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Bring Back DDT? Bedbug and Malaria-Fighting Pesticide Debated

September 23, 2010

PHOENIX, Ariz. - It gets credit for helping eliminate most bedbugs in the U.S. by the middle of the 20th century, but DDT was banned as a possible carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1972, and was prohibited for agricultural use by most nations in the '70s and '80s because of its detrimental effect on bald eagles and other birds of prey. The synthetic pesticide is now mainly used to fight the mosquitoes that carry malaria in South Africa.

A new documentary film is pushing to bring back the pesticide, however, with filmmaker and physician D. Rutledge Taylor claiming that millions of lives could be saved across Africa if governments and donor nations would relax their opposition to DDT.

"I've looked at all the studies, and I have no doubt whatsoever that DDT is safe to humans, animals and the environment."

However, some experts say mosquitoes develop resistance to DDT, and in many areas where it was used, victories against malaria were reversed as the resistance grew, according to research funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The World Health Organization recommends limited use against malaria, but advocates that alternatives be found in order to phase DDT out.

Elizabeth Gore of the United Nations Foundation and the malaria-fighting group Nothing But Nets, says another problem is that DDT is not 100 percent effective against mosquitoes.

"We are fighting a very tricky mosquito, that has really gotten strong and is resistant to it. Right now, our greatest tools are long-lasting bed nets, treatment and education."

Taylor's film, "3 Billion and Counting," points out that while mosquitoes may build resistance to DDT, it's still effective in repelling them.

"I'm not against bed nets. Use bed nets. I think they should be second in the lineup, for sure. But if you have a bed net in your home and you don't use it, you don't have coverage. If your house has been sprayed with DDT, you have coverage for a year, and it's absolutely non-toxic."

Contrary to Taylor's "non-toxic" claim, DDT is classified as "moderately toxic" by the United States National Toxicology Program. Taylor's film maintains that shortsighted governmental and environmental policies are causing the deaths of millions and the suffering of billions.

"3 Billion and Counting" opens in Los Angeles on Sept. 24. The NIH research is available at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.

Doug Ramsey, Public News Service - AZ