- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2000

A deadly union of a cyclone and floods has killed hundreds of people in the African nation of Mozambique and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless. But their torment may just have begun. Health experts fear that when the waters begin to recede, they will uncover the swampy breeding grounds of mosquitoes and malaria that could soon plague local inhabitants. Worse, the U.S. government is pushing a treaty that would restrict chemicals without which countries like Mozambique would find it harder to defend themselves against the winged attackers.

In an awkward juxtaposition with the disaster in Mozambique, U.S. State Department officials and others head to Bonn next week for the latest round of talks on what they call "persistent organic pollutants" or POPs. These pollutants typically include pesticides and assorted industrial chemicals and by-products that sound like an environmental "most wanted" list: dioxins, PCBs and, most sinister of all, DDT. The Bonn talks are supposed to lead to a treaty that would reduce their use and, as a result, their alleged risk to human health and the environment. Recall that DDT, once used, was supposed to find its way into nature's bloodstream, poisoning man and animal and silencing spring itself.

The United States and other ostensibly enlightened nations have already locked up these criminal elements by banning their use, and, having patted themselves on the back for doing so, are now leaning on the Third World to do the same. As a recent notice in the Federal Register put it, "Since the U.S. and other developed countries have already taken actions on these chemicals, major goals are broad participation in the agreement by developing countries and, consequently, meaningful reductions in the amount of pollutants that are released into the environment."

The problem is that DDT is one of the most powerful weapons against malaria and its flying hosts known to man. The person who produced it, Dr. Paul Mueller, won a Nobel Prize in 1948 for his work on DDT, which replaced far more dangerous chemicals like arsenic and mercury then used in pest control. U.S. soldiers used DDT to protect themselves from everything from lice to typhus to malaria during World War II. Public health officials armed themselves with it in an eradication campaign that very nearly wiped malaria from the globe 35 years ago. Now, faced with what the British Medical Journal calls an expected "malaria epidemic," Mozambique may want to use DDT too. The country stopped using it decades ago under pressure from countries that donated most of its health budget. Already South Africa has begun using the chemical to control a malaria caseload that has exploded from 12,000 in 1995 to 50,000 last year.

The question for the State Department and Secretary Madeleine Albright is whether to continue to push for reduced use of DDT, consistent with its position at the upcoming POP talks, even if Mozambique considers "pollution" the least of its worries right now. Such a stance risks furthering the stereotype of the United States as an environmental imperialist willing to sacrifice Third World inhabitants for their own good. In his 1991 book, "The Malaria Capers," author Robert Desowitz cited the case of an official from the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) who treated malaria as a form of birth control that would reduce the number of surplus workers in developing countries. "He … said in effect, on behalf of AID, 'better dead than alive and riotously reproducing,' " the author reported.

The State Department hopes to sidestep such controversy by allowing limited exemptions for countries who don't have the luxury of abiding by U.S. environmental standards. Mozambique "presents a special case" for DDT use that a treaty would not forbid, says a State Department official who asked that her name not be used.

That news may come as a disappointment to mosquito lovers, but not to public health officials or to scientists. In 1997, a researcher writing in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, a publication of the Centers for Disease Control, said, "Today, DDT is still needed for malaria control. If the pressure to abandon this effective insecticide continues, unchanged or declining health budgets, combined with increasingly expensive insecticides and rising operational costs, will result in millions of additional malaria cases worldwide… . We are now facing the unprecedented event of eliminating, without meaningful debate, the most cost-effective chemical we have for the prevention of malaria. The health of hundreds of millions of persons in malaria-endemic countries should be given even greater consideration before proceeding further with the present course of action."

In fact the case against DDT has never been particularly strong. Even the man who ordered it banned, former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William Ruckelshaus, had previously acknowledged that "DDT has an amazing and exemplary record of safe use." Claims that it is a carcinogen are "unproven speculation," he said. An Environmental Protection Agency hearing examiner, who oversaw extensive debates over the chemical in the early 1970s, said flatly that it wasn't a "carcinogenic hazard to man" or, when used per the regulations, a threat to wildlife.

Fear, not science, ultimately led to the ban on DDT then. How ironic that despite the best efforts of environmentalists, both may bring it back now.


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