DDT: Echoes of Iraq


September 21, 2006


Browse in Environment Health Politics

We were on the farm in April, my wife’s parents’ rice farm in the Philippines, and our son got sick.  At first we thought it was the heat.  But as afternoon became evening he got worse and worse. Vomiting. Couldn’t eat or drink.  A fever that kept rising. My wife’s parents sent word to the local manogluy-a, a kind of herb doctor, who scrunched down on spindly haunches and rubbed ginger on him, to no effect.  He is three years old. There was not much sleep that night.

The next day we got a ride to a provincial hospital, and waited in a sweaty corridor with just occasional relief from an oscillating fan.  Finally it was our turn – a kind doctor with a gentle touch.  Josh was admitted right away.  As the nurses put an intravenous tube into his hand, I became woozy.  There followed three days and nights – nights especially — of torment. I kept thinking of mosquitoes, and dengue fever and other dread diseases. Was he still breathing?

It was only a throat infection, as it turned out, aggravated by the heat. Still, no one has to tell me about the threat of mosquitoes and tropical diseases.  When I read about the decision of the World Health Organization to resume the use of DDT to combat malaria, I thought of Josh lying in a fever on the bamboo floor.  Often we have to choose between bad and worse.  Some things we have to “suffer to be so for now.”

I say that conditionally, however, and with major reservations.  There are large axes grinding in the background of this WHO decision.  Plus,  the people applauding it show little concern for what actually happens when pesticides are set loose in Third World settings.

The media hasn’t paid much attention, but there has been something of a coup at the World Health Organization over the last year.  The Bush Administration was highly displeased at the previous director’s attention to obesity and smoking; so it engineered a more corporate-friendly regime. The new policy on DDT might be defensible in and of itself.  But it comes with this larger atmospheric, which you can detect in the gloating on the Right.  “Finally” said Congressman Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a Republican, “we can put to rest the junk science.”

“Junk science” is, of course, code for science that is non-corporate-friendly.  A columnist for the New York Sun by the name of Thomas Bray expanded on this theme.  DDT is where the modern environmental movement started, he noted, in the form of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” (which Bray calls “hysterical” lest we miss his point.)   So the new policy on DDT “strikes at [the movement’s] heart.”

From there it’s a short leap to global warming.  “The science is ‘settled’.” Mr. Bray writes. “The fate of the earth, Al Gore informs us, depends on action without delay.  That of course, is exactly what Rachel Carson told us.”  (Emphasis mine.)

You can see where this is going.  It is not about malaria and Third World kids.  It is an ideological revenge fantasy, and a restoration of the old regime. Somehow, the people who invoke Third World children in the cause of DDT are silent  when the question is the U.S. patent rules that put vital drugs out of reach of millions of those same children.  In the Philippines it’s not “the environmental left” as the aptly-named Bray put it, who deny medication to needy kids.  It’s pharmaceutical companies with their sky-high and patent-protected prices.

That’s one concern.  Another is that the ideological psycho-drama seems to crowd out the reality of what might happen on the ground. (Hasn’t this happened with this crew before – in the Middle East, for example?)  The WHO approval is for household spraying only, in very low concentrations. Agricultural uses still would be prohibited.  Gloaters on the Right make much of this point, even as they suggest that the DDT is perfectly safe, period.  Can’t those rigid enviro-lefties get a grip?

But how exactly will that distinction – household versus agriculture — work in practice?  Who will enforce it, in settings in which farm and household are the same thing?  The words suggest an image of white-coated experts spraying carefully in every household, and maintaining the DDT supplies under tight control.  That’s not what I’ve seen in the Philippines. Agricultural pesticides there for example are routinely used in other ways. My father-in-law spreads them near the house, to stop the red ants that are a plague in the rainy season.  It is understandable.  Have to kill those ants somehow.

But that ground is where the goats and chickens run and where the grandkids play.  It is not far from the well.  A friend who did agricultural work in Vietnam told me that pesticides were used in similar fashion there.  When people are poor they use what is available.  (That DDT is cheap, a fact much-touted by its supporters, is not reassuring on this score.) They have cousins and in-laws who work for the distribution agencies, moreover. Whatever safeguards are established for the distribution of the chemical, are not necessarily going to be leak-proof.

It’s not just pesticides by the way.  Industrial chemicals generally tend to leach out in ways you might not expect.  In a garden in my wife’s village we found old D-cell batteries decomposing. Maybe someone thought they would add vivifying properties to the soil.  Maybe it’s simply that there’s not much place to dump such stuff. Do the people who make these products even think about what will happen to them after they are used?

One test of the DDT lobby is whether it will be willing to stand and deliver on this score.  Will there be money to help poor countries with effective distribution, and oversight to make sure the leakage does not occur?  Or will they just go back to whining and complaining about their tax burdens, the poor children of the world put back on the shelf until they can be useful once again?

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