21 Feb 2020 Story Chemicals & waste

The local hero protecting Papua New Guinea from DDT

Photo by Joshua Sam / Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme

Joshua Wowo discovered and secured 1,400 boxes of DDT in Papua New Guinea’s East New Britain Province. Now he waits for the day when his township’s toxic timebomb will finally be defused.

When Joshua Wowo was a child, his uncle would take him on rambling walks through the lush forest surrounding their home in Papua New Guinea’s East New Britain Province. On these explorations, Wowo would be introduced not only to the beauty of his country, but also to the health risks facing its people. Joshua’s uncle was a health officer, working for the Country’s Malaria Service Control Program and his dedication to helping his community encouraged Wowo to follow his footsteps and become a district health coordinator.

Malaria is still a major cause of mortality in Papua New Guinea, with 94 per cent of the population at high risk of infection. The pesticide DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) was once a popular method of controlling vector-borne diseases, such as malaria, and other pests in Papua New Guinea, and was widely used across the health, agricultural and industrial sectors.

A dangerous persistent organic pollutant targeted for elimination under the Stockholm Convention, DDT was banned in many countries where it was still in use in 1983. However, following the ban, rather than being safely disposed of, much of the DDT remaining in Papua New Guinea was left abandoned in warehouses and sheds around the country, posing a threat to both human health and the environment.

Joshua Wowo discovered 1,400 boxes of DDT in the East New Britain Province of Papua New Guinea. Photo by Joshua Sam / Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme
Joshua Wowo discovered 1,400 boxes of DDT in the East New Britain Province of Papua New Guinea.
Photo by Joshua Sam / Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme

Missing in plain sight

About 10 years ago, Wowo stumbled on one of these abandoned DDT stores near his office.

“It was 1,400 boxes—two 20-foot containers of DDT—that had been there for almost 40 years,” he says. “I would see people coming here to get DDT to put on their vegetable gardens, or kids playing with the powder, not only around the containers but also inside of them.”

While officially banned in the country, DDT is still used in Papua New Guinea, not only by farmers, but for fishing and even to control lice in children. DDT has been linked to cancer in humans and it is acutely toxic to fish and marine invertebrates.

DDT’s impact on human health is not immediate and, Wowo says, many locals don’t understand the risk they are running. “They perceive DDT as having benefits—and getting rid of it may be seen as depriving them from those benefits.”

Knowing about DDT’s impacts on both human health and the environment, Wowo decided to take responsibility for the store he had found, and with the support of the District Services Improvement Programme it was safely locked away.

“After we heard about DDT in the Arctic, where they found traces of it even though it was never used in the region, that is when I thought it was going to be a big problem,” he says.

A dangerous persistent organic pollutant targeted for elimination under the Stockholm Convention, DDT was banned across much of the world in 1983. Credit: Joshua Sam / Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme
A dangerous persistent organic pollutant targeted for elimination under the Stockholm Convention, DDT was banned across much of the world in 1983. Photo by Joshua Sam / Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme

Defusing a toxic timebomb

But although Wowo was able to lock the DDT up, actually getting rid of it has proved a much greater challenge.

“I locked the containers four times already. I started locking them in 2006,” he says. “Conservation programmes and other organizations come, break them open and then just lock them up again. They can’t do this all the time!” says Joshua.

But an end to Joshua’s long watch is finally on the way, with the DDT store scheduled for export and disposal under the United Nations Environment Programme-led Implementing Sustainable Low and Non-Chemical Development in Small Islands Developing States (GEF ISLANDS), a US$450-million initiative backed by Global Environment Facility and partners to support island states across the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean to build long-term sustainability and manage the growing impacts of chemicals and wastes on their unique environments.

 “Like many other Small Island Developing States, Papua New Guinea, doesn’t have the technical capacity or the required facilities to safely manage and dispose of hazardous and toxic waste,” Joshua Sam, Hazardous Waste Management Adviser at the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme, executing partner for the programme in the Pacific says.

“From Rabaul, the DDT has to be loaded onto containers, transported to the Kokopo port and loaded onto a ship to Australia where it will be destroyed.”

Meanwhile, Joshua Wowo remains resolutely on guard, waiting for the day his township’s toxic timebomb is finally disposed of.

“I will only be happy with you if you really take it away,” he says. “Meanwhile, I will try my best to come and I will continue to check.”

Currently under lock and key, the DDT stocks will be shipped to Australia for disposal under the GEF ISLANDS project. Credit: Joshua Sam / Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme
Currently under lock and key, the DDT stocks will be shipped to Australia for disposal under the GEF ISLANDS project.
Photo by Joshua Sam / Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme

Implementing Sustainable Low and Non-Chemical Development in Small Island Developing States (ISLANDS) is a US$450-million, five-year Global Environment Facility-backed initiative to manage the growing impacts of chemicals and wastes in 30 Island Developing States.

 

To learn more about the ISLANDS programme or UNEP’s work in Chemicals & Waste, contact kevin.helps@un.org.