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Opinion: Why it's time for the honest use of pesticides

We need to learn from our mistakes, take a hard look at the science and use DDT where and when it is needed: to save lives.

Workers spray pesticide on a swarm of locusts 62 miles south of Tajik capital, Dushanbe, April 6, 2008. (Nozim Kalandarov/Reuters)

NEW YORK — The bedbugs moved into my house. I was itching all night long and after about five futile attempts to blast them with pyrethroids, one of the few allowable pesticides, I was ready for something stronger. Anything really.

Compared to other pesticides, pyrethroids are less toxic to humans and apparently less toxic to bedbugs too. (Thanks to our zeal for abusing anything new, bedbugs in New York City, where I live, are more than 200 times resistant to pyrethroids compared with Florida bedbugs, according to a recent study.) All I wanted was my exterminator to sneak me some DDT or another banned chemical. I considered organophosphates — the ones that have been linked to cognitive impairments among children.

My bedbug fiasco — costly and time-consuming — got me thinking about the global balancing act of pesticides versus disease. The real issue is not about those of us in the developed world annoyed with bedbugs and lice (we dealt with those too), but the rest of the world who have to weigh the pros and cons of pesticides versus killer infections.

Pesticides work because they are poisons. The goal is to concoct a chemical that hits bugs but nothing else. A microbiologist told me that his oncologist friends are in the same bind. They say they can kill every cancer cell but they’d kill the patient too. The trick — for the bugs and cancer — is all about targeting. We’re not there yet.

For most of us, raised in the post-"Silent Spring" era (Rachel Carson’s 1962 blockbuster book that outlined the abuse of pesticides and launched the environmental movement), DDT has become the Voldemort of chemicals — he whose name should not be ... spoken.

Yet this same drug was once considered a miracle weapon. After World War II, death camp survivors were drenched with the stuff to prevent typhus and our farmlands were showered with it to protect crops. It did the trick but we quickly learned it also killed birds and wildlife. To top it off, our abuse of it spurred resistance — something the experts warned about all along. DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1971. The chemical was labeled one of the so-called “dirty dozen” at the 1995 Stockholm Convention of Persistent Organic Pollutants slated for restriction, but not elimination. It was never banned globally.

The World Health Organization changed its tune a few years ago and started encouraging malaria-ravaged countries to use DDT indoors. The United States Agency for International Development, which for years did not fund DDT projects, started to sponsor a few of them here and there.

It’s important to remember that no one is talking about airplanes spraying pesticides the way we did half a century ago. They are talking about limited uses of chemicals inside certain homes with vulnerable mosquitoes — combined with a lot of other malaria-prevention techniques.