In 2001, the Bush Administration signed the United Nations Environment Program’s Global Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, known as the POPs Treaty. It bans twelve chemicals—DDT, aldrin, dieldrin, endrin, chlordane, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene, mirex, toxaphene, polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxins, and furans—most of which are already banned in the United States. Congress is currently considering passing legislation to implement the treaty, which members want to pass before Senate ratification. This legislation promises to make a seriously flawed treaty even worse.
The POPs treaty allows for limited, temporary use—until other options come available—of the pesticide DDT, which has important applications for limiting human exposure to malaria-carrying mosquitoes in the developing world. The exemption for DDT came after considerable pressure from public health officials from around the world who signed a petition urging POPs Treaty negotiators to include a public health exemption to the DDT ban.
The assumption behind such bans is that there are no valuable uses for the banned products. Were that true, there would be no markets for such products and no need for any bans. In reality, these bans only harm consumers by raising prices and denying access to desired products. The world’s poor are often hit the hardest by such policies because they can least afford expensive alternatives, even when they are available.
Treaty regulations on DDT are a case in point. Even with its limited, temporary exemption on the use of the DDT for malaria control, the treaty regulations governing use make access more expensive and difficult at a time when more than a million people—most of them children—die and several hundred million suffer from the disease annually. Meanwhile, limited use of DDT could save millions of lives and help bring the disease under control, with little environmental impact. Rather than advance bans under POPs, policymakers should seek ways to improve DDT access.