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Toxic Tours - IX: Doing it without DDT

By Shailendra Yashwant

India is committed to eliminating POPs. The Hindustan Insecticide factory in Cochin is the only facility where the controversial pesticide DDT continues to be manufactured

Local resident, with HIL factory in the background

Like the Lonely Planet guidebook says, Kochi or Cochin reflects perfectly the eclecticism of Kerala. On this cluster of islands and peninsulas, you will find the oldest church in India, a 16th century synagogue, mosques, a Portuguese palace along with medieval Dutch, English and Portuguese architecture. But once you leave the seaside promenades, the Chinese fishing nets and the quaint Fort Kochi tourist district to enter Ernakulam and confront the traffic snarls, the stink and the horrible glass and concrete architecture, you seriously start having doubts about the last 30 years of 'development'.

My destination was further inland, to the Udyogmandal industrial estate where we were to stake out and collect environmental samples around the Hindustan Insecticide Ltd factory, the only facility in India where the highly-controversial pesticide DDT continues to be manufactured, albeit only for vector (i.e. malarial) control, as its use in agriculture is completely banned.

But those who are remotely associated with agriculture in India will tell you that DDT from this factory is invariably illegally routed to farmers for use in agriculture. So much so that illiterate farmers in the country continue to identify any pesticide that is in white powder form as DDT. In fact over the last 30 years or so, the use of DDT has been so all-pervasive that from Kumbh Mela to disaster zones, the administration is quick to sprinkle and spray the powder to ward off possible diseases.

The Udyogmandal industrial estate is home to over 2,000 original residents and another 2,000 migrant workers who have settled here and work in the scores of chemical factories that constitute the bulk of the industrial estate.

A scientific survey released by Greenpeace based on our sampling in and around the Hindustan Insecticide Ltd factory, confirms the release into the environment of contaminants resulting from the production of DDT, highlighting that DDT is an environmental pollutant not only through its use, but also its production.

DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) a deadly insecticide, belongs to the class of chemicals known as organo-chlorines that are now banned. It was first prepared by Paul Muller, a Swiss chemist, in 1939. It became well-known during World War II (1939-1945), when the United States Army used it to fight an epidemic of typhoid fever in Naples, Italy. The army used DDT as a means of destroying body lice, which carry the disease.

Mass production of DDT began around 1945 and it was used extensively in agriculture for 25-30 years, especially in developed countries. DDT was so widely used in the US that the average citizen consumed an estimated 0.28mg of DDT per day in the 1950s.

All that changed in 1962 thanks to Rachel Carson's edifying book Silent Spring, which recorded the adverse effect of DDT on wildlife and the bird population. Thirty-seven years later, in 1999, the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) stated "it is now well-established that DDT metabolite, DDE, causes egg shell thinning" and that the bald eagle population in the United States declined "primarily because of exposure to DDT and its metabolites". Global concern over these findings, declining bird populations and contaminated foodstuffs led to widespread bans on DDT for agricultural purposes.

Like the other 12 organochlorines, DDT is proven to be a persistent, bio-accumulative and endocrine-disrupting pollutant that has been transported throughout the global environment for many decades. The clearest evidence of this long-distance transport derives from concentrations found in the Arctic. There along with other Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), it contaminates the foodweb of indigenous peoples. Large-scale application of DDT kills useful insects as well as harmful ones, and it may endanger other animal life, including birds and fish.

Acute exposure to DDT in tropical agriculture has caused large numbers of deaths and injuries including severe nervous system and liver damage, and it poses a particular danger to those exposed in the womb. During prenatal life, endocrine disruptors like DDT can alter development and undermine the ability to learn, to fight off disease and reproduce.

DDT use today is but a fraction of what it was 40 to 50 years ago. DDT is now manufactured only in China and India, for use in controlling malaria. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that fewer than two dozen countries still rely on DDT for malaria control, by spraying it inside houses once or twice each year.

Between 1.5 million and 2.7 million die annually of malaria - mostly children under five years of age. Somewhere in the world, someone dies of malaria every 15 seconds. Worldwide, the direct and indirect economic costs of malaria are estimated at $2 billion each year.

Despite the staggering human and economic toll taken by malaria, the war against this disease is woefully under-funded. Research on malaria receives a fraction of the amount spent on other diseases. Drugs that were once effective are often inadequate due to the increasing resistance of the parasite that causes malaria. A vaccine has not yet been developed. Far from being eradicated, the disease and the vectors that carry it are stronger than ever.

However, WWF has conducted programmes in Asia, Africa and Latin America where those fighting malaria and other tropical diseases have successfully shifted away from DDT use due to the demonstrated availability, effectiveness and affordability of alternatives.

*In the Okavango Delta of Botswana, officials have shifted from DDT to of baited targets to successfully combat the tsetse fly that spreads sleeping sickness. The cloth targets, which are set up in tsetse habitat, are treated with synthetic pyrehtroids, an affordable alternative to DDT.

* In India's Kheda district the Integrated Disease Vector Control pilot project successfully controlled malaria by combining several non-chemical vector control methods with weekly village-level disease surveillance that ensured early case detection and prompt treatment.

* Mexico's malaria control programme is currently in transition from DDT to an integrated disease control strategy that includes case detection and treatment and elimination of mosquito breeding sites.

All the same, the raging controversy over whether DDT is as dangerous as it is made out to be, compared to the threats of malaria, was brought to rest by the new international treaty on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) ratified in Stockholm in May 2001 which calls for immediate ban, withdrawal, retrieval and containment of a host of man-made poisons, including Hexachlorobenzene (HCB), Lindane and organochlorine pesticides like DDT, Dieldrin, Endrin, Aldrin, Chlordane, Mirex, Toxaphene and Heptachlor.

A global commitment was made to help industrialising countries like India to fund the elimination of POPs, a prerequisite for many countries if the world's POPs problem is to be solved.

The Indian government managed to secure a special temporary exemption for DDT production for use in malaria control. However, DDT too is set for eventual elimination, even as alternative means of reducing malaria fatalities are secured by leveraging the resources guaranteed by the Convention

Amongst sustainable solutions suggested by WWF is what is called Integrated Vector Management. This incorporates:

* Bed nets and traps impregnated with synthetic pyrethroids (which are not as persistent and bioaccumulative as DDT)

* Application of biological insecticides

* Release of natural enemies of vectors

* Elimination and management of vector breeding sites

* Physical barriers such as mosquito nets and screens on doors and windows

The HIL factory at Udyogmandal, Kochi, will soon have to stop manufacturing DDT as India, a signatory to the POP treaty, puts its weight behind research and fieldwork on non-DDT vector control alternatives, which will hopefully reduce environmental contamination in Kochi, the wonderful city that has been reduced to a toxic hotspot in God's own country.

(Shailendra Yashwant is a senior photo-journalist who has worked with The Hindu, Outlook and The Independent. He is associated with the toxic campaign of Greenpeace and has been documenting the subcontinent's ecological problems for several years.)