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The DDT Insecticide Ban… What Was the Truth Behind it?

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Deep throat and the 'political decision' to ban DDT

(2nd edition - April 2008) by A.O. Kime
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A highly effective chlorinated hydrocarbon (insecticide) developed during World War II, the usage of DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) began in 1943 and became the most widely used pesticide on American farms until it was banned in 1972. Yet... it was safe-to-use, had a broad range of applications and was a proven savior for many crops.

While the banning process was a tumultuous affair lasting several years, having met stiff resistance from the farm sector, for decades the stated reason for its banning (danger to wildlife) has remained highly questionable. Many believed (scholars included) something phony was going on... but couldn't quite put their finger on it.

Well, as someone who once manufactured DDT, was once a licensed agricultural Pest Control Advisor and who was once a family farmer for 25 years (1973-1998), plus the fact I'm a perennial skeptic, perhaps this gives me some insight into the matter. While for several years resigned to the fact DDT was no longer available, I became interested in the mystery once again after I bought a magazine in the late 70s from a couple of hippies while awaiting a plane at LAX (airport).

The publication was called Fusion and, as the name implies, was a highly technical trade magazine produced by the Fusion Energy Foundation during the 1970-80's which contained reams of technical information about the attempts to fuse atoms for use in nuclear reactors. If successful, the heat generated from 'fusing' atoms would replace the current process of 'splitting' atoms (fission) to make steam. It was about America's version of the Russian-built Tokamak... but this magazine was forced to close in 1987 by the U.S. Department of Justice (illegally, as it turned out).

Curiously, and featured on a fairly regular basis, were extensive articles on the politics of agriculture. Amidst the technical jargon of nuclear physics which addressed the complex problems of trying to maintain a fusion process for more than a millisecond... would be a picture of a cotton farm. It wasn't long before I noticed Lyndon LaRouche (external website) was one of the writers, a brilliant man who understands agriculture's economic importance as few do. He knew, and correctly so, that agriculture is the lynchpin in America's economic system. As such, he also knew it was therefore subject to political manipulation. He ran for President of the United States several times (primaries) between 1976 and 1992 and was convicted a few years later on questionable fraud and tax conspiracy charges and received a 15 year prison term.

As to the circumstances surrounding the banning of DDT, the November 1980 issue of Fusion magazine (page 52) stated: "When U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief William Ruckelshaus was about to announce his decision to ban DDT in June 1972, he confided to a friend, "There is no scientific basis for banning this chemical --- this is a political decision."" The 'friend' was never identified however. In a commentary the magazine concluded (page 56): "The EPA and environmentalists must be held accountable for their crime: There was not a single human death from DDT usage; there have been untold thousands of deaths and millions of disease-stricken persons as a result of the DDT banning."

Fusion's most comprehensive article about DDT (a dozen or so pages) was in their June 1979 issue. The article stated that independent tests refuted nearly every single government claim as to the harmful effects to wildlife from exposure to DDT and addressed each claim. As evidence DDT wasn't harmful to wildlife, the article stated wildlife living downstream from DDT manufacturing plants actually thrived, their numbers increased. There wasn't any disagreement about any lethalness to humans however because the government never claimed there were any deaths, and there wasn't, not a single one. In summation the article concluded the 'political' reason for banning DDT was because it was 'saving too many third-world lives'... an utterly shocking observation.

Yet, it couldn't have been the reason because DDT continued to be manufactured in the U.S. until the early 80s... and is still in use in some 20 countries... so I was, for some time, baffled by that analysis. It didn't jive... the ban only applied to its usage in America, not its production. DDT is still being used around the world primarily for mosquito abatement (to combat malaria). So, if that observation is wrong, then there must be another reason which I'll soon address.

The pros and cons of DDT

There is only one 'negative' about DDT which the Fusion article didn't dispute... that it is persistent in the soil with a 'half-life' of about 75 years. The term 'half-life' is commonly used to describe the amount of time (in years) it takes for a particular chemical to breakdown naturally (by half). It is the only negative attribute which everyone seems to agree.

So, if no deaths can be attributed to DDT, is it dangerous to one's health? Well, in the late 1970's a University of Arizona professor purposely ate DDT everyday, he made it a part of his diet to publicly demonstrate it was harmless to humans. That story was not widely circulated at the time but known to everyone within the agricultural chemical industry which I once belonged. I'm unaware of the professor's whereabouts today but assuredly, I would venture, not ill from DDT.

During 1960-1961, I worked for a company which manufactured DDT and I personally operated the dust mill. Over a period of 2-3 months each year it ran almost everyday, sometimes 14-16 hours a day. I was either making a batch of any of several DDT formulations or else bagging and stacking it. It was not unusual we'd produce 20 tons daily and by the end of the day I was always covered with DDT dust, my clothes and hair white from it. We did, however, wear cartridge-type breathing masks.

Today, some 50 years later, I haven't yet had any health problems. My only hospitalization was briefly in 1961 when I was poisoned while manufacturing an organic phosphate (parathion) while employed by Arizona Agrochemical Corporation. For reasons soon explained, organic phosphates are extremely toxic (deadly) whereas DDT is a chlorinated hydrocarbon and effectively nontoxic to humans (high LD-50). Under an oxygen tent for two weeks, a fellow employee I was working with nearly died from this experience. Since I wasn't exposed to the extent he was, a bottle of atropine tablets was all I needed.

Considering the danger of organic phosphates, one should wonder why a safe-to-use insecticide such as DDT was banned. Should its persistence (75 year half-life) outweigh safety? Is it DDT's only downside? Or is it also harmful to birds, fish and other wildlife? While the environmentalists say so, curiously, I never heard of a study on the ill effects to hogs, dogs or horses (common farm animals). Was it because 30 years of farmer testimonials could say it wasn't dangerous? Avoid this fight and conduct a study on the less familiar (wildlife) with no testimonial history?

Why not chicken farms and fish hatcheries? Surely chicken farmers would be concerned about thin-shelled eggs... a contention of the study.

In preferring to always remain anonymous the credibility of the environmentalists should be in question... apparently having a pact with the news media never to name them. Furthermore, any chemical compound (artificial) can easily be proven to be an environmental hazard. Of these, plastic would seem to pose the greatest threat. But alas, the most dangerous are rarely banned first. The targets have always been the 'vulnerable'.

Follow the money

To whatever extent the claims are true, the piles of damming data only created an opportunity. I think the environmentalists just gave the powers-that-be, always beholden to the giant chemical companies, a great excuse. DDT was dirt-cheap while sales of the more expensive proprietary chemicals were slow... need I say more? Money is invariably the culprit... isn't it?

It's also doubtful William Ruckelshaus ever elaborated on the real reason behind the 'political decision' and Fusion magazine just guessed and got it wrong. Surely, any mention of the 'third world lives' was to throw Fusion off-track. After all, no official from the EPA would want to admit it was over money. So why admit to a 'political decision' in the first place without elaboration? Well, perhaps it is reminiscent of the hints dropped by 'deep throat' in the Watergate affair. It's a matter of reading between the lines.

The reason for the action taken by the federal government certainly wasn't over safety concerns either. As a result of the DDT banning, the only other real alternative (for farmers) were organic phosphates, which is, in essence, nerve gas. Yes, nerve gas, that which we fear terrorists may someday use. While organic phosphates were already commonly in use on many crops (vegetables primarily), no longer did farmers have an effective safe-to-handle insecticide at their disposal. To remove any doubt my comparison between organic phosphates and nerve gas, the antidote 'atropine' is the same.

While organic phosphates are extremely dangerous to handle, they're at least effective... able to clean up an insect-infested crop within minutes... much faster than DDT. The other benefit is that their 'half-life' can be measured in hours (not years) and most crops can be harvested in 2-3 days whereas harvest was not permitted for 1-2 weeks following a DDT application... often being too long for vegetables (perishables). If to bombard the insects with plastic bottles, plastic has a half-life of eons.

Up until the 1990s, while American farmers were being denied the use of DDT, America was importing vegetables from Mexico which still did. Not only did its banned usage put American farmers at a competitive disadvantage, with DDT being much cheaper, but it indicates there was little official concern over the residue of DDT in imported vegetables. In other words, as the professor tried to point out, there was no real or immediate danger. Whatever long-term dangers exist, they're surely less than plastic or that of pharmaceuticals. This is especially true in a society of casual pill-poppers.

While there were other insecticides on the market when they banned DDT, none but organic phosphates were very effective and therefore seldom used. Of those organic phosphates most effective (but most dangerous) were the products phosdrin and parathion. If exposed to the fumes for more than a few minutes or from direct contact without the means to wash it off, or without the antidote 'atropine', one would likely be dead within hours. There was a weaker formulation called malathion but it had limited demand for that very reason.

I had an interesting conversation with two soldiers on their way to the first Gulf War (1991). Then, of course, everyone was worried Saddam might unleash his chemical weapons against our troops. I told the soldiers that a nerve gas attack wouldn't be a big deal... that we farmers use nerve gas all the time. While I did tell them it was dangerous, I went on to explain that if precautions are taken such as wearing the right gear, they'd be alright. I've often wondered if they believed my comparisons.

DDT might have also saved our ravaged forests from the pine beetle, in many places already one-third destroyed. Nonetheless, environmentalists will still not budge on the issue of DDT. It would also be 'embarrassing' for the federal government to backpedal now, reverse policy.

Even though it has been estimated DDT saves 1,000,000 people a year as a result of its effectiveness on mosquitoes, as a result of the Stockholm Convention (treaty) in 2004, DDT is now considered one of the 'dirty dozen' Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) which this treaty is trying to eliminate entirely. A matter of priorities? Maybe Fusion was right after all?

Memories and legends of DDT

A few more tidbits about DDT lest someday forgotten. Besides the fact DDT was cheap to use, chlorinated hydrocarbons (DDT etal) and organic phosphates worked well together. Insects can become resistant to any type of chemical so we would routinely alternate them. When they banned DDT, pest control advisors and farmers were forced to continually use organic phosphates and insect control became a real problem, often entire crops were lost. Nerve gas or not, the insects became resistant.

Gradually, although too late for some family farmers, replacement chemicals were being introduced. While generally they weren't very effective, they were better than nothing. It was a real challenge then, everything was tried and in every conceivable combination for about 10 years until the products improved. The first real breakthrough was ‘bacillus thuringiensis’, a bacteria that works very well on cabbage loopers, a non-selective insect (moth larva) and once a nightmare for lettuce growers.

Curiously too, lest someday forgotten... in my farming area (Kansas Settlement, Arizona), almost immediately after DDT was banned cotton yields began a rapid decline. Many farmers believed there was a connection but until this day, it has remained speculation. No longer were tales being told of 3-4 bales per acre and it wasn't long before a bale-and-a-half was considered a good yield. My first year farming was in 1973 and while I couldn't use DDT then, it was used on my fields the previous years. I had nearly two-and-a-half bales per acre that first year but in 1974 it began a rapid decline and quickly leveled off at 1-1/4 bales until 1983 (when I quit farming cotton). Was DDT residue in the soil a factor? I don't know for sure, but something caused these declines and it all happened just after DDT was banned. I don't think there was ever a study done on the physiological effects on cotton from DDT (specifically from residue in the soil). Who knows... maybe its physiological effects were doing more good than its bug-killing abilities. It's worth looking into.

Also, in the 1970s, there was a story circulating (unknown source) within the agricultural chemical industry that someone had discovered DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) existing naturally within the northern polar icecap. Sorry, I've haven't any further information for someone who might want to pursue this.

Finally, due to my belief 'money' was the prime reason DDT was banned, it prompted a concern that cheap non-proprietary products will soon be marshaled-out by whatever means so that expensive, more profitable products can be sold. For example, currently under attack is penicillin. While there's likely other old-time medications (cheap) soon to disappear, aspirin may survive. Perhaps too the reason herbal remedies are pooh-poohed?

A.O. Kime

Last modified: 03/09/14