Pact on pollutants

Negotiators at a United Nations-sponsored meeting in Geneva have decided to eliminate eight toxic pesticides and chemicals. However, DDT remains a contentious issue

Published: Friday 15 October 1999

-- representatives from 115 nations signed a draft agreement to ban eight highly toxic pesticides and other chemicals, that are among the "dirty dozen" persistent organic pollutants ( pop s), which are compounds that accumulate in the food chain. However, there was no consensus on ddt ( dichloro diphenyl trichloroethane) , which is used for eradicating mosquitoes, that transmit malaria.

"The pact is a breakthrough in eliminating some of the worst pollutants of the 20th century," said Klaus Topfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme ( unep) . These proposals will now go to various governments for consultations before a fresh round of talks in March in 2000 in Bonn. T he treaty is expected to be signed in Stockholm in 2001.

The negotiators have agreed to eliminate pesticides like aldrin, endrin and toxaphene. Five other pesticides -- chlordane, dieldrin, heptachlor, mirex and hexachlorobenzene, an industrial by-product -- will be eliminated with limited, country-specific exemptions.

The negotiators also agreed to prohibit the use of ddt in all sectors except for malaria control. But they are yet to decide on a timetable for the elimination of ddt from the 24-odd countries that still use it.

The issue of ddt has divided environmentalists and public health specialists, because of its use against malaria. Around 1.1 million people die due to malaria every year. ddt , which poses health risks to wildlife, particularly birds, and has been found in the milk of nursing mothers, has been banned in many industrial countries.

However, the World Health Organisation says the negotiators must weigh ddt 's dangers against its benefits. The World Wide Fund for Nature has also said that its new study concluded that lower-risk pesticides could be equally effective against malaria.

"This is a welcome step because in many countries like India the use of ddt is widespread. There are alternatives to ddt which are not hazardous," says P K Singh, director, Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi. Agrees B P Sharma, emeritus scientist, Malaria Research Centre, New Delhi: "Alternatives to ddt and other insecticides are not always expensive. In India, we are already using alternatives to ddt including the biological control method for controlling malaria. But if a country does not have any alternative, both economically and technologically, it has to opt for ddt."

Says B S Parmar, head, department of agriculture and chemicals, Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, "The argument that the ddt ban will affect a poor nation's malaria eradication programme is an attitudinal problem. There are alternatives to ddt for controlling malaria and other diseases which are expensive. But when we take into account the degradation of the environment and the health hazard from ddt, we must look for the alternatives."

"The ban would end the deadly affect of these dirty chemicals on the ecology. This may also help in finding cheap alternatives," adds Sharma.

Environmentalists have now eased their demand for a firm date for banning ddt. In addition to ddt , negotiators failed to make progress on polychlorinated biphenyls (pcbs), which are industrial chemicals used in electric transformers and plastics and as paint additives.

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