Some 80 delegates from governments, industry, research institutions and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) today kicked off a three-day United Nations-backed meeting in Geneva focusing on cost effective and environmentally-friendly alternatives to DDT, a controversial chemical used to control malaria.
DDT is one of 12 substances controlled under the Stockholm Convention, which is designed to control and eliminate persistent organic pollutants (POPs).
While the chemical can be effective at controlling the mosquitoes that carry the deadly malarial parasite, there is concern that DDT and its break-down products can have a damaging effect on human health.
Countries are permitted under the Stockholm Convention to obtain exemptions allowing them to use DDT to treat the inside walls of houses to kill the mosquitoes that carry the malaria parasite to humans.
The UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which hosts the Convention’s secretariat, advocates safer alternatives to DDT which would also give Governments greater choice.
“We are trapped in something of a chicken and egg situation,” said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner. “DDT works and so countries seek, quite understandably, exemptions to continue its use in order to save lives even though the wider impacts may be deleterious. Yet this also gives few incentives to Governments and industry to develop and introduce more environmentally-friendly alternatives.”
“What we need is scientifically robust and economically defensible choices and signals that alternatives are available that reflect the health and sustainability demands of the 21st century – signals too that research and development towards even more superior compounds will be welcomed and encouraged by the international community.
“DDT is an old substance, there has to be a better way. We need to build the confidence of Governments and malaria-stricken communities to invest in genuine alternatives that can be deployed straight away so that DDT becomes a weapon of last resort,” he stated.
The meeting will review an interim report aimed at setting up a global partnership on alternatives to DDT and ways in which these can be distributed to countries and communities at risk.
“DDT affects human health and the environment in places far away from where it is used because this chemical is transported through the air and deposited in colder northern climates,” noted Donald Cooper, Executive Secretary of the Stockholm Convention Secretariat.
“DDT accumulates and persists in fatty tissues of humans and animals and is known to cause long-term adverse effects, while malaria continues to kill over one million children and adults per year, mainly in Africa. With a united front, we can overcome both these scourges in the most intelligent way possible,” he added.
In a related development, over 120 countries party to the Rotterdam Convention agreed to add the pesticide tributyltin – which is used in antifouling paints for ship hulls and is toxic to fish, molluscs and other aquatic organisms – to a global trade “watch list.”
At the same time, delegates meeting last week in Rome were unable to reach consensus on the inclusion of chrysotile asbestos – the most commonly used form of asbestos, often found in building materials, such as asbestos cement, pipe and sheet – and endosulfan, a widely used pesticide, particularly in cotton production.
The Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) Procedure for certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade promotes transparency and information sharing about potential risks to human health and the environment. Its so-called PIC list currently contains 39 hazardous substances, including all other forms of asbestos.
Under the Convention, exports of chemicals and pesticides on the PIC list require the prior informed consent of the importing country. This gives developing countries in particular the power to decide which potentially hazardous chemicals they want to receive and to exclude those they cannot manage safely.
“Clearly the chemical footprint of our modern economies is expanding exponentially today,” noted Mr. Steiner.
“The transition towards a greener economy touches upon the responsibilities that we have as societies, as Governments and as international institutions to look at how the use of chemicals empowers development and not undermines it, not least through the impact it has on the health of our societies.”
The Rotterdam Convention’s secretariat is managed by UNEP along with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).