United Nations Meet to Seek Safer Ways to Kill Insect Pests
OSLO A U.N. meeting this week will seek new ways to kill mosquitoes and termites as part of a plan to bolster a 2004 ban on use of a "dirty dozen" toxic chemicals.
Some pesticides on the blacklist of 12 industrial toxins are still in use to keep humanity's worst insect foes at bay even though they have been blamed for deaths, cancers or birth defects in humans and animals.
About 800 officials from around the world will meet in Punta del Este, Uruguay, on May 2-6 to narrow loopholes allowing legal exemptions to the ban on the so-called persistent organic pollutants (POPs).
"Eliminating POPs ... will cost billions of dollars and require countries to adopt new methods and technologies to replace these toxic substances," said Klaus Toepfer, head of the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP).
"The hard work has only just begun," he said of the Stockholm POPs Convention, which entered into force in May 2004.
Among loopholes, DDT, a pesticide banned for use on crops, is still used legally to keep malaria-carrying mosquitoes at bay in South Africa. And Australia, for instance, is among countries still allowed to use the pesticide mirex to kill termites.
Some newer pesticides may also be harmful to the environment.
"There are newer substitutes but they are also maybe not the best chemicals," Agnete Sunden, senior scientific affairs officer at UNEP chemicals, told Reuters. "The best way is to find more environmentally friendly approaches."
Continued use of the industrial poisons involves hard choices about halting insect plagues while risking longer-term health threats. POPs build up in fatty tissues and traces can be found in every person in the world.
Yet malaria kills 1 million people a year, making mosquitoes the most deadly creatures on the planet for humans. Termites cause $30 billion a year in damage by chomping through wooden buildings, bridges and crops, UNEP reckons.
Simpler strategies for curbing malaria include bed nets impregnated with one of 11 new insecticides that can last for five years, UNEP says. But a problem with some new insecticides is that mosquitoes can develop resistance.
"It will take a long time to get rid of DDT," Sunden said.
Simpler ways to control termites include destroying nests before building and regular inspections. Wood impregnated with newer insecticides and better designs -- as simple as removable skirting boards -- also help.
Many environmentalists say it is too easy to get exemptions under the convention -- no requests have been turned down.
And when a current batch of exemptions runs out in 2009, countries will be able to seek extensions. The meeting in Punta del Este will seek to impose clearer rules on how long exemptions can last and how they will be reviewed.
Fourteen countries from Chile to Pakistan are using termite insecticides chlordane, heptachlor and mirex, while 20 nations spray homes with 7,500 tonnes of DDT a year to kill mosquitoes. The WWF environmental group said another 20 chemicals should be added to the POPs blacklist, including five flame retardants widely used in computers and furniture.
But rules for adding new chemicals have yet to be worked out. The Uruguay talks will seek to lay down review rules.
"If it takes 5-10 years to get substances added we're going to be losing the battle," Clifton Curtis, Director of WWF's Global Toxics Programme, told Reuters. "For each chemical we ban we create hundreds that are problematic."