DDT is back

(This article was #29 in Discover Magazine’s top 100 stories of 2006.)

More than 30 years after the use of DDT was abandoned in many countries, the much-maligned pesticide is making a comeback. In September the World Health Organization openly endorsed indoor spraying of DDT, saying it is not only the best weapon against malaria, it is also cheaper and more effective than other insecticides. The announcement followed a similar move in May by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

One of the reasons for the more aggressive stance is President Bush’s Malaria Initiative, launched in 2005 after Congress reproved USAID for spending the lion’s share of its budget on operational costs—and less than 8 percent on the insecticides, bed nets, and medicines that would actually save lives. In 2007, USAID plans to spend more than $20 million on indoor spraying—up from less than $1 million spent in 2005.

Many environmental groups support the use of DDT for malaria—but only in the short term. Meanwhile, USAID representatives say that, when used properly, the chemical poses little risk to the environment or to human health. “Until we find that it is hazardous,” says Admiral Tim Ziemer, coordinator of the President’s Malaria Initiative, “it’s unconscionable not to use something that can save lives.”

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