Budapest — A coalition of health experts have staged a protest parallel to the Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety, expressing concern over a recent policy turn by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that calls for fighting malaria by spraying the controversial DDT chemical.
The conference, taking place in Budapest in Hungary, brings together representatives from government bodies, industry groups, scientific associations and non-governmental organisations in an attempt to reach consensus over issues of global chemical safety..
The fifth session of this five-day conference, ending Sep. 29, will focus on Chemical Safety for Sustainable Development.
Participants at the Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety (IFCS) conference who staged the protest underlined the detrimental effects on human health caused by DDT, such as reproductive disorders, neurological effects, reduced breast milk production and increased risk of breast cancer.
Controversy was sparked by a recent WHO statement promoting the widespread use of the insecticide, known for its dangers to both humans and the environment, in global efforts to eradicate malaria.
The decision reverses a 30-year policy by the WHO and contradicts the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, which aimed at gradually eliminating DDT, still used in a dozen African countries as a tool to tackle malaria.
The coalition of experts also called for a thorough investigation of the internal process that prompted the WHO's policy change.
"The WHO is being politicised by U.S.-right wing politics," executive director of the Kenya-based Physicians for Social Responsibility Paul Saoke said during the protest.
"We think industries are behind this," added Romeo Quijano, president of the Pesticide Action Network in the Philippines. "If this is true, it shows the triumph of greed over health."
The WHO and other supporters of DDT claim the chemical carries no health risks when used inside people's homes and with due care to avoid its leakage to the environment. The claims have resulted in a large controversy within the scientific community.
"Even very small amounts adversely affect human health." Quijano told IPS. "Scientific evidence shows DDT can travel long distances. There has been consensus on this, but now they are distorting evidence."
"It will cause huge damage, especially on the next generation to come, and this is still not quantified," Quijano warned.
The coalition also claimed DDT destined for public health is often employed in agriculture, resulting not only in health risks but also increased resistance by mosquitoes. "We expect it to occur again," Quijano added.
Backers of DDT insist it is the only cost-effective method of fighting malaria, noting that in some African countries the disease is responsible for slowing their economic growth.
But many remain sceptical of some economists' concerns over malaria.
"They have no intention to alleviate poverty. Their aim is to create market conditions to maximise profit, even with malaria involved," Dr. Saoke told IPS.
"Supporters of DDT won't acknowledge malaria is a problem of underdevelopment, especially in Africa. They think its like fire-fighting, but DDT is no silver bullet."
Instead, Saoke and his fellow experts advocate adaptable and community-based approaches, bringing together measures such as the clearing of breeding sites for mosquitoes, moderate chemical control, public health education, and prompt treatment.
"In Kenya simple public health measures such as house cleaning have managed to reduce malaria incidence to below 3 percent in an endemic area."
Saoke added that the international chemicals regulation system was being undermined by U.S.-led efforts during the conference.
"I'm not happy with the conference. The United States, supported by Japan and Canada, is maintaining a very negative position and trying to make others join."
"The pressure to continue using DDT is an external one," added Saoke, "from industries, foreign governments, and a serious underground movement bent on undermining international legislation on chemicals."
Quijano shares this view. "Those with economic vested interested, who have profited from selling toxic chemicals, and those who are very resistant to share the burdens of coming up with acceptable solutions to all concerned, are behind all this," he said.
"They want to roll back major international environmental agreements which are detrimental to their profits," Quijano told IPS. "We wanted to come up with common solutions, but they even want to kill the process of a stakeholder forum like this conference.."
Quijano is concerned the international community will push for a chemical solution to a disease that ultimately derives from poverty. "The approach should be holistic. It is not the chemical use that is the key component of fighting malaria."
Malaria and related diseases are responsible for one million deaths a year, 90 percent of them in Africa.
The WHO claiming the spraying of chemicals will re-assume a major role in the fight against malaria, and insists that scientific evidence supports the view that indoor residual spraying does not aversely affect human health when properly carried out.
Simultaneously, the WHO is calling for the widespread use of insecticide-treated mosquito nets and improved medicinal treatment to accompany the mostly DDT-based campaign.
The policy change is also based on new monetary possibilities, with a large share of responsibility lying on a new 1.2 billion dollar commitment by the United States government.
"With serious money finally becoming available to fight malaria, it is more imperative than ever that WHO provides sound technical guidance and programme assistance to ensure timely and effective use of these resources," Dr Arata Kochi, director of WHO's Global Malaria Programme said in an official statement.