The DDT Octopus

Barrel of DDT waste dumped in the coastline waters of Southern California near the Los Angeles harbor, 1947-1982. About half a million barrels of DDT waste contaminate the ocean waters. Courtesy Professor David Valentine, University of California, Santa Barbara.

Morton Biskind: Early warnings

Morton Biskind, a physician from Westport, Connecticut, was a courageous man. At the peak of the cold war, in 1953, he complained of the incidence of maladies afflicting both domestic animals and people for the first time. He concluded that the popular insect poison DDT was the agent of disease. DDT, he said, was “dangerous for all animal life from insects to mammals.”

The Reign of DDT

Yet, he was astonished of how little responsible officials and scientists did to restrict or ban DDT. On the contrary, they defended DDT:

“[V]irtually the entire apparatus of communication, lay and scientific alike, has been devoted to denying, concealing, suppressing, distorting… [the bad news about DDT]. Libel, slander, and economic boycott have not been overlooked… And a new principle of toxicology has… become firmly entrenched…: no matter how lethal a poison may be for all other forms of animal life, if it doesn’t kill human beings instantly, it is safe. When… it unmistakably does kill a human, this was the victim’s own fault – either he was “allergic” to it… or he didn’t use it properly,” he wrote ( American Journal of Digestive Diseases 20: 331-341 (November 1953) 332).

The warning of Biskind went nowhere. The Pentagon was testing nuclear weapons above ground. And agribusiness, as usual, was expanding its conquest of rural America — and the world. The strategic interests of agribusiness coincided with those of the Pentagon.

Anarchy in the regulation of chemicals

Agriculture borrowed the Pentagon’s chemical warfare strategy for American farmers. The missionaries of agricultural industrialization adopted and spread the profitable new approach to chemical danger — what Biskind aptly called “a new principle of toxicology” — that still reigns supreme among the practitioners of conventional science and politics in the twenty-first century. Like a gigantic octopus, the chemical industry put its tentacles all over Congress, the White House and land grant universities.

No wonder most toxic chemicals have been entering the market without being tested for health and environmental effects. Only the pesticides act and the food and drug part of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act require testing of chemicals likely entering the food we eat and drugs we use.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, the cosmetic provisions of the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, as well as all other federal laws require no testing for the chemicals or other products entering the market. This does not prevent the industry men and women say the products of their companies “meet EPA standards.”

The death legacy of DDT

DDT came out of that careless chemical culture – and war. DDT was successful in fighting malaria during World War II. For that reason, in 1948, its inventor, the Swiss scientist Paul Miller, received the Nobel Prize for medicine. By then DDT was used widely in America. The US Department of Agriculture “registered” it in 1945.

The Nobel Prize popularity of DDT had nothing to do with its presumed “safety.” DDT killed more than insects. DDT doomed birds by making it impossible for the fertilized eggs to give birth to live chicks. Their brittle shell cracked under the weight of the adult bird during hatching. DDT was particularly deleterious to predatory birds, bringing peregrine falcons, osprey, brown pelicans, and bald eagles to the brink of extinction. DDT also killed many insects it had not been designed to target and small animals, which ate DDT-poisoned fish and wildlife (EPA, DDT: A Review of Scientific and Economic Aspects of the Decision to Ban its Use as a Pesticide, EPA-540/1-75-022, July 1975).

The death legacy of DDT and DDT-like chemicals is a long one because of their toxic chemical properties: DDT belongs to the organochlorines, a huge group of chlorine-based poisons that last for decades in nature while accumulating in the fat of the animal ingesting them.

Rachel Carson: pesticides are sinister partners of radiation

Rachel Carson, a biologist who worked for the Fish and Wildlife of the US Department of the Interior, listened to Biskind. She denounced the hegemony of chemical pesticides, “the sinister and little-recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world – the very nature of its life.”

She said America’s single-crop farming clashes with how nature works. Instead, “we allow the chemical death rain to fall…. The crusade to create a chemically sterile world seems to have engendered a fanatic zeal on the part of many specialists and most of the so-called control agencies… there is evidence that those engaged in spraying operations exercise a ruthless power.” She put those thoughts in her 1962 book, Silent Spring (5-13).

Senior officials of the Health, Education and Welfare Department probably read Rachel’s book. They published a study in 1969 documenting, among other effects, the much larger concentration of DDE, the cancer-causing sibling of DDT, in the tissues and blood of black Americans.

Fat tissue levels of DDT in parts per million (ppm) by age and race, United States, 1968. Report of the Secretary’s Commission on Pesticides and Their Relationship to Environmental Health (Washington, DC: US Department of Health, Education and Welfare, December 1969).

EPA scientists became aware of this important report, but they ignored it. Under no circumstances would senior officials of EPA touch questions of race, especially when they knew that farm poisons like DDT harmed blacks and other minorities more severely than they harmed white Americans.

EPA: insidious effects of pesticides

However, in 1972, EPA put DDT under scientific and regulatory scrutiny.

DDT was the granddaddy of all agrotoxins. EPA warned in 1972 that the impacts of DDT and other pesticides on the natural world “may have had an indirect insidious influence on the health and welfare of the [wildlife] population.”

In 1972, an EPA colleague and friend, Charles Reese, edited a report in which EPA expressed concern about the toxic effect of pesticides on the very beginnings of life:

“On a cellular level pesticides can inhibit cell division, photosynthesis, and growth; [they] alter membrane permeability; change metabolic pathways; and inhibit the action of enzymes, including those functional in metabolizing steroid hormones (i.e., estrogen and testosterone), and the enzyme which is functional in the deposition of calcium carbonate in eggshells.”

The EPA report continued: Pesticides may also cause “changes [in the blood], systemic lesions in the brain, spinal cord, liver, kidneys, and stomach, and subsequent susceptibility to bacterial and fungal infections.”

It was the human effects of DDT that convinced EPA to ban it in 1972. EPA considered DDT “a potential human carcinogen.”

EPA: dangerous and useless weed killers

In 1974, EPA published another revealing study with the appropriate title, Herbicide Report. The main conclusion of this study is that herbicides nearly remake the plants they touch by changing their physiology. The sprayed crops then are less capable of resisting pathogens and insects. Farmers using herbicides also disrupt crop rotation, “resulting in increase in pest weeds, insects, and pathogens that may require additional pesticides for control.” In addition, herbicides may change the nutrition of crops. Second, weed killers may cause “serious insect-pest outbreaks” because they alter the chemistry of the plants, making them “more attractive and nutritious to insects.” Third, herbicides may, indirectly, stimulate the “reproduction of insects.”

DDT contamination of food and the planet

By the early 1970s, DDT had contaminated “staple human foods, especially meat and milk.” In 1973, a federal judge did not know what to do with DDT that had contaminated nearly all food. He said, “Although the cancer aspects of DDT are frightening, the obvious solution to that problem, that is, a total ban on foods containing DDT, is not available. Virtually every food contains some DDT… DDT has presented, and apparently will continue to present a massive dilemma both for EPA and for society” (United States v. Goodman 486 F. 2d at 855, 7th Cir. 1973).

The same dreadful thing happened to the global environment. In 1979, two Wildlife Society scientists, Steven G. Herman, and John B. Bulger, reported that DDT was “the most widespread and pernicious of global pollutants” (Wildlife Monographs, No 69, October 1979, p. 49).

Tobacco company starts movement for the resurrection of DDT

These potential and real impacts of pesticides were buried in the same silence that devoured Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s book. Despite that book’s immense popularity, the spray of pesticides in the United States had the sky as the limit.

I thought for a long time that something was wrong with the political failure of Silent Spring. Here was a best-seller denouncing poisons, and yet the widespread circulation of this book went hand in hand with the widespread use of more and more “pest” poisons in the United States. Did that mean that democracy had been eviscerated as early as 1962 and that the American people had lost all power? After all, DDT was in the very food they ate.

Meanwhile, after EPA banned DDT, polluters reasserted themselves, especially with the election of the Republican Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1981. The coming of the Democrat Bill Clinton to the White House in the 1990s did not make much of a difference to the discarding of the hostile environmental policies of the Reagan administration, which had been embedded into the flesh of EPA. In fact, the Clinton years became a fertile ground for a tobacco company planning the resurrection of DDT.

Elena Conis, professor of medical history at Berkeley, tells this story in her book, How to Sell A Poison: The Rise, Fall, and Toxic Return of DDT (Bold Type Books, 2022).

Philip Morris executives and their public relations propagandists schemed to “bring back DDT.”These tobacco people resented that the government had the power to interfere so dramatically in the private sector.

Conis writes how the tobacco executives were thinking about DDT:

“DDT… never should have been banned… Companies, not liberal activists and politicians, should be trusted to make responsible choices. DDT’s fate showed what happened when government got in the way.”

There was another reason Philip Morris businessmen liked DDT. It distracted the public’s and government’s attention from the accumulating evidence of the bad effects and danger of secondhand cigarette smoke.

Conis explains:

“Distraction is one of a list of tactics that various industry players have long used to protect markets for their products. Distract public attention away from unfavorable evidence. Discredit scientists and evidence you don’t like. Distort findings so they say what you want them to say. Deny evidence that isn’t in your favor. These strategies take advantage of the debate and uncertainty inherent in the scientific process.”

Conis also offers another reason for the 1972 banning of DDT. Several chemical companies attacked the primacy of DDT because they had synthesized more profitable alternatives. And some tobacco companies were eager to see DDT off the market because of fear of losing foreign clients already diminishing their dependance on DDT.

“Scientific proof of environmental harm shifter policy only when other interests aligned,” she wrote.

Dumping of DDT waste in the waters of Los Angeles

I did not know that in the early 1970s the chemical industry was turning against DDT. This was also a time the makers of DDT were dumping it in huge amounts into the waters of the Los Angeles harbor near the Catalina Island.

The coast of Southern California off Lost Angeles became a giant DDT grave. The largest producer of DDT was based in Los Angeles. For months and years after World War II, from about 1947 to 1986, the DDT company, Montrose Chemical Corporation and other companies loaded barges with barrels full of sludge laced with DDT. They took these barrels near Catalina island, made holes to them, and dumped them some 200 feet down the ocean water. They wanted the DDT sludge to enter the ocean floor, foolishly ignoring the certain contamination of the marine environment and its vegetation and animals — for decades.

Supposedly, this massive DDT waste has stayed mostly within 17 square miles of the ocean floor. But we are dealing with about half a million barrels of this extremely toxic and lasting compound poured on the ocean floor. Conis says that, probably, “the DDT waste was not just dumped in barrels but also poured directly into the ocean from massive holding tanks.”

Fish, marine mammals like dolphins and sea lions, and fish-eating eagles and condors and fish-eating people have been suffering and dying from the poisoning the ocean waters and fish with DDT. It’s becoming clear that the dumping of DDT was the “most infamous destruction [of ocean wildlife and nature] off the coast of Los Angeles,” wrote Roseanne Xia of the Los Angeles Times on October 25, 2020. The dumping was a grave and lasting harm against environmental and public health. The health and lives of the ocean and people are “inseparable,” Xia wrote.

This DDT “contamination” of the ocean lapping the Southern California coast is much more than an example of pollution or a fancy and expensive Superfund site. EPA has probably no intention or funds for cleaning it up. It’s a gigantic crime involving the chemical industry and several governments, federal and Californian jurisdictions. This tells me the executives of Montrose Chemical Corporation responsible for the DDT dumping from 1947 to 1982 were gangsters. The Greeks would have called them barbarians.

Rachel Carson was not wrong

Despite the decades of horror from the manufacture and use of DDT, Conis says, the scientific consensus is not entirely against it. In fact, “the body of DDT studies” today, in 2022, mirrors the bias of the Bring Back DDT era, 1990s-2000s, that “Rachel [Carson] was wrong” and “DDT harms were overblown.”

This ambivalence fits nicely the privatization, politicization, and weaponization of science. I clearly remember the hostility of the chemical industry of any EPA measure, however tenuous and fragile, for the protection of human and environmental health. No wonder profiteers and free-marketeers keep pushing their weird explanation that man-made synthetic chemicals, including DDT, cause no cancer. They keep scheming to bring back DDT.

The chemical industry, no less than the fossil fuels industry, has been funding and manufacturing doubt about science to the point, according to Conis, there’s a web of disinformation so thick it’s difficult to see the “original connections.”

Read Conis’ book. She has written an extremely important, riveting, and timely story. This is a complex narrative that gives us highlights of dozens of efforts by scientists in figuring out the human and ecological effects of DDT.

In addition, Conis stitched the lives and work of environmental protagonists like Rachel Carson and other good and bad “actors” associated with DDT. In other words, she is offering us a book full of personal and institutional histories of deceit and courage that, in the end, explain our corrupt age and time.

The DDT story, says Conis, is an illustration of “forces unseen, of values unacknowledged, and of the endless game of catch-up we play when we pollute first, regulate later, deploy first, study later, and act first, reflect later.”

Carson wrote Silent Spring in 1962. I wrote Poison Spring in 2014, fifty-two years later. Conis wrote How to Sell a Poison in 2022, sixty years after Carson.

Conis says EPA banned DDT in 1972, but, fifty years later, “DDT is still here.” She is right. In 2013, birds were still dying from DDT. Sea lions are dying in 2022 from DDT poisoning and cancer in the waters of southern California.

Do we need to maintain out apathy longer, so another American will issue another dreadful warning twenty-five or fifty years from now?

Conis’ key message is act now. Stop pollution. Protect the natural world. Protect public health. DDT is no more than a mark of where we stand on life and civilization. The stakes, after all, are very high. We only have one Earth.

Evaggelos Vallianatos, Ph.D., studied history and biology at the University of Illinois; earned his Ph.D. in Greek and European history at the University of Wisconsin; did postdoctoral studies in the history of science at Harvard. He worked on Capitol Hill and the US EPA; taught at several universities and authored several books, including The Antikythera Mechanism: The Story Behind the Genius of the Greek Computer and its Demise.