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If you’ve been reading this blog for a bit, you know I read the New York Times. I do that because I live in a major city (San Francisco) that has one of the poorest excuses for a major newspaper — The San Francisco Chronicle — you can imagine. (When we used read it, we called it the SF Comical.)
So, I was reading along a week or so ago, and I find an article entitled “As an Insecticide Makes a Comeback, Uganda Must Weight Its Costs.” I had to read 5 paragraphs into the story to learn that the insecticide referred to in the headline was DDT. I was appalled, for many reasons.
DDT: A Long, Bad History
One reason for my strong reaction is that I have a long memory. I remember Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring,” which warned so compellingly of the dangers of DDT for all living things. That book lead to banning of the use of the insecticide in the U.S. 10 years later.
Another reason is that DDT has been linked to breast cancer. First, by women with breast cancer who remember the times in summer they spent running after the trucks spreading the cool mist of DDT as it was being sprayed to kill mosquitoes when they were children. And later by the important work of Barbara Cohn, an epidemiologist whose work established the risk of early exposure to DDT for later the development of breast cancer.
One more reason – as if I need one – is that DDT has been associated with neurological disorders in those exposed to it. I now have a major neurological disorder after having had breast cancer in my early ΄40’s, so I’m sensitive to the consequences of the things to which we’re exposed that may increase the risk of all sorts of awful diseases.
The Re-emergence of DDT
It’s not unusual that when something we’re doing in the U.S. proves not to be so good for us, someone figures out how to send to some unsuspecting (or relatively powerless) country overseas so their people can have the consequences. This happened with our old, high-radiation-producing mammogram machines, and it’s happening now with rBGH, the hormone given to cows to make them produce more milk. So, we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s happened with DDT, too.
The ostensible reason for the re-introduction of DDT, mostly in Africa, is to control malaria, a disease that kills more than one million people, including, including 20% of African children under 5 years of age. It’s an awful disease, and it’s spread by mosquitoes. DDT is used to kill mosquitoes.
There are Other Options Besides DDT
There is no dispute that there is a need to control malaria, and to do so by controlling the mosquitoes that spread them. But that doesn’t mean that insecticides like DDT are the answer. Over many years, many other approaches have been tried, and all have had some success. They include: draining wetlands, improving sanitation, indoor residual spraying (with things other than DDT), and mosquito nets (impregnated with insecticide or not).
So why do we resort to a toxic like DDT? For one thing, the World Health Organization began supporting it use against malaria in 2006. After all, DDT was effective for a time in killing mosquitoes. But it also has the additional consequence of making people sick, sometimes in the short term, and sometimes in the longer run.
As is always the case with insects exposed to insecticides, mosquitoes have now become resistant to DDT. In the long run, the insects get stronger, and pouring more poisons on them won’t help.
The May 23 story in the New York Times that captured my interest wasn’t about the health effects of DDT. It was about how the spraying of the insecticide had wiped out the growing organic farming movement in Uganda.
On the same day, the business section of the New York Times, ran an article about how strong sales of organic foods were attracting investors. So, as the market for organic food grows, its farming is being wiped out in Uganda.
Organic farming had been an effective economic development strategy for Uganda, encouraged and supported by the US. But the US also supported spraying DDT, which made the produce from the affected farms no longer organic.
What’s Good for the Goose . . .
In the United States, we know the dangers of DDT. That’s why we ban the stuff. But we don’t seem to mind if other places use it – we even encourage them to do so. And Uganda isn’t the only country where DDT is being used. As of 2008, there were a dozen countries – including India and countries in Southern Africa – using DDT, and the number has almost certainly risen with the support of the U.S. and the World Health Organization.
US policy is at cross-purposes, and certainly not for the first time. But if we don’t want DDT sprayed on us, why do we allow it to be sprayed on people in Africa?
Inquiring minds want to know.
© Barbara A. Brenner 2011