The New Year always encourages us to look ahead to the (hopefully brighter) future, but sometimes moving ahead means reconciling with the past. The lingering presence of DDT, and its continued effects on the health of the environment and, really, most of us, is one stark reminder of how harmful practices of the recent past continue to threaten lives in the present.
DDT is an organochorine pesticide that was heavily used during and after WWII to control malaria, body lice, typhus, and the bubonic plague (!). In 1972, it was banned in the U.S. by the Environmental Protection Agency after more than a decade of mounting evidence about its damaging effects on human health and the environment. Although the Stockholm Convention on POPs (Persistent Organochloride Pollutants) banned the use of DDT worldwide (except for malaria control) in 2001, 5 years later the WHO declared its support for the indoor use of DDT against malaria in African countries where malaria remained a major health problem.
Do the benefits of using DDT to control malaria and other deadly mosquito-borne diseases outweigh the risks? The answer may depend on your perspective: how likely are you to die from malaria? Are the global health risks from exposure to DDT and its by-products a more insidious problem, in the long run, than the global incidence of death by malaria in the short-term?
From the mid-1990s until around 2009, I traveled once or twice a year to India, doing research for my PhD dissertation, and later, to spend summers visiting friends and adopted family and to enjoy being in the only other place in this world that felt like home. I thought often about whether the DDT that airline staff sprayed in the plane just before we landed in New Delhi was overkill, or if it would cause irreparable damage to my health at some future date.
During the course of those travels, I was exposed to many different health risks, including a 6-month stint in Bihar, one of the high-risk areas of India. There were days I had to shoo away swarms of mosquitos before getting in the shower, and other days I tried not to think about the stories I heard of people who had contracted deadly forms of the disease that attacked the brain and killed within days. I never once thought about staying away (and with the exception of my first visit to the country, when I took Lariam and found that it made my hair fall out, I never took any prophylactics to prevent infection). I just did my best to keep from being bitten in the first place, using locally made essential oils that other travelers and local residents swore by. And yet, I worried more about the DDT they sprayed in the planes.
In life, when we have the option to choose which risks to take, we often take those risks without much forethought. But what if your choices are limited, or non-existent?
While the incidence of deaths from malaria has decreased worldwide, India still bears a disproportionate share of the global burden of deaths from this disease. In 2015 there were over 200 million new cases of malaria in the country, with over 400,000 registered deaths. Most of these cases occur in the rural areas. Today, India and sub-Saharan African countries account for over 80% of all malaria cases, globally. If you have seen people around you die from malaria and other mosquito-borne, preventable diseases, taking your chances with DDT may seem like a better option.
And yet, there are long-term effects that are just as deleterious as death by malaria. DDT, which has a half-life of up to 15 years, and its by-product DDE, is stored in the blood, semen, bones, brains, fat tissue and fatty organs, and other organs of the body. DDT also migrates by air around the world. It also remains present in soil, in livestock, and in marine animals and the food that they consume, such as algae. It has been linked to the development of breast cancer, Alzheimers, infertility, sperm abnormalities, impairment of neurodevelopment in children, and even obesity. These health risks are acknowledged by global and regional regulatory bodies and health advocacy associations, and yet the paradox of DDT use (i.e. it helps save lives in the short term, but it destroys human and environmental health in the long term) remains an acute problem that has not yet been adequately addressed.
While few would argue that reducing the incidence of infection and death from malaria and other deadly mosquito-borne diseases is unimportant, there are some areas of intervention that could be more seriously pursued, including the following:
1. Improving usage protocols by reducing the amount of application in vulnerable households. This would also include reducing the exposure of individuals (especially young children) to DDT and its by-products.
2. Changing the formulation of DDT, so that the composition of active ingredients (namely, the o,p′-DDT component) is altered in a way that reduces exposure to DDT and minimizes or lessens the health risks from these active ingredients (ditto for the other components that go into DDT spray mixtures).
3. Increasing research into alternative, less toxic forms of pest control with a view to developing applications for widespread use. It is no secret that the manufacture and sale of DDT is not value-neutral; it is a big money maker for chemical companies, which have little incentive to develop less costly methods of prophylaxis.
4. Promoting integrated approaches that take into account lifestyle factors (which factors, for instance, lead to increased exposure to malarial risks), and that work with communities to increase awareness, improve education about prevention and treatment methods, and to develop long-term solutions using a variety of (chemical and non-chemical) approaches to reduce risk and eliminate deaths from malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases.
Unfortunately, a majority of the world’s population has already been exposed to DDT and its by-products, and this exposure likely contributes to, or exacerbates, a variety of health-related illnesses and ailments. Despite this fact, there are a number of things you can do to help remedy the problem:
Educate Yourself. The Little Guidebook for Green Moms and Dads contains information about the health risks from DDT and other chemicals, including those in products you use every day. You can also download the toxic chemicals cheat sheet from Green and Prosperous’ free resource library. Use it to familiarize yourself with the most common harmful chemicals and know what to avoid.
Adopt lifestyle changes that will help strengthen your body’s own immune defense system and ability to defend itself against environmental toxins. One thing you can do is make a few dietary changes: chose lean meats and trim their fat, limit your consumption of dairy fat, and select fish wisely (download the fish buying guide from our free resource library)
Urge your local government to commit to fully cleaning up contamination sites (DDT accumulates in soil) to and phasing out DDT and other persistent toxic chemicals such as PBDEs (Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, used as flame retardants) and perfluorinated compounds.
Support the work of groups like the Pesticide Action Network to advocate for better, community-driven solutions to combatting malaria.
Finally, you can
Donate to groups like the World Wildlife Federation, which are working to develop new protocols for controlling malaria and other vector-borne diseases, and to educate the public and policymakers about the dangers of DDT.
While it is disingenuous for those of us who do not face the risks of malaria on a daily basis to unilaterally condemn the use of DDT in India and sub-Saharan Africa, it is crucial that we lend our voices – and minds – to those working to find better, affordable, and sensible solutions to global problems like these. The health of the environment, which ultimately affects us all, depends on it.
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