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.
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 concernedcitizens 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**
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Teacher of law, economics, history, AP government, psychology and science. Former speechwriter, press guy and legislative aide in U.S. Senate. Former Department of Education. My blog, Millard Fillmore's Bathtub, is a continuing experiment to test how to use blogs to improve and speed up learning processes for students, perhaps by making some of the courses actually interesting. It is a blog for teachers, to see if we can use blogs. It is for people interested in social studies and social studies education, to see if we can learn to get it right. It's a blog for science fans, to promote good science and good science policy. It's a blog for people interested in good government and how to achieve it.
BS in Mass Communication, University of Utah
Graduate study in Rhetoric and Speech Communication, University of Arizona
JD from the National Law Center, George Washington University