Original Documents: Long history of DDT trouble, from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1945 and later

Header of FWS press release, Aug 22 1945

Archives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) reveal a long history of trouble with DDT, almost from the first uses of the chemical as an insecticide during World War II. You’ll find extensive links to historic press releases from FWS below the fold.

Critics of the various restrictions on DDT use often claim that DDT is a God-sent chemical that nearly eradicated malaria from the world (absolutely untrue) and which was banned only because of hysteria caused by Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring (untrue at both ends, hysteria and the power of Carson’s book). This is history revisionism at its worst, it is bogus history.

A careful study of the history of the use of DDT shows that scientists were concerned about its dangers from the first uses as a pesticide. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported dangers in a press release on August 22, 1945, just a week after the surrender of Japan ended World War II (VJ Day was August 15 in Tokyo, August 14 in Washington). In that release FWS noted the beneficial uses of DDT to fight insect and lice infestations that threatened troops and civilians with typhus and other diseases, but cautioned that such use should not become common, that more study was needed:

Praising DDT as an outstanding scientific achievement and a very valuable tool, Dr. Clarence Cottam, Director of Wildlife Research of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said that “caution in its use is esssential because of our incomplete knowledge of its action on many living things, both harmful and beneficial.

“Its use by the armed forces in Europe and the Pacific in killing disease-carrying insects was so effective and the need so urgent that its effects on other organisms had to be overlooked. Present information is based largely on single applications of DDT spray. The effects of repeated applications are little known.”

FWS had good reason for concern. Their tests had already shown DDT could kill waterfowl, which started the agency on a long quest for alternatives to DDT spraying of estuaries and swamps, in order to protect migratory waterfowl and the ecosystems that maintain their habitat.

Repeatedly through the next 50 years FWS noted serious problems with DDT and its effects on wildlife. FWS created an on-line archives of their press notices on DDT which traces this history clearly and convincingly.

Teachers can use these documents for document-based questions (DBQ) and exercises. Students can track the history of the ban of DDT through this one series of press releases, or supplement projects they may propose on DDT and its effects.

Policy makers and concerned citizens will notice that in these releases are direct refutations of claims made by pseudo-science groups such as JunkScience.com, that the 1927 EPA ban on most uses of DDT was not fully considered, not based on long-term research, or not based on research at all. These releases directly refute claims that DDT was not found harmful to birds and other wildlife.

The entire press release collection appears below, as FWS presents it at their site — all the links should work directly (let me know if you have problems). [While the table pasted in neatly originally, after posting I discovered the press release titles are being cut off — if you have a solution, holler; I’m working on it]

US Fish and Wildlife Service Historic News Releases – DDT**

June 17, 1945 Controlled study on effects of DDT undertaken at Patuxent Refuge
August 10, 1945 Study on the Use of DDT in Fish Processing Houses Under Way
August 22, 1945 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Reports DDT is Capable of Considerable Damage to Wildlife, Beneficial Insects, and Indirectly to Crops.
May 18, 1946 New Publication Announcement – DDT: It’s Effects on Fish and Wildlife.
January 10, 1947 Fish and Wildlife Service Releases Annual Report for Fiscal Year 1946.
March 28, 1949 Fish and Wildlife Service Releases Annual Report for Fiscal Year 1948.
June 9, 1958 Interior Follows Up On “Drown the Mosquito–Save the Duck Marsh” Plan.
June 21, 1959 Department of Interior Endorses Enlarged Research Program on Effects of Pesticides on Wildlife.

[1962. Rachel Carson’sSilent Spring is published]

November 10, 1962 Assistant Secretary of the Interior Address Before the Meeting of the Audubon Society (mentions Rachel Carson).
May 22, 1963 Secretary Udall Testifies on Pesticide Problems, Warning of Environmental Hazards.
August 12, 1963 Announcement: New Wildlife-Pesticide Report Released by Interior Department.
February 4, 1964 Announcement: Results of Pesticide-Wildlife Studies Reported in Interior Department’s Annual Report.
April 8, 1964 Udall Cites Pesticide Danger.
September 4, 1964 Stringent Rules Ordered in Using Pesticides on Interior – Administered.
November 15, 1964 High Percentage of North American Bald Eagles Carry DDT, Interior Department Study Reveals.
February 11, 1965 DDT Found in Penguins and Seals from Antarctica.
May 27, 1965 Pesticides and Man: Remarks by John A. Carver, Jr. Under Secretary of the Interior.
September 7, 1965 Mere Trace of Pesticide Kills Aquatic Life, Interior Department Study Finds.
February 3, 1966 Pesticide Residues Found in Animals Throughout World.
January 11, 1970 Pesticide Residues Found in Mallard and Black Duck Wings and Starlings.
June 18, 1970 Secretary Hickel Bans Use of 16 Pesticides on any Interior Lands or Programs.

[July 9, 1970 President Nixon Establishes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).]

October 8, 1970 Woodcock Pesticide Samples Being Taken in Maine.
November 19, 1970 What a Wonderful — but Endangered — Bird is the Pelican.

[December 2, 1970
EPA Opens Doors

December 6, 1970 News Brief from the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife: Chalk Up Another Victim for DDT.
December 14, 1970 Hunter Safety Programs (includes discussion of sparrow hawk and DDT)
August 22, 1971 Good News for Dove Hunters: The Fish and Wildlife Service is finding low levels of DDT .
June 27, 1972 Secretary of the Interior Address Before the Outdoor Writers of America.

DDT Ban Takes Effect Federal Register

EPA press release – December 31, 1972

November 1, 1973 Reproductive Failure in Peregrine Falcons Increases.
September 30, 1975 Brown Pelican Decline Puzzles Experts.
October 27, 1975 Herons May Forecast Environmental Change.
March 20, 1976 Remarks of Secretary of the Interior Before National Wildlife Federation’s Annual Conference.
March 22, 1976 Top 10 Fish and Wildlife Stories Told in Annual Report.
March 17, 1977 Polar Bears Being Studied Like Never Before.
June 20, 1979 Peregrine Falcons for the Nation’s Capitol.
July 11, 1979 Endangered Peregrine’s Flight Honors Rachel Carson, 17 Years After “Silent Spring”.
August 15, 1980 Nation’s Most Endangered Species May Become Extinct Within Four Years.
December 31, 1981 Good News About Wildlife in 1981.
March 8, 1982 Ten Years Later: Bird Populations Rise as DDT Declines in the Environment.
April 1, 1983 Proposed “Threatened” Status Reflects Improvement for Arctic Peregrine Falcons; Other Rule Changes Proposed for Peregrines.
November 10, 1983 Brown Pelicans Has Recovered in Eastern States, May Be Removed from Endangered Species List.
March 2, 1984 Fish and Wildlife Service has released results of-a study on levels of pesticides (DDT and DDE) in fish and wildlife from the Rio Grande and Pecos River drainages in Texas and New Mexico.
April 6, 1984 Arctic Peregrine Falcon Reclassified to “Threatened;” Other Protections for Peregrine Extended.
February 5, 1985 Brown Pelicans Removed from Endangered Species List in Southeastern States.
February 11, 1988 Red Wolf Returns, but Last Dusty Seaside Sparrow Dies in 1987.
February 2, 1990 Bald Eagle Numbers Show Dramatic Growth: Nation’s Symbol Eyed for Reclassification Under the Endangered Species Act.
October 8, 1993 Arctic Peregrine Falcon Makes a Comeback: Fish and Wildlife Service Proposes Removing From Endangered Species List
June 30, 1994 Bald Eagle Returning From Near Extinction; Celebrated as “Hope” Takes Flight.
October 4, 1994 Saved from Near Extinction, Arctic Peregrine Falcons are Removed From Endangered Species List.
July 12, 1995 Bald Eagle Soars Again! Population Increases Shift National Symbol To Less Critical Status.
May 9, 1996 Endangered Species Act Successes Recounted as Adjunct to International Migratory Bird Day.
August 12, 1998 The Peregrine Falcon is Back! Babbitt Announces Proposal to Remove World’s Fastest Bird From Endangered Species List.

** We have attempted to make available every historic news release that refers to DDT. However, we do not guarantee that this list is all inclusive.

Last Updated: August 2, 2007

Time after time, when we check the archives to see what history really says, we find important lessons that would prevent trouble, if we listen. One more demonstration of Santayana’s maxim.


5 Responses to Original Documents: Long history of DDT trouble, from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1945 and later

  1. […] Ed uncovers some early documents indicating problems with DDT (and more here) […]


  2. Shannon says:

    My mom found out she had breast cancer 6 years ago even though no one in my family has ever had cancer of any kind. She survived but has long term affects of cancer-chemo related brain dementia. If I could prove that the government or any government related agency knew about the long term effects of DDT and pushed it underneath the rug. My mom would be a very rich woman.


  3. Ed Darrell says:

    Should we be surprised it’s not included in the press release, since the study was published 15 years after the release? That’s one of the points I’m making here: Milloy claims the ban on DDT was rash, hasty and not supported by evidence. This is research 27 years before the DDT ban, showing why a ban on DDT would be a good idea.

    That study you cite does not conclude that other factors are involved. It does corroborate the claim that DDT was the chief culprit in the precipitous thinning of eggshells after DDT was introduced into the raptors’ diets in the wild.

    But let us assume there are other factors involved: Vilifred Pareto noted that 20% of the causes create 80% of the trouble. DDT is the biggest villain, and reducing its use has provided huge benefits. Can we track down the other sources? Let’s do it. In the meantime, DDT still is indicted and convicted, and gets no time off for good behavior, since there is none.

    And while we’re at it, did you bother to read the conclusions of that FWS release?

    Our contaminant monitoring program in Region 7 has been one of the most thorough ever, even for a species as well studied as the peregrine falcon. With data collected during this program, we were able to monitor the major threat to this species (DDT), and we were able to base our reclassification decisions (delisting of the Arctic peregrine falcon and the American peregrine falcon) on very detailed and scientifically credible data. As the FWS considers implementing post-delisting monitoring plans, we will be developing a contaminant monitoring program similar to the one we conducted in Alaska for lower 48 States’ peregrine populations.

    FWS thought this program a success, showing that when DDE levels dropped low enough, reproductive success of the raptors helped make a case for delisting the species from the endangered list. A triumph of science and politics and policy, really.

    While you’re reading stuff in the FWS electronic library (Is it safe to assume you found it from the links I offered? You’re welcome — but read the stuff, will you?), be sure to catch these publications:
    Pesticide impacts on birds:
    Migratory birds and contaminants along the lower Columbia:

    Click to access befact.pdf

    Reducing pesticide risk to wildlife:

    Click to access pestandwild.pdf

    Integrated Pest Management: Reducing risks to pollinators from pest management activities:

    Click to access IPMpol.pdf

    See the next post, too — on hormonal mimicry.


  4. J F Beck says:

    Mr Darrell, raptors feature prominently in the press releases but I’ll bet the following from the FWS isn’t included:

    “Analysis of eggs collected during these three periods showed a clear downward trend of DDE concentrations in eggs. In the late 1960s, DDE residues in the range of 20-40 ppm (parts per million) and eggshell thinning in excess of 20 percent were observed for peregrine falcons in Alaska (Peakall et. al 1975). Peakall (1976) reported that DDE residues in eggs in the range of 15 to 20 ppm would likely result in a declining peregrine falcon population. By 1995, DDE levels had declined to 2 to 3 ppm. Eggshell thickness also increased following the 1972 restrictions on DDT, although this increase appears to have leveled off at about 10 to 12 percent thinner than pre-DDT levels. Although current egg shells are still thinner than pre-DDT levels, reproductive success has been good. We are unsure why, with continuing declines in DDE, egg shell thickness has not continued to improve. We will continue to investigate other possible causes, including other contaminants.”


    So other unknown factors are involved in egg shell thinning. Since these factors are unknown, it’s impossible to know what bearing they have on egg shell thinning. Perhaps they, and not DDT, are totally responsible for the thinning.

    Are you still certain it was DDT on the grassy knoll?


  5. Bug Girl says:

    Great find Ed! I will add it to the “Cliffs Notes”


Please play nice in the Bathtub -- splash no soap in anyone's eyes. While your e-mail will not show with comments, note that it is our policy not to allow false e-mail addresses. Comments with non-working e-mail addresses may be deleted.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: