What Is DDT?
DDT, the abbreviation for dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, is a well-known chemical pesticide with a controversial history.
The Properties of DDT
DDT does not naturally occur. Instead, it must be chemically synthesized. Because DDT has caused so much controversy, it has been marketed under several trade names, like Anofex, Chlorophenothane, Dicophane, and Neocidol. When ingested by insects, DDT causes spasms and eventually death. However, some mutated insects have developed a gene that has made them resistant to insecticides like DDT. When ingested by humans, DDT can disrupt our endocrine systems.
The History of DDT
The chemist Othmar Zeidler first synthesized DDT in 1874. However, he was not aware that the chemical could work as an insecticide. Later, in 1939, the Swiss scientist Paul Hermann Muller discovered DDT’s insecticidal properties. He was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1948 for his discovery. DDT was first used as a pesticide during WWII, where it worked so well as an insect killer that some soldiers labeled it the “atomic bomb” of pesticides. After WWII, DDT was made available to farms, where it could be used on crops. It soon became the most popular insecticide.
Rachel Carson Questions DDT’s Safety
In 1962, biologist Rachel Carson published a book called Silent Spring, a book that many credit with beginning the environmental movement. In Silent Spring, Carson questioned whether indiscriminately spraying DDT onto crops was harming the environment. She was the first scientist to truly critique the safety of releasing chemicals into the environment without knowing how they would impact us or our world. Carson worried that pesticides like DDT were harming the environment and causing cancer in humans. Largely because of Silent Spring’s popularity, the United States banned DDT’s agricultural usage in 1972.
After being banned, DDT is much less common today. Between 1950 and 1980, worldwide agriculture used over 40,000 tons of DDT each year. In 2009, however, only 3313 tons of DDT were produced, and they were produced mainly for the treatment of malaria, not for agricultural use. Environmentalists believe that the DDT ban has helped endangered species make comebacks, most notably the bald eagle.