I read a disturbing report recently that the long-banned pesticide, DDT, was being used in Mozambique

I read a disturbing report recently that the long-banned pesticide, DDT, was being used in Mozambique to combat malaria. Malaria is a killer, but isn’t a return to DDT even scarier?

—Graeme Campbell, South Africa

Much of the developed world banned the use of DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) within about 10 years of the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s book, “Silent Spring.” Carson’s book, which is credited by many as having spurred the creation of the modern environmental movement, documented the ecosystem damage caused by DDT crop spraying throughout the United States and linked the pesticide’s use to the disappearance of songbirds and raptors.

Health officials at the time also linked DDT exposure to nerve damage in humans, and blamed DDT for causing cancer in people who had applied it recklessly. Today, because of widespread indiscriminate use up through the 1960s, most people have traces of DDT in their bodies. DDT has since become increasingly associated with childhood developmental problems, according to the organization, Beyond Pesticides (BP).

Today, two dozen countries—including Mozambique and nine other African nations—permit the use of small amounts of DDT for controlling specific insect-borne diseases, including malaria. Malaria kills one million people, including 800,000 African children, every year. Dr. Arata Kochi, leader of the World Health Organization’s (WHO”s) global malaria program, strongly advocates using DDT to fight malaria, claiming that it poses little or no health risk when sprayed in small amounts on the inner walls of people’s homes.

“Indoor residual spraying is useful to quickly reduce the number of infections caused by malaria-carrying mosquitoes and presents no health risk when used properly,” agrees Anarfi Asamoa-Baah, WHO’s assistant director-general for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Asamoa-Baah insists that DDT’s public health benefits far outweigh its risks.

Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, disagrees and advocates for techniques that do not rely on pesticides like DDT. “The international community has a social responsibility to reject the use of this chemical and to practice sound and safe pest management practices,” he says. Feldman cites a recent study showing South African women living in DDT-treated dwellings to have 77 times the internationally accepted limit of the chemical in their breast milk. Researchers postulate that large amounts of DDT may have contaminated drinking water, exposing entire villages. “This highlights why no society can be unconcerned with DDT’s impact” on health and the worldwide ecosystem, Feldman says.

Feldman is calling for alternative strategies for disease control, including addressing the conditions of poverty that lead to mosquito breeding. We should “no longer treat poverty and development with poisonous band-aids, but join together to address the root causes of insect-borne disease, because the chemical-dependent alternatives are ultimately deadly for everyone,” says Feldman.

CONTACTS: Beyond Pesticides, www.beyondpesticides.org; World Health Organization Malaria Information, www.who.int/topics/malaria/en.