Remembering the old warrior, DDT

Like meeting an old friend, it’s a pleasure to see DDT back in the popular press after all these years, immersed as always in factual errors and misdrawn conclusions. But its reappearance helps to remind us how threats to the environment were dealt with and the progress we’ve made.

My first recall of DDT was a breathless article about it (approximately 1947) in Reader’s Digest, suggesting we could say goodbye to houseflies and mosquitoes—[and] just about all our other insect pests. As World War II wound down, DDT was indeed an important tool in the Pacific, where disease-carrying bugs were readily controlled by this new wonder chemical.

History shows that DDT, discovered in the lab by a Swiss scientist before the war, was indeed a wonder. But like all “miracles,” it turned out to be a mixed blessing and an agent for change in the way we thought about the environment. It was also about this time (early 1950s) that Rachel Carson, dying of terminal cancer, produced her book, The Sea Around Us—an effort to alert us to the need for better stewardship of the environment. Ultimately, the EPA was born as we thought better of some of our wasteful, polluting ways.

True, DDT was a potent weapon, first against flies, mosquitoes and some of man’s other pests, but soon nature came forward with a lesson. We learned about insect resistance and that a broad-spectrum killer like DDT couldn’t tell a honeybee from a gypsy moth. Because DDT appeared to be harmless to man [and] so promising and profitable for big pesticide companies, it was soon overused, carelessly dispensed and finally discontinued in most instances.

Some of us have even attempted to estimate how many lives were lost—or could have been saved if malarial mosquitoes had been controlled and DDT use had not ended. From there we can go on to estimate how many of Napoleon’s troops might not have died of louse-born cholera, if they’d had DDT. Coulda, woulda, shoulda. But DDT had a good run in its day, saved many lives and even today reminds us of our progress toward protecting the environment.

— Allen Thomas

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