For over three decades a 500 ton stock of DDT has caused serious health hazards; UN FAO comes to the rescue
Thanks to a United Nations-led initiative, Bangladesh is finally getting rid of a huge cache of notoriously toxic and currently illegal pesticide, Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane or DDT, as it is commonly known.
Thirty four years after the import of a sub-standard DDT consignment which has since been stored at Chattogram Government Medical Sub-depot (MSD), will soon be shipped out of the country and destroyed in an underground incinerator in Germany.
Government will launch a USD 42 million project – ‘Pesticide Risk Reduction in Bangladesh’ – with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations on Thursday, under which USD 8.29 million will be spent to dispose of the DDT, officials of FAO and the Economic Relations Division (ERD) of the Finance Ministry told the Dhaka Tribune on Wednesday.
Global Environment Facility (GEF) is providing the DDT destroying fund. Established on the eve of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, GEF helps tackle the planet’s most pressing environmental problems.
Once destroyed, Bangladesh will at last be freed from the trouble of stocking such a big consignment of DDT, which for years has been polluting the environment causing serious health hazards.
The development comes 21 years after Bangladesh officially banned DDT registration in the country, stopping local production and imports. The United States banned toxic DDT back in 1972 while a worldwide ban on its agricultural use as pesticide was banned under the Stock Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) since 2004.
In 1985, the Bangladesh government, with an Asian Development Bank (ADB) financed project, implemented by the World Health Organization (WHO), imported the DDT to fight a malaria epidemic. However, it was later found out to be not in compliance with the technical requirements and therefore, was stored in Chattogram MSD.
The stockpile has remained there since, where due to the adverse effects of a humid tropical climate on DDT molecular stability, the stock became severely degraded and largely obsolete. In addition, in 1991 the area was exposed to severe floods, greatly exacerbating the problem by flushing DDT into the surrounding environment.
Speaking on the DDT crisis at a city workshop last year, a then additional secretary of the ministry of environment forest and climate change said exposure to the stockpiled DDT might have caused cancer to at least two of his colleagues who later died. They were posted at the DDT stockyard at different points in time.
DDT persists in soil, water, and bio-accumulates in organisms through the food chain. Eventual consumption by humans has toxic and likely carcinogenic effects.
Bangladesh has one of the highest population densities of any country in the world and the port city of Chattogram is the second largest city of Bangladesh. The DDT stockpile is in the centre of the city.
According to the FAO, people living in slums surrounding the depot until recently, very likely have been exposed to DDT and the stockpile poses a very high risk to human health and the ecosystem.
FAO says: “While DDT is banned for use as an agricultural pesticide, testing has shown high concentrations of DDT in dry fish, a common source of protein and the basis of many livelihoods in Bangladesh. DDT is being used in some areas of Bangladesh to prevent spoilage of fish in the drying process, demonstrating a severe lack of awareness of the negative impacts of DDT.”
Why it took so long
In Bangladesh there is neither strategy nor capacity for collecting and disposing of hazardous waste such as obsolete pesticides. National regulations and border customs practices have loopholes that allow hazardous substances to escape attention.
Following increased public awareness about the negative impacts of DDT like its spillage owing to floods, and the DDT contamination of dried fish, the government in recent years has tried to manage funds and capacity to dispose of the DDT.
The FAO project now intends, not only to rid Bangladesh of the toxic substance but also to support the country in updating its national regulations in keeping with the Stockholm Convention, and developing national capacity for the management and safe disposal of hazardous waste in order to safeguard people and the environment.
The project objective is to reduce the risk to human and animal health and the environment from stockpiles of POPs and other obsolete pesticides, and from the ongoing excessive use of new POPs and other highly hazardous pesticides. The project has several components, which include: disposal of legacy stockpiles of POPs, governance and enforcement, and awareness and communication regarding pesticide use.
It’s not only DDT
In addition to the 500 tons of DDT, there are another estimated 500 tons of other POPs in Bangladesh and the government-FAO partnership also aims to reduce the risk to human and animal health and the environment with an environmentally sound elimination of 1000 tons of POPs. The project will also work to ensure better management of empty pesticide containers, better food preservation and agricultural practices, and improved legislation for chemical management.
The project proposes collecting, cleaning up, and safely disposing of the large stockpile of obsolete DDT in Chattogram, and developing national capacity for emergency preparedness. Furthermore, the project will work towards ensuring safe practices in the management of hazardous waste, risk assessment, sampling and analysis in the field and laboratory, for environmental monitoring.
The project also proposes piloting a collection and disposal/recycling strategy for empty pesticide containers with an initial 100 tons of containers to be collected and safely disposed of.
What is DDT?
Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, commonly known as DDT, is a colorless, tasteless, and almost odorless crystalline chemical compound, originally developed as an insecticide, and ultimately becoming infamous for its environmental impacts.
It was first synthesized in 1874 by Austrian chemist Othmar Zeidler. DDT’s insecticidal action was discovered by Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Muller in 1939. DDT was used in the second half of the Second World War to control malaria among civilians and troops. Müller was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery of the high efficiency of DDT as a contact poison against several arthropods in 1948.
In 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s book, “Silent Spring,” cataloged environmental impacts that coincided with the widespread use of DDT in agriculture in the United States, and it questioned the logic of broadcasting potentially dangerous chemicals into the environment with little prior investigation of their environmental and health effects. The book said that DDT and other pesticides had been shown to cause cancer and that their agricultural use was a threat to wildlife, particularly birds. Its publication was a seminal event for the environmental movement and resulted in a large public outcry that eventually led to a ban on DDT’s agricultural use in the United States in 1972.