One of the anti-environmental, anti-green false myths kicking around is that DDT is not harmful to humans, and therefore it probably shouldn’t have been banned, “and Rachel Carson was wrong.”
Reality is that DDT is a poison, but acute poisoning of large animals tends to take a lot. Insectivorous animals or their predators can get those fatal amounts, but humans generally don’t. DDT as a toxin kills mammals and birds and amphibians and reptiles and fish with equal alacrity, slowed only by the size of the organism and whether the organism’s diet consists of other things that consume and accumulate DDT.
Often that misperception is coupled with a claim that DDT does not cause cancer, and so should have its ban lifted.
But, the facts:
- DDT is a neurotoxin; in accumulates in fat, and if enough of it courses through the blood of an animal at a given point, it kills off parts of the neurosystem including the brain.
- DDT kills mammals (humans are mammals); in fact the U.S. Army argued to keep DDT on the market to use against bats that infested barracks in training camps (bats are mammals, too). Death depends on the dose, which depends on body size. Takes a fair amount to kill off a large mammal, quickly. DDT is implicated in the near extinction of different species of migratory free-tail bats in the Southwest.
- DDT is carcinogenic. Fortunately for humans, it’s a weak carcinogen for most cancers, though research points to a troubling link to some cancers (breast, reproductive organs) that appear very late relative to exposure, especially if exposure to DDT occurs in utero, or in infancy.
- DDT was not banned as a hazard to human health; it was banned as a hazard to wildlife. DDT in almost all concentrations becomes an indiscriminate killer of wildlife when used outdoors.
- DDT can kill humans with acute poisoning.
That last point isn’t easy to document in the U.S. During the go-go DDT years there was one case of a young girl who drank from a prepared DDT solution, and died a short time later. The incident was a tragedy, but not unique for the 1950s and 1960s. It was written off to lax safety standards, and because it occurred long before the origin of on-line databases, essentially it has fallen out of history. Just try to find a reference to the death today.
Partly, this lack of information on human toxicity is due to the fact that DDT use was slowing dramatically by the late 1960s (it was becoming ineffective), and after the ban in 1972, there were few cases in the U.S. where humans were exposed to the stuff, except in emissions from DDT manufacturing plants. EPA’s order banning DDT in the U.S. applied only to agricultural use, and the chief agricultural use remaining was on cotton. Manufacturing was not banned, however, which meant U.S. DDT makers could continue to pump the stuff out and sell it overseas, in Africa, and Asia. This continued right up to that day in 1984 that U.S. companies became subject to damage for the poisons they make under the Superfund law — almost every DDT maker declared bankruptcy to escape liability in the weeks before the Superfund became effective, saddling taxpayers with a few dozen Superfund sites to be cleaned up on the taxpayer’s dime.
DDT has never been banned in Africa or Asia, however. And there we find a badly-documented history of people poisoning themselves with DDT, usually in suicides.
Whatever other pathologies these cases may exhibit, they reveal that DDT does, indeed, kill humans.
Like this recent case, from Ghana; yes, that’s the illustration used in the newspaper; from the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation:
Sep 11, 2013 at 11:52amMan commits suicide over wife’s confession
Benjamin Kwaku Owusu, a 40-year-old former Manager of Unity Oil Filling Station in Suhum, has committed suicide by drinking DDT Gamullio 20 insecticide.
A family spokesperson who spoke to the Ghana News Agency on condition of anonymity said Owusu and his wife lived at Suhum and had been married for five years but never had a child.
He said the situation often developed into misunderstanding between them but later the wife got pregnant and left for her home town.
According to the spokesperson, whiles Owusu was preparing for the wife to deliver, he had a shocking message from the wife that the pregnancy belonged to another man and not him.
He said Owusu, who had a shock, rushed into his room and drunk the DDT Insecticide and fell unconscious.
“Owusu was rushed to the hospital but died soon after he was admitted,” he said.
When the police at Suhum was contacted, they confirmed the story and said the body of the deceased had since been buried after post mortem examination at the Suhum Government Hospital.
Not sure what “Gamullio 20” means, but it seems to be the brand name of the poison used.
- Study: Rare condors harmed by DDT (redding.com)
- AP Exclusive: Study: rare condors harmed by DDT (seattletimes.com)
- Infidelity causes 2 men to commit suicide (modernghana.com)
- The People All Said Sit Down, Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat (ecofeminism-mothering.blogspot.com)