DDT Spraying as Uganda and Tanzania Lift Bans
(Beyond Pesticides, July 6, 2006) As malaria spreads in Sub-Saharan Africa, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has endorsed the indoor spraying of DDT to battle the spread of the disease. The decision has created a firestorm of controversy between Ugandans, foreign non-profits operating there, and experts on both sides of the issue. Proponents of lifting the ban have argued that the move was necessary because malaria has “killed more than one million people each and every year since environmental activists effectively banned DDT in favor of ineffective tools such as bed nets.” Public health and environmental advocates have long urged greater and urgent worldwide attention to the conditions (including impoverished living conditions) that contribute to mosquito breeding in order to avoid the serious long-term health effects of DDT, including cancer, on the human population.
DDT and its metabolites have been identified as endocrine disruptors. Because of this Beyond Pesticides has said dose in all cases makes the poison, because DDT acts as an estrogen mimic and wreaks havoc on biological systems, with adverse health effects showing up later in an individual’s development.
When news of Uganda’s change in policy was released, neighboring Tanzania’s health minister announced at a disease control conference that Tanzania would immediately lift its DDT ban as well. Nearby Mozambique, which has long ignored neighboring South Africa’s pleas that it use DDT, will begin using U.S.-supplied DDT this year. South Africa, which began using DDT earlier this decade, has reported a reduction in its annual malaria death toll from 458 in 2000 to 89 in 2006. Development efforts aimed at mosquito breedng areas have also shown effective control.
USAID will begin funding a campaign to "selectively apply DDT in the most malaria-ravaged regions of Africa". According to The Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank, of the US $99 million USAID has allocated to international malaria control this year, $20 million will be spent on DDT and similar chemical pesticides. “Between 1 million and 1.5 million people will be protected,” Richard Green, director of USAID’s Office of Health, Infectious Diseases, and Nutrition told the conservative Washington Times newspaper in a May interview. “Indoor residual spraying simply doesn’t harm people or the environment,” said Paul Driessen, senior fellow at the Congress on Racial Equality, interviewed by The Heartland Institute. According to Mr. Driessen, “trained specialists apply small amounts of DDT, under carefully controlled programs that safeguard the supplies, transportation, and use of the insecticide. Only the walls and eaves of houses are sprayed, once or twice a year. The chemical is not sprayed outdoors. So the chance of any DDT getting onto crops of flowers is almost zero.”
Mr. Driessen did not address the many instances in which denizens of Lesser Developed Countries (LDC’s) such as Uganda, Tanzania and Mozambique are unnecessarily poisoned by toxic chemicals such as DDT due to lack of proper equipment, unsound management, infrastructure and transportation systems, lack of proper training, and lack of monitoring, regulatory enforcement or political will. Lifting the ban on DDT is likely to increase the number of such poisonings, which often go unreported due to lack of reporting mechanisms, or are officially ignored. Proponents of lifting the DDT ban have been unwilling to look at alternatives to addressing the spread of malaria that do not include using chemicals that are as capable of eradicating people as mosquitoes. LDC’s have found themselves, due to lack of resources and pressure from Western economic interests, having to choose between killing pests, or killing their own citizens. “We have been forced to reconsider the use of the DDT (sic) to try to save the lives of our people,” Tanzania Health Minister David Mwakusa explained.
Proponents of lifting the ban on DDT in these African nations have managed to spin this political and economic power disparity between LDC’s and wealthy interests in the West to make the lifting of DDT bans on the African continent appear to be a step toward African self empowerment, rather than a potential disaster in the making. “The amount of economic pressure the Europeans have applied to African nations to refrain from using DDT has been huge,” said Alex Avery, director of research and education at the Center for Global Food Issues. “It has taken significant political courage for the African countries to ignore the European Union’s threats to ban the import of fruits, vegetables, and flowers out of unsubstantiated fears of trace levels of DDT.” The amount of pressure that is applied to encourage the purchase and use of DDT from U.S. manufacturers, in addition to whether these LDC's truly have the power to make substantive choices in the decision making processes that begin and end in Western board rooms, or have the resources to substantially address the range of potential harms to their people or the environment that may result from their use of DDT often goes un-discussed.
In addition to harm to people, including children and the elderly, there are also concerns about wildlife exposure to this dangerous toxin banned by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. Uganda’s Indoor Residual Spraying (IRS) program for DDT was launched at the Maziba Primary School Playground- in spite of promises that the spraying would only take place indoors. In an editorial to the New Vision online news provider , Ugandan Opiyo Oloya echoed concerns raised by respected scientists of tropical public health who have shown that environmental exposure to DDT causes birds to lay eggs with transparent membranes instead of hard shells. The species most severely affected by this phenomenon were raptors such as the Peregrine Falcon, the Bald Eagle, Osprey, and fish-eaters such as pelicans and herons, all of which underwent simultaneous population declines at the height of DDT use from the 1950’s to the early 1970’s.
Mr. Oloya argues that DDT is easy to manufacture in the U.S. and sell to LDC's, cheap and effective against most insects, including the anopheles mosquito, which carries the deadly malarial parasites that kill millions every year, and that DDT’s widespread use in North America in the 1950’s and 1960’s is credited with eradicating malaria-carrying mosquitoes altogether. There is no dispute that research shows that wherever DDT is used, there is a tangible decline in malaria-related deaths. However the problem, according to Mr. Oloya, is that the dramatic effectiveness of DDT in North America came about precisely because of its large scale use, including aerial spraying in order to eliminate pests in their own breeding grounds such as swamps and stagnant water, which led to devastating harms to people and the environment. Uganda's program of “limited” indoor usage of DDT is therefore not likely to be as effective as its proponents argue and will likely have to be increased and expanded to include the outdoors, potentially leading to a situation eerily similar to the one that urged Rachel Carson to write her famous novel, Silent Spring.
According to Mr. Oloya, “Uganda must continue to look for alternatives to eradicating mosquitoes without harming the environment. At the same time, it must strengthen laws on outdoor spraying of DDT.” In order to truly resolve such conflicts, Uganda and other LDC’s must also address the challenge of how to take care of their citizens and environment while remaining caught in a web that makes them political and economic pawns of Western interests.