources. This "bioaccumulation" means that as organisms interlinked in food chains and food webs nourish and reproduce themselves, pollutants may become magnified in potency from one generation to another, making those who were not there when the pollutant was introduced suffer the effects more. DDT is particularly bad because it is not biodegradable: it takes 3-15 years to degrade.

See also

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