TCS Daily

Deathly Bans

By Richard Tren - April 29, 2002 12:00 AM

President Bush has sent the Stockholm Conventionon Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) to the Senate for ratification amid cheers from the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) head, Christie Whitman. It is no wonder that the EPA has hailed the move - the agency found its feet and established its power over the banning of DDT, one of the 12 POPs.

Yet the 1972 banning of DDT in the United States was based more on politics than on any scientific evidence. The judge presiding over the scientific hearings on DDT ruled that DDT should not be banned, based on the evidence, yet he was overruled by William Ruckelshaus, the then EPA head in a move to flex his political muscles.

Neo-Malthusian environmentalists pushed for a ban on DDT despite the fact that science didn't support them and that the insecticide saved lives in disease control around the world. Now, the EPA is convinced that the Stockholm Convention will be good for the health of those living in developing countries.

But many of those countries rely on chemicals such as DDT to save lives from age-old diseases, such as malaria. While the Convention gives DDT an exemption for public health use, it makes the trade in the chemical more difficult and expensive. This effectively forces developing countries to use more costly and frequently less effective alternatives. To compromise the disease control programs of some of the world's poorest countries in order to suit some fanciful environmentalist agenda is by no means good for health in the developing world.

But the DDT issue is not the only problem. Most developing countries still rely on many of the so-called dirty dozen as part of production processes. Chemicals that the North used successfully to generate wealth and prosperity are being denied to the less developed South. The North can sell this as a philanthropic treaty because of the potentially negative impacts of the POPs (even though the science backing up these claims is highly questionable). None of the rich countries of the North that back the Convention need these chemicals - they are now rich enough and advanced enough to use alternatives - and so no jobs will be lost in enforcing the bans.

The EPA position that it is persistent chemicals that are damaging the health of those in poor countries ignores the fact that most deaths are caused by poor sanitation. Developing countries would be a lot better off if their health problems were caused by any of the POPs, but unfortunately the problems are a lot more basic.

Forcing poor countries to use more expensive technologies, and imposing risk profiles that are more relevant to Sweden or Canada, only serves to keep these countries poor. By continually moving the goal posts through the misuse of environmental and labor standards, the North provides some imaginary protection for its own wealthy residents at great harm to those in poor nations.

India feels pressure to reduce the amount of DDT used in malaria control because the European market might turn away its agricultural produce if traces of DDT residues are found on it. This despite the fact that in the six decades that DDT has been used, and used very widely, not one scientifically reproducible case of actual human health harm from DDT has been produced. Contrast this with the millions of lives that have been saved from use of the insecticide.

Environmental ideology ought to have no place in the determination of malaria control strategies. It's too dangerous. In South Africa after environmental pressure forced the removal of DDT from malaria control, the malaria rates skyrocketed. In 2000, DDT was reintroduced, and thankfully there has been an 80% reduction in malaria cases.

Developing countries need to be able to use whatever technologies are appropriate to their income levels and risk profiles. These countries also need access to developed country markets. The pressure upon India will cost the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable. The eco-imperialism inherent in the Stockholm Convention is set to simply shut off a number of development options for these countries, keeping them poor and unhealthy. The EPA should stop being so disingenuous and should admit that the Stockholm Convention will only be of benefit to special interest groups in the North.

President Bush should have ditched the Convention along with the Kyoto Protocol.

Richard Tren, director of Africa Fighting Malaria, recently visited India and presented papers at two seminars on malaria and poverty diseases. He is currently researching the history of malaria and malaria control in India.

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