The proposal to commit to a deadline on a worldwide ban on pesticide DDT by 2020 was rejected at the sixth Conference of the Parties (CoP) to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) in Geneva.
The proposal was strongly opposed by India, the largest producer of DDT. India is the only country still manufacturing the pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, better known at DDT. China ceased production of the chemical in 2007. Public sector firm Hindustan Insecticide Limited (HIL) is the only producer of DDT in India.
The 11th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Basel Convention (BC COP-11), the sixth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Rotterdam Convention (RC COP-6), the Stockholm Convention COP-6 and the second simultaneous extraordinary meetings of the three conferences of the Parties to the three conventions (ExCOPs-2) are being held back-to-back from April 28 to May 10.
The Stockholm Convention CoP-6 had aimed to establish a time frame for research into affordable alternatives to DDT, and to set 2020 as the deadline for the ban of the chemical. To this end, the convention wanted to establish a roadmap. “Regrettably, the proposal to the convention’s stakeholders to commit them to a deadline of 2020 for provision of alternatives to DDT made by the African Group could still not be accepted. This puts in question the commitment of the developed nations and WHO to stop the use and exposure of our people to already listed POPs like DDT,” said a disappointed African delegate who did not want to be named.
DDT was developed in the 1940s and was initially used with great effect to combat malaria, typhus, and the other insect-borne human diseases, and for insect control in crop and livestock production, institutions, homes, and gardens. However, the chemical’s quick success as a pesticide and broad use in the United States and other countries led to the development of resistance in many insect pest species.
In the book Silent Spring, author Rachel Carson attributed the overall rise in US cancer rates between 1940 and 1960 to the carcinogenic effects of DDT. She predicted that DDT and other pesticides would spark a cancer epidemic that would wipe out “practically 100 per cent” of the human population within a single generation. As Carson saw it, a race of super-insects, immune to the effects of pesticides, would infest the crops grown on American farms. Desperate farmers, she said, would respond to these infestations by using much greater quantities of DDT. In this way, Carson explained, the pesticide would eventually poison the entire food chain, killing off, in sequence, bugs, worms, birds, fish, and finally mankind.
DDT is now classified as a persistent organic pollutant (POP) as it accumulates in fatty tissues, and can travel long distances in the upper atmosphere. Because of such persistence, it undergoes bio-magnification (increase in concentration) as it moves higher up in the food chain, affecting plant, animal and human health.
The US Environment Protection Agency (EPA) banned nearly all domestic uses of DDT in 1972 after the publication of Silent Spring and broad public outcry over DDT's impacts on wildlife and people. It is, however, still being used to fight malaria in the developing world.
Search for safer alternatives
The Stockholm Convention came into force in 2004 and included a limitation on the use of DDT to special cases for controlling mosquitoes spreading malaria – as long as no effective alternatives exist. The non-committal resolution presented in Geneva is aimed at a process that eventually results in the implementation of safe alternatives to DDT for vector control, and its worldwide ban. The resolution largely draws on a discussion paper agreed on by representatives from governments, international organisations, civil society and business at a roundtable event organised by Biovision Foundation in March in preparation for CoP-6. The paper sets a clear deadline for the process to be completed by 2020 and was submitted to the Convention largely unchanged by the 54 members of the UN’s African Group, with even South Africa, a longstanding opponent of a total ban on DDT, supporting it. This was the first time that African countries joined forces to take a decisive stand against DDT at an international level.
However, CoP-6 has failed to set a deadline for worldwide ban on DDT owing to the stiff opposition from India, where it is still used for disease vector control.
Environmentalists claim that WHO has been recommending the use of DDT for indoor residual spraying since 2006, in spite of the fact that such a practice affects human health and environment, and is building the resistance of mosquitoes to DDT. “In addition, DDT is practically only being sprayed in the houses of the poor. But the risk of improper use of DDT is high and can have serious consequences for the agricultural sector. Alternatives to DDT are already being used in Kenya, Mexico and Vietnam,” said David Fritz of Zurich-based non-profit Biovision Foundation.
The conference of parties concluded that in certain settings, there is a continued need for DDT for disease vector control in accordance with WHO recommendations and guidelines on the use of DDT, until locally appropriate and cost effective alternatives are deployed for a sustainable transition away from DDT. Increased capacity is needed for sound management of DDT, including obsolete stocks, in accordance with international guidelines.