- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Next week, the European Parliament will debate stringent regulation of a number of effective pesticides. It is apparently too much to expect a sense of shame from European public health officials and their activist “environmental” collaborators when the subject of chemical pesticides is raised.

What about some sense of history? Or compassion? Not likely, as the European Parliament votes next Tuesday on a proposal to tighten the already onerous restrictions on many common insecticides. If this regulation is passed, the consequences will be devastating - not in Europe, but in Africa and Asia.

Over the decades from World War II through the late 1960s, widespread use of the potent and safe insecticide DDT led to eradication of many insect-borne diseases in Europe and North America. But at the doorstep of global malaria control, DDT became the poster child for environmental degradation, thanks to Rachel Carson’s polemic, “Silent Spring.”

Based on no scientific evidence of human health effects, the newly established U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT, and its European counterparts followed suit. Subsequently, more than 1 million people died each year from malaria - but not in America or Europe. Rather, most of the victims were children and women in Africa and Asia.

Today, even while acknowledging that indoor spraying of small amounts of DDT would help prevent many deaths and millions of illnesses, nongovernmental organizations continue - with great success - to pressure African governments not to allow its use. In order to stave off such pressure and be allowed to sell their agricultural products in Europe, African public health officials cave, and their children die needlessly. Yet, rather than learning the tragic lesson of the DDT ban, the European Union leadership in concert with activists wants to extend this unscientific ban to other effective insecticides, including pyrethroids and organophosphates -further undercutting anti-malarial efforts.

The currently debated regulation would engender a paradigm shift in the regulation of chemicals, from a risk-based approach - based on real world exposures from agricultural applications - to a hazard-based standard, derived from laboratory tests and having little or no basis in reality as far as human health is concerned. Of course, this is fine with anti-chemical zealots in the activist camps. Their concern is bringing down chemical companies in the name of “the environment” - tough luck if African children have to be sacrificed to their agenda, as was the case with DDT (which is still banned in the EU and not under consideration in the current debate).

Further consequences involve discontinuation of currently used insecticides, leading to higher prices and decreased availability of these chemicals, which would worsen food shortages and increasing malnutrition. Moreover, farmers and marketers of agricultural products in the world’s poorest regions would withdraw from using restricted pesticides out of fear of discrimination against their exports in the EU, with similar consequences for farmers’ yields, income and local nutrition. Such bans would, in effect, become nontariff trade barriers against poor African farmers.

The banned insecticides will not be easily replaced - researchers in this area of chemistry will take note of the new, stringent standards and decide the potential return on their investment is not worth the effort of passing through the regulatory hurdles. Development of newer, more effective pesticides will come to a halt.

Most poignantly, the fight against malaria and other insect-borne tropical diseases would take another hit, with resulting illness, disability and death disproportionally affecting children under 5 and pregnant women.

And what, after all, is the “danger” of these chemicals being debated? In fact, there is no evidence to support the activists’ contention that insecticides pose a health threat to humans. Even DDT, one of the most studied chemicals of all time, has been conclusively shown to be safe for humans at all conceivable levels of exposure sufficient to control malaria and save millions of lives.

So these new restrictions would have no benefit, yet contribute to much suffering. Is it asking too much for someone in power in the European Union to care?

Gilbert Ross, M.D., is medical director of the American Council on Science and Health in New York City.

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