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SILENT SPRING: WHY THE FUSS OVER DDT

THE ORIGIN OF DDT

DDT (or dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), is asynthetic chlorinated hydrocarbon. DDT was first synthesized in 1874, and its properties as a pesticide were discovered in 1939. It was used in World War II as an effective control of malarial mosquitoes and typhus-carrying body lice. A Swiss chemist, Paul Hermann Müller, won the 1948 Nobel Prize in medicine for revealing the effectiveness of DDT against insect pests that were vectors (carriers) of disease.

DDT kills insects by over-activating nerve cells or neurons, causing the animal to go into spasms and then die.

The RISE OF DDT

By the 1950s, the effectiveness of DDT as a pesticide had resulted in its ever-growing application, often in large-scale and indiscriminate fashion. DDT was used in agriculture, for disease prevention, and around the home.

At the same time, there was growing evidence that DDT and other toxins enter food chains where they become concentrated in organisms ranging from earthworms to vertebrates (like birds and mammals). There was also increasing evidence that some target pests were developing DDT resistance.

  

The FALL OF DDT

Rachel Carson mentions many pesticides in Silent Spring, but for her, DDT was the ‘poster child’ of the chemical industry—heavily promoted, overused, and underrecognized for its ecological effects. Public reaction to her book was instrumental in the banning of DDT in much of the world (1972 in the US).

Many pesticides much more powerful than DDT have been developed, such as dieldrin, heptachlor, malathion, and many others.