Picture of Kristin Schafer

Kristin Schafer

Science still catching up on DDT harms

Two recent studies report new evidence of the harms of a very old pesticide.

It's that pesky, persistent and infamous chemical, DDT. Nearly 40 years after its use in agriculture was banned in many countries around the world, it's still present in our environment, food and bodies at levels that harm human health. And children, once again, are especially vulnerable.

According to researchers in Spain, when mothers are exposed to higher levels of DDT breakdown products during pregnancy, their babies are more likely to develop lung infections in their first year. And scientists in Korea report that exposure to DDT remnants may cause vitamin D deficiency, which is in turn linked to chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

DDT has been largely phased out around the world. Small amounts are still used in some countries as a tool for malaria control, but because of DDT's persistence and toxicity — and the availability of safer ways to control malaria — efforts are underway through a global treaty called the Stockholm Convention to help all countries shift away from reliance on DDT.

Since DDT can last for decades in the environment and remnants from its use 40 years ago are still affecting infant health, this seems like a very good idea.

Science plays catch-up

In an interview with Reuters Health about the Spanish study, Dr. Barbara Cohn, Director of Child Health and Development Studies at the Public Health Institute in California, noted the enthusiastic optimism about DDT when it was in widespread use in the '50s and '60s:

People thought it was a miracle compound. Nobody really knew what might be happening.

Eventually, the science catches up. Now history seems to be repeating itself — on a slightly tighter timeline — as new evidence emerges about the health harms of the latest batch of "safe" pesticides, pyrethroids.

Shouldn't we know better by now? In the words of another Spaniard, philospher and poet George Santayana, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." In this case, our failure to pay attention to history is putting our children's health at risk.

Picture of Kristin Schafer

Kristin Schafer

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