DDT and the precautionary principle

Environmentalists have rediscovered the old adage, "better safe than sorry," and repackaged it as the "precautionary principle." While there is no single, agreed-upon definition of the principle, all of its formulations call for reducing, if not eliminating, risks to public health, the environment or both, says independent scholar Indur M. Goklany.

Based on their interpretation of the principle, environmentalists advocate a global ban on the pesticide DDT. They contend that since DDT is not proven to be entirely safe, it should be banned, thus implicitly favouring wildlife over human life without having to explicitly state their preference, says Goklany.

Unfortunately, standard versions of the principle do not provide any guidance on resolving this wildlife-versus-human-health dilemma. When applied to policies on DDT, for example, this framework leads to the conclusion that a global ban on DDT is unjustified.

  • DDT was an important factor in the virtual extermination of malaria in several developed countries including the United States, and it was spectacularly successful in developing countries such as India and Sri Lanka.

  • But it was a victim of its own success; no longer fearful of malaria, industrialised nations prohibited DDT's manufacture and use because of its adverse effects on birds of prey – and fears of its potential but unverified long-term impacts on human health.

  • However, DDT is still the most cost-effective insecticide available for use against many mosquitoes that spread malaria, which mostly affects developing countries.

  • DDT is relatively inexpensive and much more effective than the next best alternative insecticide.

    Ethically, since the risk of death to humans trumps the health threats posed to non-human animals, including raptors, continued use of DDT in the developing world is justified. This is especially true if DDT is used in a way that limits the exposure of wildlife, explains Goklany.

    Source: Indur M. Goklany, Applying the Precautionary Principle to DDT, Brief Analysis No. 485, September 16, 2004.

    For texthttp://www.ncpa.org/pub/ba/ba485/

    For more on Environment (Agriculture: Pesticides)http://eteam.ncpa.org/policy/Agriculture/Pesticides/

    FMF Policy Bulletin/28 September 2004
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