The Deadly Dust: The Unhappy History Of DDT

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How could it be removed from sprayed fruits and vegetables since, unlike earlier poisons, it would not wash off? Would it persist and build up in soils to a level poisonous to warm-blooded animals? And just how toxic was it to such creatures, including man? Harmless to man when absorbed in small doses over the short run, might it not build up in fatty tissues (experiments with dogs in 1944 and ’45 proved it did concentrate in fatty tissues) with harmful long-term effects? Would it be carried by soil erosion into streams and lakes and seas, with deadly effects on aquatic life? And, in general, what effect would its widespread use have upon the ecological balance?

These questions, discordant notes in the swelling anthem of praise for DDT, were all explicitly and repeatedly raised in the popular press as well as in special journals by concerned and knowledgeable men in 1944 and during the first nine months of 1945.

In early April, 1945, a report was released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on two years of nationwide testing of DDT by department entomologists. The report spoke of DDT as a “two-edged sword,” at once the “most promising insecticide ever developed” and the most menacing. Obviously a great deal more needed to be known about it before it could be deemed “safe for general use,” said Time magazine on April 16.

Nevertheless, DDT was released for general use barely four months later. On August 31, 1945—three days before the end of World War II—the War Production Board revoked its allocation order reserving the insecticide for military use. Certification by government agencies for almost unrestricted agricultural, household, and other uses swiftly followed. The Food and Drug Administration, for example, established as “safe” a DDT content of up to 7 p.p.m. (parts per million) in foods, though no one could possibly know at that time what, if any, level was “safe” over the long run.

Once DDT was released from wartime federal controls, the government’s power over its production, distribution, and use was diminished, probably more than a trusting public was aware. The U.S.D.A.'s limited control over pesticide manufacture and marketing derived from a igioact of Congress primarily intended to protect the farmer against fraud; it lacked any requirement for registering a pesticide before marketing it. The latter was not required until 1947, when Congress, facing a flood of chemical poisons in the wake of DDT, passed an Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act that incorporated and strengthened major provisions of the 1910 law. Consumer protection was broadened to include regulations for proper labelling and detailed instructions for safe use. The quintessential problem of the broad environmental effects of pesticide use was not even considered in the legislation, or in the debate preceding its passage.

In 1945 the pressures for DDT’s prompt release were, of course, immense. There were great immediate profits to be made from DDT’s manufacture, distribution, and agricultural use; and there was an eager market for house, yard, and other domestic uses as well. Worldwide, there was a desperate need for all the food and fiber that could be produced, and DDT could do more to increase production than any other insecticide. There was an even more desperate need to bring malaria and other insect-carried diseases under control, in our own South and in many countries (Crcece for one, India for another), and again DDT was the only available product up to the job.

For a number of years, the decision to release DDT seemed overwhelmingly justified by its benefits. The worldwide incidence of malaria was spectacularly reduced. In Greece, where a third of the work force had been losing two to three months of work time annually to malaria, and where malarial infant mortality in many villages approached 100 per cent, the disease was virtually eliminated from some 6,000 villages by a massive DDT-spraying campaign under the auspices of UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency. At the same time, through the use of DDT against insect pests, farm production was reportedly increased by as much as 40 per cent. In Egypt and India, equally remarkable results were achieved. It was reliably estimated that by 1950 DDT had saved five million lives over the world through destruction of malarial mosquitoes.

Millions more were saved from starvation because of increased food production made possible by DDT. The U.S.D.A. has estimated that, without chemical pesticides, some 30 per cent of America’s protein supply and 80 per cent of her high-vitamin crops would be lost to insects∗—and DDT was by far the most widely and heavily used chemical pesticide through the 1950’s

∗This estimate, one must note, is based on the assumption that present methods of single-crop farming over huge acreages would continue (strip-farming—dividing large fields among several different crops—would greatly reduce insect hazards) and that increasingly effective biological controls would not be developed.