Environmentalists are calling for the elimination of the toxic chemical, DDT, which is still used in large parts of Africa to combat malaria. The continued use of DDT is on the agenda of a week-long conference in Geneva aimed at strengthening measures to rid the world of some of its most dangerous chemicals.
More than 500 delegates from 130 countries and many non-governmental organizations are attending the annual conference of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. POPs, as they are called, include 12 hazardous pesticides and industrial chemicals.
Evidence shows these substances can kill people, and damage the nervous and immune systems. They may cause cancer and reproductive disorders and interfere with normal infant and child development.
Under the Stockholm Convention, countries must phase out the use of these toxic chemicals in favor of more benign alternatives. Acting Executive Secretary of the Convention, John Whitelaw, says the treaty makes an exception with regard to DDT.
"In negotiating the Convention, governments realized that DDT still played an important role for many countries, primarily in dealing with malaria," he said. "But, they also recognized there were alternatives. So, the emphasis in the Convention is to allow the ongoing use of DDTs, but to provide opportunities for countries to identify and test and become satisfied with alternatives."
Alternative substances are expensive, but the Convention makes provision for financial and technical support to help poor countries.
Between 25 and 30 countries are significant users of DDT. Most are in Africa. Some are in Asia. Senegalese activist, Henly Rene Diouf is a member of a Pan African network that works for the elimination of POPs.
He says many African countries stopped using DDT in the early 1980s because it caused many problems. But, he says many of these same countries have resumed its use because DDT is seen as a cheap and effective way to combat malaria, a major problem in Africa.
Diouf says environmentalists do not believe DDT is the best solution for Africa's malaria problem. He says the massive use of DDT causes resistance in mosquitoes. The toxic product also persists in the atmosphere and will remain a problem for generations to come.
Diouf says governments should emphasize other strategies that are effective in malaria control. For instance, he says sanitary conditions should be improved to keep malaria mosquitoes from breeding. He says people should have prompt and easy access to effective anti-malaria drugs.
The Stockholm Convention does not set a date by which countries must phase out the use of DDT, but parties to the Convention have to report on its use every three years.