U.N. seeks to ban DDT pesticide and still fight malaria

OSLO (Reuters) - The United Nations announced a plan Wednesday to rid the world by around 2020 of DDT, an outlawed toxic crop pesticide still used to spray homes to fight malaria-spreading mosquitoes.

Ten projects would be set up involving 40 nations in Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean and Central Asia to fight malaria without DDT or other chemicals after a pilot project in Mexico and Central America successfully cut malaria rates.

“The aim ... is to achieve a 30 percent cut in the application of DDT worldwide by 2014 and its total phase-out by the early 2020s if not sooner,” the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a statement.

They said the goals, in partnership with the Global Environmental Facility with $40 million of funds, would have to be reached while maintaining WHO goals for curbing malaria, which kills 880,000 people a year.

DDT is one of a “Dirty Dozen” chemicals banned by a U.N. 2001 Convention after it was found to be a toxin that can suppress the immune system. It is infamous for threatening bird populations by thinning eggshells.

But exemptions have been allowed in many developing nations because it so effective in killing mosquitoes. DDT’s Swiss inventor Paul Hermann Muller won the 1948 Nobel Prize for Medicine -- before its wider toxic effects were known.

Developing countries have had an agonizing choice between using a known poison to spray their homes or risk greater exposure to malaria.

The five-year projects in Mexico and Central America found that non-DDT measures such as wider use of mosquito screens in homes or draining stagnant pools where mosquito larvae grow helped cut the number of malaria cases by 63 percent.

Other methods included planting mosquito-repelling trees such as neem or oak, better health care or use of fish and bacteria to control mosquitoes and their larvae.

“The new projects underline the determination of the international community to combat malaria while realizing a low, indeed zero DDT world,” said Achim Steiner, head of UNEP.

The statement said that there was also growing concern that some mosquitoes were gaining resistance to DDT, formally known as dichloro-diphenyl-trichloromethylmethane.

About 150 nations are meeting in Geneva this week to consider adding nine new chemicals to the “Dirty Dozen” list.