U.N. plan to ban DDT opposed by health professionals

Some still use pesticide to stop spread of malaria


WASHINGTON -- It has been 27 years since the United States banned the pesticide DDT, and the payoff is undeniable. The peregrine falcon, once pushed to the brink of extinction, came off the endangered species list this month, and the bald eagle might soon follow. Brown pelicans are flourishing in Florida. On the shores of Long Island, the ospreys are back.

The United Nations is drafting a treaty that might lead to a worldwide ban on DDT. But the international negotiations, set to resume in Geneva next month, are drawing opposition from an unlikely quarter: public health professionals, who say DDT is necessary to stop the spread of malaria, a disease that kills as many as 2.7 million people each year, mostly children in poor, undeveloped countries.

"A child dies of malaria every 12 seconds," said Dyann F. Wirth, a malaria expert at the Harvard School of Public Health and president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. "That could go up dramatically if we lose this important control tool."

Wirth is among more than 370 medical researchers in 57 countries who are urging that the treaty allow DDT to be sprayed in small quantities on the interior walls of homes, where it acts as a repellent to the disease-carrying insects. The scientists argue that if the pesticide, which is cheap and effective, must be eliminated, it should be phased out gradually and only if Western countries conduct research on the more expensive alternatives and help pay for them.

Some type of public health exception is likely, said Jim Willis, director of chemicals for the U.N. Environmental Program, which is sponsoring the talks. But the specifics are engendering intense acrimony between the public health experts and environmentalists and have created some friction in the federal government, as it tries to formulate its policy for the negotiations.

Most countries no longer use DDT for agricultural purposes (or do not admit to it if they do), but experts estimate that 23 nations still use it for malaria control. The biggest users are China and India. Mexico has pledged to stop spraying DDT by 2007. And the World Bank has lent India $200 million to help devise alternatives to DDT.

The DDT dilemma stems from a U.N. plan to eliminate, or greatly reduce, the use of 12 toxic chemicals classified as persistent organic pollutants. The group consists of eight pesticides, including DDT, as well as chemical byproducts and industrial chemicals.

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