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Disaster losses causing rethinking of pesticide ban?

The headline almost gave you whiplash. At first, I thought it might be a typo, but there it was in The New York Times' on-line edition: “It's Time to Spray DDT.”

Columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, one of the more “Fair and Balanced” writers at the Times, was advocating the spraying of DDT in the world's poorer nations.

He acknowledged the pesticide's checkered past, including a ban against its use in the United States following the decline of bald eagle populations. But DDT still has a place in certain parts of the world, he says.

“If the U.S. wants to help people in tsunami-hit countries like Sri Lanka and Indonesia — not to mention other poor countries in Africa — there's one step that would cost us nothing and would save hundreds of thousands of lives,” Kristof writes. “It would be to allow DDT in malaria-ravaged countries.”

Kristof said he was elated at the millions of dollars being poured into relief efforts in southern Asia and eastern Africa. But the tsunami, he said, was “only a blip on third-world mortality.

“Mosquitoes kill 20 times more people each year than the tsunami did, and, in the long war between humans and mosquitoes, it looks as if mosquitoes are winning. One reason is that the U.S. and other rich countries are siding with the mosquitoes against the world's poor — by opposing the use of DDT.”

In the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, DDT applications reduced malaria around the world, he said. But governments began banning its use because of evidence of harmful side effects such as the thinning of the shells of bald eagle eggs.

Poor countries that have been able to keep malaria in check are the same few that continued to use DDT, like Ecuador and Mexico. Others, like South Africa, have brought DDT back in recent years and are again controlling the disease.

“Most western aid agencies will not pay for anti-malarial programs that use DDT, and that pretty much ensures that DDT won't be used,” he said. “Instead, the U.N. and Western donors encourage the use of insecticide-treated bed nets and medicine to cure malaria.”

The latter are critical, but they're not enough. Despite those efforts, malaria probably kills between 2 million and 3 million people each year.

Kristof contacted environmental groups, expecting a fight. That was not the case.

“South Africa was right to use DDT,” said the World Wildlife Fund's Richard Liroff. “If the alternatives to DDT aren't working, as they weren't in South Africa, you've got to use it. In South Africa, it prevented tens of thousands of malaria cases and saved lots of lives.”

Farmers and crop protection chemical manufacturers have been saying this for years: Use pesticides as safely as possible, but realize you may have to weigh the risks of an application against the potential loss to society if you don't apply a certain pesticide.

It's nice to see that others are beginning to recognize that truth.

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