Greenpeace, DDT and malaria

Last edited 4 November 2010 at 3:44pm

A child protected by a mosquito net in the Amazon

The Channel 4 film claims environmentalists were responsible for a ban on DDT, which led to the death of millions from malaria. But DDT was never banned for use as a malaria preventative.

We support the continued use of DDT in malaria control programmes where there are no effective alternatives.

We thought that an investigation by Prospect Magazine a couple years ago finally laid this myth to rest.

According to the investigators, the postwar attempt to eradicate malaria by the spraying of DDT was a failure, largely because the overuse of insecticides led to the development of resistance in mosquito populations.

How, then, did the idea that greens were responsible for millions of deaths gain currency? It's a long and complicated story. The 2001 Stockholm convention on persistent organic pollutants prohibits the use of DDT except for disease control, and calls for all DDT use to be phased out. The phase-out commitment is often loosely referred to as a "ban."

What happened was this - industry front groups created a myth that DDT had been totally banned since the 1970s.

When the 2001 Stockholm convention banned most uses of organochlorine pesticides such as DDT and dieldrin because of their persistence in the environment and toxicity, it was also agreed that the use of DDT for malaria control should be exempted from the general ban until affordable substitutes could be found. The only point of dispute was whether an explicit target date for the phase-out of DDT should be set.

But the industry groups pounced on the phase-out proposal describing it as a "ban," and news stories made it appear that the ban was imminent. Then they successfully conflated the use of the term "ban" to describe the eventual phase-out proposal with the 1972 ban on agricultural use in the US. They even produced a "malaria clock," which blamed the "ban" for all malaria deaths since 1972. (although it included footnotes to indicate that the creators knew their claims to be false). By contrast, Roger Bate, who created the myth, later adjusted his position, noting in a recent interview that, "I think my position has mellowed, perhaps with age."

The hope is that a combination of existing measures, like bed nets, insecticides (including DDT among others) and drugs, can drive down the number of cases and shrink malaria's range across Africa and Asia. The new strategy is based on a judicious mix of tactics against malaria, rather than a knockout blow based on a single weapon.

We're very well aware of the enormous burden that malaria continues to place on the health of millions of people in Africa, Latin America and Asia and of the many economic and social factors, including conflict and displacement, which act to exacerbate the problem.

At no time have we stated or implied that tackling malaria is anything other than a major priority for the countries afflicted and for the global community as a whole. 

There's more information on DDT here, and here.

Follow Greenpeace UK