My favorite uncle “poisoning cotton” with only a thin cloth covering his nose and mouth in the summer of 1961 is a memory that comes to me unbidden and vividly. I did not believe that the pesticide could poison the insects in his cotton without also poisoning him. When he died in 1962, I blamed DDT and other pesticides used to fight the “cotton bugs.”
By the time DDT was first made available for the general public in 1945, scientific research ‘had already shown beyond doubt that this compound was dangerous for all animal life from insects to mammals,”… By 1945 it was well known that once mammals and people were exposed to DDT, the compound became stored in their body fat and could even be found in their milk. DDT had a way of hanging around, even inside human bodies.
Vallianatos, E. G., & Jenkins, M. K. (2015). Poison spring: The secret history of pollution and the EPA. New York: Bloomsbury Press, p. 75.
Reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published the same year that my uncle died, but to which I was not introduced until I was a college student, convinced me that I had been correct. This video is a brief introduction to the DDT story.
Watch “DDT: From Wonder Powder to Public Enemy” on YouTube
In Silent Spring it was Rachel Carson who introduced the public to the idea that pesticides should be called “biocides.”This work also introduced me to the idea that our governmental agencies would withhold, indeed suppress, scientific information that could save the lives of human beings, citizens.
When I observed the poor showing of the Alabama Blackbelt in the most recently released County Health Rankings, the potential role of pesticides and other environmental toxins came immediately to mind. Even though I am both a medical sociologist and a health and nutrition educator, I was overwhelmed, emotionally and intellectually, by the amount of information that I found. I can only read and write about in small bits. So, this is not a literature review submitted for peer review, it is a rant.
DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) was introduced to the world as a potent insecticide in 1939. This synthetic organic compound was widely used during WWII and is credited with saving the lives of many members of the Armed Forces in areas where diseases spread by insects were the most dangerous threat to their lives. After the War it became the insecticide of choice for both agricultural and public health purposes. DDT was presented as having only positive benefits for humans.
This means that DDT was everywhere. It was sprayed on fields from airplanes, by machines, and by hand. It was sprayed on children in schools, parks, and swimming pools. Housewives spread it around their homes. And then, as pesticides still do, it drifted through the air to unintended sites (https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-4612-9863-2_4).
While articles questioning the safety of DDT started appearing in the 1950s, it was Rachel Carson’s best-selling work Silent Spring that brought the controversy to the American Public. Carson’s work has been the subject of many documentaries. If you search YouTube, you will find many relevant clips. This is a 44-minute presentation of the controversy in its historical context, so “get your popcorn.” You might want to make sure that it is organic.
Watch “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson – Rare Pre-EPA Look at America” on YouTube
According to The Pine River Statement: Human Health Consequences of DDT Use, there is a growing body of evidence that exposure to DDT and its breakdown product DDE may be associated with adverse health outcomes such as breast cancer, diabetes, decreased semen quality, spontaneous abortion, and impaired neurodevelopment in children. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2737010/). Long term exposure to DDT is associated with liver cancer and pancreatic cancer (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1573662z). The list goes on and on. I am positive that DDT has contributed to the death of many of my kin. I am also sure that it continues to impair our health.
Perhaps the most important things to remember about DDT include:
- While not acutely poisonous, it “bioaccumulates” in the fatty tissues
- It moves up the food chain
- It is a Persistent Organic Pollutant (POP).
The persistence of deadly DDT is illustrated by the fact that even though it was banned in the US by the EPA in 1972, it is still found in the waters and fish of Alabama in 2018. The list of contaminants in Alabama fish include:
- Chlordane – A chlorinated hydrocarbon used as a pesticide until it was banned in the late
- DDT – Another chlorinated hydrocarbon, DDT was a widely used pesticide until it was banned in 1972.
- Mercury- Manufacturers used mercury in the manufacturing of chlorine, caustic soda, urethane foam and other products. Mercury can also be produced by the burning of certain materials. Once in the environment, mercury is converted to methyl mercury, which is hazardous to humans.
- PCBs- Previously used in the manufacture of electrical capacitors and transformers and in the pressure treatment of lumber, PCBs have been banned since 1979.
Not all DDT contamination was incidental or accidental. What happened to Triana, Alabama deserves special attention. In 1978 the Tennessee Valley Association (TVA) reported extensive DDT contamination in the Huntsville Spring Branch-Indian Creek, a tributary of the Tennessee River. Contamination was also found on more than 1400 acres of the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, the largest and oldest national refuge in Alabama. Elevated levels of DDT have also been detected in wildlife in the area.
A 1979 CDC investigation found average DDT levels in residents of Triana, a rural, predominantly black community of about 600 people, nearly 10 times higher than the U.S. population. Between the late 1940s and early 1970s, an Olin Corporation chemical factory discharged approximately 400 tons of DDT and associated waste into the Tennessee River upstream from Triana.
In 1980, the Justice Department, at EPA’s request, sued Olin, asking them to clean up the contamination. In October 1981, the site was designated one of EPA’s top-priority hazardous waste sites for cleanup under the new Superfund program. Superfund is the $1.6 billion fund authorized under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) which gives EPA the resources to clean up abandoned hazardous waste sites. https://archive.epa.gov/epa/aboutepa/olin-agrees-clean-ddt-triana-alabama-area.html
In 1983 the Olin Corporation formally agreed to a multi-million dollar cleanup of DDT contamination around its former manufacturing facility and to provide for health care for the residents of the of Triana.
In another post, I will have more to say about the site where Olin produced DDT. It starts with the list of Superfund Sites in Alabama.
The list of Superfund Sites in Alabama is very educational.
Those of us who were born near the cotton fields, the piney woods, and the pesticide plants of Alabama following WWII should suspect that these toxins affected our health and the health of our children wherever they were born. Forty years after the use of DDT in the US was banned, it is still in the soil, the water, the fish of Alabama. DDT and the other contaminants should be seen as continuing to play a role in the high morbidity and mortality rate in the Blackbelt and among those born there during the heyday of DDT.
- It would be decades before I understood that environmental pollutants play a role in activating genetic predispositions for autoimmunity. I was exposed to pesticides in Alabama and Arizona. In Alabama I was also exposed to the toxic products of pulp mills. In Arizona I was also exposed to the toxins involved in the mining and smelter of copper. ↑
- Harrison, J. L. (2011). Pesticide drift and the pursuit of environmental justice. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. ↑
- Triana has been discussed both in the popular press and the scientific literature.O’Neill, L. (1979). A DDT legacy [contamination of the Tennessee river near Triana, Alabama]. EPA Journal, 5, 10-11.High Serum Concentrations of DDT Residues – Triana, Alabama. (1979). Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 28(11), 123-129.Rusiecki, J., Cash, C., Raines, L., Brinton, S., Zahm, T., Mason, A., . . . Hoover, L. (2006). Serum concentrations of organochlorine compounds and mammographic density in a highly exposed population in Triana, Alabama. Epidemiology, 17(6), S89. ↑
- Don’t be mislead by my focus on Alabama. Check out the Superfund Sites in your state. I have lived in five states. They all have areas of significant contamination, at least one in every city or county where I resided. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Superfund_sites.svgSearch for Superfund Sites Where You Live – https://www.epa.gov/superfund/search-superfund-sites-where-you-live↑