Reminiscing about DDT

Here’s reminiscing about an old story from the 60’s.

The malaria eradication programme carried out by the Medical Department started in Sabah in 1961. What they did was to go around the villages in Sabah and sprayed all the houses with DDT to kill the malaria vector – the Anopheles mosquito. I recalled the “tukang poomp” (the DDT sprayers) visited the my village twice a year until 1971 – 10 years later by which time probably most of the kampong folks were full of DDT.

But that is getting ahead of the story.

For us kids, the visit of the tukang poomps were a welcomed distraction to the routine of kampong life. We would follow the sprayers as they go house to house and spray each one from wall to ceiling as well as on everything outside. We would go “ooh” and “aaah” as the fine white mist descended upon as us we tagged along the working sprayer (ouch!). The adult folks were however divided into two camps: one camp was reluctant to have their houses sprayed for a number of reasons; the other could not wait for the medical people to arrive for a single reason which I will divulge later.

I am telling you, kampong folks are not idiots. Here’s a quote from a World Health Organization Field Report about Sabah in 1968, commenting about Kota Belud recalcitrants:

“A great deal of the refusal to DDT spraying was being attributed to beliefs that DDT poisoned water buffalo, horses, chickens, ducks, children; that atap roofs would be destroyed; that the house sprayed would lead to conversion to a foreign religion; etc.” Later the report suggested that “one or two key officials in the Kota Belud Area be sent to Kuala Lumpur for a malaria eradication course for senior community leaders and the importance of securing help from traditional practitioners called “Bomos”. Significantly the study got it pathetically wrong by arriving at the conclusion that the “growing resistance to the programme” was because “people do not like the chalking effect of DDT and change to emulsion would reduce untidiness.” It goes on to say that “the disadvantage is in the expense of the emulsion.”

I guess with hindsight we can now say, “Government morons!” Don’t you think they are insulting the intelligence of the fine folks from Kota Belud? (Note: The Medical Department did change to DDT emulsion.) Here is the report in full.

As I recalled, those were the many reasons the first camp in my kampong did not want the spraying too. And yes, cats did die within a week of the spraying. Truth be told, I have buried some of the poisoned felines myself (see this article). Within two days of the DDT being sprayed, the cats would be shivering like they have malaria or heroin withdrawal symptoms. By the end of the week they will be doing the St. Vitus Dance and slowly die in utter agony. In later years of the programme, we would be advised to keep the cats away during spraying and cage them for a week thereafter. Of course, we kids were free to continue to follow and admire the handiwork of the sprayers.

So what is this about DDT rotting atap roofs? I remembered my elders arguing the same point with the Malaria people then. (I bet some of you older readers did not know that this was true and that there is a cause.) The dried rumbia fronds of the atap are eaten by caterpillar larvae which are normally preyed upon and kept in check by parasitic wasps. But the DDT decimate the wasps leaving the larvae free to devour the atap. Also, although I don’t recall this one: there is an article that said Malaysian kampong folks also complained about bedbugs. It turns out that what normally happens is that ants like to eat bedbug larvae but the ants were being killed by the DDT and the bedbugs weren’t – they were pretty resistant to it. So now they have a Banking (bedbug) problem. Scratch, scratch, scratch…

Remember the second camp? Well, as soon as the sprayers came to our village, with some persuasion or pleas (probably along with some well-chosen bribes), they get a share of the white DDT powder. Soon enough, the DDT tuba (fish poison) party will start in the river that meanders through our kampong. They will use the DDT as a fish poison: folks will pour it down the river and by evening, hey, most of the kampong inhabitants will be having sumptuous dinners with DDT-laced fish and prawns (double ouch!).

Like I said, they stopped the DDT-fueled malaria eradication programme in the early 70’s. By this time, the supply of DDT as a fishing means was a moot point as more toxic insecticides such as Deldrin (triple ouch!) were freely available in kedai runcit (regular sundry shops). Folks were so impressed with the efficacy of this potent chemical: “We don’t even have to catch the prawns; they would climb to dry land to escape the tuba!”

Thinking back I guess many of the health problems of the now old or middle-aged villagers of my kampong can probably be attributed to the exposure and biomagnification effects of DDT. Quite a number of the women are childless or have fertility problems. I am sorry to say this for I am a government officer also, but sometimes government can get it very wrong too. Well, at least we corrected it; some countries are still using DDT today.

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