CHE 300

Environmental Science

Dr. J. A. Schneider
Dept. of Chemistry
SUNY Oswego
Oswego, NY 13126

Rm: 237 Snygg Hall
Tel: 315.312.2124
Environmental Investigations: Will the Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) Treaty Spur a Resurgence of Malaria? by Jeffery A. Schneider, Ph.D.

Issues and Background

Malaria kills an estimated 1.5 to 2.7 million people each year and 300 - 500 million people suffer from the disease. It is the most prevalent disease of the poorest rural areas and produces recurrent infections. In many endemic areas of Africa it is a year-round problem with a seasonal increase occurring with the onset of the rainy season. Although primarily a rural disease, malaria has become increasingly urban and the growth in resistance to antimalarial drugs has become a major concern in many countries.
World Health Organization Press Release, 1997

Even though DDT has been banned since 1972, it can take more than 15 years to break down in our environment. Fish consumption advisories are in effect for DDT in many waterways including the Great Lakes ecosystem. Effects on humans include: it is a probable human carcinogen, it damages the liver, it temporarily damages the nervous system, it reduces reproductive success and it damages the reproductive system.
U.S. EPA Persistent Bioaccumulative and Toxic (PBT) Chemical Program

Throughout your lives, you will undoubtedly be faced with environmental dilemmas; whether it is in the form of a TV news story, an article in a newspaper or magazine, or an unsolicited phone call asking for your support. Listening and/or reading is the easy part; making sense of it all is the hard part. You'll probably want to do some additional investigating of the topic and read views from each side of the argument. If your primary sources are from the Internet be careful and be sure to read from more than one source; there is a lot of information and misinformation available on the web.

One of the key concepts to always keep in mind when studying an environmental topic is that everything affects everything else. Environmental science does not consist of one-variable experiments. Some way, somewhere, somehow everything is connected to everything else, from the largest catastrophic event imaginable to the tiniest imperceptible event. If you change or affect one thing in the environment, many other things may change as a result. Everything we do has consequences, seen and unseen, immediate and delayed.

Take as an example, the use of DDT to control mosquitoes that carry malaria. From the above quotes, it seems we have two mutually exclusive ideas. On the one hand, we read that malaria is bad. At the same time, we see that one of the main controls used to combat malaria, namely DDT, is also bad. In this case there is no good versus bad, only bad versus more bad. DDT is one of the so-called 'Dirty Dozen', twelve organochlorine compounds (i.e. organic compounds that contain the element chlorine) that have been targeted by the United Nations for worldwide elimination. DDT was also the focus of Rachel Carson's 1962 book "Silent Spring" in which she documents the effects of DDT on the environment.

'Persistent Organic Pollutants' (i.e. POPs) have been around for a long time and have played a major role in the development of our present day society. They include the 'Dirty Dozen', which is comprised of the pesticides aldrin, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene, mirex and toxaphene, as well as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and polychlorinated dibenzofurans. But the technological advances we've made as a result of using these chemicals have come at a price.

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (i.e. the POPs Treaty) seeks to makeup for our past environmental transgressions by banning the use and production of the 'Dirty Dozen'. While many of these chemicals have already been banned in several countries, not all have been banned in all countries. Additionally, in many instances, those countries that have banned the chemicals still have significant stockpiles of these chemicals. Initially the treaty sought to outright ban all twelve of the listed chemicals. Eventually, after much negotiation, specific exemptions have been allowed for in the treaty. Of particular interest is the exemption for the use of DDT. In spite of all of the environmental consequences of DDT use, it is still the most effective weapon against mosquitoes that carry malaria. However, the exemption does require countries that use DDT for mosquito control to actively seek alternatives with the notion that eventually these countries can stop using DDT.

Asking a country to stop using DDT can have large consequences. For example, in 1996, under international pressure, the country of South Africa stopped using DDT to control malarial mosquitoes. Prior to 1996, they had all but eliminated malaria and reported only a few thousand cases per year. By 1999, after using more expensive, less effective controls, the number of malaria cases had risen to 50,000. They subsequently resumed the use of DDT to fight malaria and reported malaria cases are again declining.

Just one of many, the South African example illustrates some important concepts: (1) that it really is a matter of cost versus benefit and (2) that as in any public policy decision, much scientific debate is necessary. The South African and other governments, in conjunction with scientists from around the world, argued that the environmental costs of using DDT were far outweighed by the substantial health benefits provided by its use and subsequently convinced the rest of the United Nations convention of the same. Everything affects everything else: malaria or DDT? You decide.

Ask Yourself These Questions
  1. Questions
Different Perspectives in the Debate

  • International Community to Step Up Coordination of Malaria Control - WHO Press Release
    In 1997 the World Health Organization released this statement to the press detailing a meeting that had been held in Geneva in which global experts on malaria pledged better cooperation.
  • U.S. EPA Persistent Bioaccumulative and Toxic (PBT) Chemical Program
    In addition to information on DDT, the EPA's site on the PBT Program includes information about other persistent organic pollutants and their effects on humans.
  • AFM - Africa Fighting Malaria
    This is a very extensive site about the fight against malaria. There is a huge amount of information available here including answers to such questions as what is malaria; how is malaria transmitted; and how is DDT used to control malaria-carrying mosquitoes?
  • United Nations Environment Programme - Persistent Organic Pollutants
    This is the official United Nations website on persistent organic pollutants. Probably the most useful part of the site is the section that includes chemical structures of all of the POPs. For each POP, you can also find information about the physical and chemical properties and an assessment report.
  • United Nations - Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants
    Everything you wanted to know about the POPs treaty is here, including links to the full text of the agreement, signatories to the agreement, background information and implementation strategies. Documents are available in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish.
  • United States Statement on Persistent Organic Pollutants Treaty
    This is the official U.S. statement on the POPs Treaty and presented on the website for the United States Mission to the European Union.
  • A Persistent Organic Pollutants Primer
    The Institute for Global Communication sponsors this site. Site includes links to discussions on the international negotiations to phase out POPs, human health effects of POPs, the 'Dirty Dozen' and special impacts on women and fetuses.
  • Alternatives to Persistent Organic Pollutants: Summary
    In preparation for an IFCS (International Forum on Chemical Safety) Expert Meeting on POPs that took place in 1996, the Swedish National Chemicals Inspectorate established a project with the Swedish EPA to investigate alternatives to POPs. This is a summary of their findings.
  • Science News: The Case for DDT by Janet Raloff
    In this article from Science News, Janet Raloff makes the case for the continued use of DDT in the fight against malaria. This is an excellent and informative article.
  • DDT Ban Kills Millions by F.R. Duplantier in the Conservative Monitor
    This article from the conservative viewpoint claims that a ban on DDT use, as had been proposed early on in the malaria versus DDT debate, would lead to a resurgence of malaria and a huge increase in the number of deaths attributed to malaria.
  • Greens Wage on Africans by Gerard Jackson
    This article appeared in The New Australian in March of 2000 and tries to make the case that 'Greens' (i.e. environmentalists) have waged a war on Africans by proposing the ban on DDT. Perhaps the most interesting part of the article is a quote from Prof. Norman Borlaug, also known as the father of the Green Revolution, who says "It is a tragic error to believe that agricultural chemicals are a prime factor in the deterioration of our environment. The indiscriminate cancellation, suspension or outright banning of such pesticides as DDT is a game of dominoes we live to regret."

All material (except for some code and external links) © Jeffery A. Schneider, 2003