DDT Ban Signals New Environmental Awareness Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

By banning the use of the pesticide DDT, or dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, the United States took a first step in addressing environmental concerns relating to many chemical products.

Summary of Event

On June 14, 1972, amid considerable controversy, the Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) for use as a pesticide in the United States, a ban that became effective December 31. This followed a ban on use in residential areas issued by the federal government on November 20, 1969. The DDT ban had a far-reaching impact on humanity, the environment, and business. Widespread use of other toxic or dangerous pesticides, however, continued in the United States and elsewhere. Pesticides Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane[Dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane] Insecticides;synthetic poisons Environmental policy, U.S.;pesticides [kw]DDT Ban Signals New Environmental Awareness (Nov. 20, 1969-Dec. 31, 1972) [kw]Ban Signals New Environmental Awareness, DDT (Nov. 20, 1969-Dec. 31, 1972) [kw]Environmental Awareness, DDT Ban Signals New (Nov. 20, 1969-Dec. 31, 1972) Pesticides Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane[Dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane] Insecticides;synthetic poisons Environmental policy, U.S.;pesticides [g]North America;Nov. 20, 1969-Dec. 31, 1972: DDT Ban Signals New Environmental Awareness[10560] [g]United States;Nov. 20, 1969-Dec. 31, 1972: DDT Ban Signals New Environmental Awareness[10560] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Nov. 20, 1969-Dec. 31, 1972: DDT Ban Signals New Environmental Awareness[10560] [c]Environmental issues;Nov. 20, 1969-Dec. 31, 1972: DDT Ban Signals New Environmental Awareness[10560] [c]Agriculture;Nov. 20, 1969-Dec. 31, 1972: DDT Ban Signals New Environmental Awareness[10560] Carson, Rachel Müller, Paul Hermann Longgood, William

DDT, which consists of chlorinated hydrocarbons or organochlorides, was acquired by the United States from Switzerland in 1942. It was discovered by Paul Hermann Müller, who won a Nobel Prize for the discovery. Prior to the discovery of DDT, there were hundreds of different pesticides in use. Many of these pesticides were effective on only one or a few pests. Some of the more infamous pesticides included Paris green, which contained arsenic but was extremely effective on potato bugs; lead arsenate, used to eliminate gypsy moth caterpillars; and calcium arsenate, used against cotton pests in the South. One problem associated with early pesticides was that they were often as dangerous to plants as they were to insects.

DDT was an important discovery because insecticides that had been in use were scarce because of World War II. In addition, DDT was effective against a variety of insects, including lice and mosquitoes. It was discovered after the war that DDT also was effective against a number of agricultural pests that plagued American farm production and Americans in general.

By 1960, DDT was a household word. Its use was so widespread that almost every person in the United States either had used the product or had heard of its use. It was partially because DDT was so well known that it was singled out for study by scientists who noticed irregularities in the environment.

At this time, during the peak of DDT use, two books were written about pesticides and their environmental impact. One of the books, Silent Spring Silent Spring (Carson) (1962), written by marine biologist Rachel Carson, extensively outlined the effects of DDT on humans and on the environment. According to Carson, humans can become poisoned by DDT in a number of ways: by breathing the oily fumes that accompany its being sprayed, by ingesting food that has been sprayed with DDT, and by absorbing it through the skin. Because DDT is fat soluble, it is stored in organs rich in fatty substances such as the liver, the kidneys, and the adrenal and thyroid glands. DDT had been linked to cancer and blood disorders.

DDT did not disseminate in the environment. Accumulations of DDT remained in the soil and continued to contaminate plants and insects. Birds or other animals that ate insects or animals contaminated by DDT died or passed the contamination on to other animals through the food chain. There were questions as to whether DDT poisoning could be passed from a mother to her child through mother’s milk and about a variety of illnesses that could result from DDT poisoning.

The other significant book written during this time was The Poisons in Your Food Poisons in Your Food, The (Longgood) (1960) by journalist William Longgood. It was the first major journalistic attack against pesticides and caused the general public to become aware of pesticide dangers. The book outlined a number of toxic pesticides that had been used to restrict insects and promote agricultural growth. It also indicated that many poisons remained in food and were therefore consumed by human beings.

Both these books—Carson’s, especially, being a classic—stirred public interest in environmental concerns. That public concern led to the establishment in 1970 of the EPA, whose purpose was to protect and improve the environment. The EPA was responsible for controlling pollution through standard setting, enforcement, and research in the areas of solid waste, toxic substances, radiation, and noise. One of the first acts of the EPA was to amend the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (1947) of 1947 to restrict the use of DDT.

The federal government had banned use of DDT in residential areas on November 20, 1969, and called for a virtual halt to its use by 1971. Other countries took similar action. The EPA issued a cancellation order on the use of DDT in January, 1971. The Department of Agriculture appealed the order. In October of 1971, the EPA held hearings to determine the nature of the hazards of DDT use or misuse and the nature of benefits of the use of DDT. The EPA tried to determine if harms to humans associated with DDT occurred because it was misused or necessarily resulted even with proper use. The harms of using DDT then had to be weighed against the benefits of its use. One of the benefits of its use was increased food production, particularly important for countries that were dense in population. Land had to be very productive to feed the people of such countries. The use of DDT also had eliminated hordes of mosquitoes, which had caused epidemic outbreaks of malaria, and it had eliminated lice infestations, which were responsible for numerous typhus epidemics. The EPA determined, however, that the harmful effects of DDT outweighed the benefits. If it remained in the environment for a long enough time, it could endanger a large number of people. DDT therefore was banned for use and production in the United States. European countries later followed suit.

Significance

The banning of DDT in the United States and in Europe, along with hearings on pesticides and their use, alerted the public to the importance of environmental and ecological issues. The American public became involved by joining groups such as Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Wilderness Society; membership in these groups soon numbered in the millions. These groups lobbied Congress to pass additional laws to protect the environment. Lobbying efforts soon resulted in legislation concerning clean air, water pollution, noise control, drinking water, and toxic substances. These acts identified pollutants and set standards for their release into the environment. Standards were meant to identify the levels at which certain pollutants would be dangerous to people or the environment and to restrict emissions to those levels or below. The standards focused on factories and sewage plants at first. Later, standards would be expanded to include all polluters.

A pesticide containing DDT. The U.S. government banned the chemical for residential use in November, 1969.

(CC-BY-SA2.5)

Compliance with the standards was expensive. The EPA forced many companies to develop new processes or products in order to conform to standards. For example, auto companies were forced to alter their auto emissions systems to include a part called a catalytic converter. Auto companies also were forced to design more fuel-efficient vehicles, since gasoline had been identified as a pollutant as well as a natural resource. These changes added an estimated $800 to the cost of each car sold in the United States. Other companies were required to find alternative places to dump their refuse or to do research and development on alternate uses for refuse. Even biodegradable refuse and, under some conditions, clean but warm water were deemed harmful to the environment. Areas previously used as dump sites were discovered to contain toxic substances, and companies found to have used the sites were forced to pay to have these sites cleaned.

During 1988, corporations paid an estimated $86 billion for pollution control, an amount equal to 2 percent of the Gross National Product. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (1980) was passed in 1980 in part to help firms pay the high costs of cleaning up old dump sites. Under this act, firms unable to pay to clean sites received assistance from the government, which had funds from petroleum and chemical production taxes set aside for this purpose. Business costs escalated in other ways, as firms were sued because of harm done to the environment. Hooker Chemical Company faced one such suit. When dangerous chemicals seeped from its barrels into the groundwater, people in a small community near Niagara Falls, New York, since called Love Canal, experienced increased rates of cancer, birth abnormalities, and other illnesses. The cost of settling the resulting suit was in the billions of dollars.

Costs continued to rise as other harmful or possibly harmful practices were identified. For American business, making a profit became complicated by concerns over environmental issues and possible future liabilities. Companies producing pesticides, for example, had to be concerned about the health and welfare of the populations of areas in which the pesticides were produced and used. The Food and Drug Administration Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency shared the responsibility for protecting the public from harmful substances in food. Manufacturers of pesticides and chemicals had to perform tests and prove the safety of their products as well as showing that residues did not accumulate beyond allowed levels. The FDA and EPA relied largely on tests conducted by the manufacturers themselves when registering pesticides. Consequently, some harmful pesticides, including dieldrin, Diazinon, Malathion, and lindane, remained in use. Pesticides by nature are harmful to at least some forms of life and may cause cancer, birth abnormalities, or nerve damage in humans. Some chemicals have not been tested for possible harmful effects. During the Ronald Reagan Reagan, Ronald administration, testing all but halted. Concern mounted about pesticides such as alar in apples, heptachlor in dairy products, and ethylene dibromide (EDB) in muffin and cake mixes. The release of toxic fumes from a chemical plant in Bhopal, India, in 1984 served as an example of the potential deadliness of pesticides. Thousands of people were killed in their sleep by toxic pesticide fumes, and hundreds of thousands more were injured.

The banning of DDT led to banning of other harmful substances in the United States and elsewhere. For countries with weaker economies or that are densely populated, the choice to restrict pesticides carried different costs and benefits. The risks of using harmful pesticides had to be balanced against the possibility of starvation or epidemic, and some countries could not afford the chemicals that could be used instead of those proved to be harmful. Pesticides will continue to be produced and used as long as insects continue to develop immunities to the chemicals being used. The challenges for business are to continue to balance pesticide use with other forms of pest control and to develop new safe and effective products. That concern with safety will also hold for wider environmental problems such as air and water pollution. Pesticides Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane[Dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane] Insecticides;synthetic poisons Environmental policy, U.S.;pesticides

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beatty, Rita Gray. The DDT Myth. New York: John Day, 1973. Defends the use of DDT and refutes the findings of previous studies. Recounts studies of successful use. Includes tables comparing DDT to other sources of pollution and identifies some natural toxins found in the environment. Contains a selected list of references and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962. An in-depth report on the results of early studies on the use of DDT and other dangerous chemicals. Outlines the dangers to the environment and to humans. Contains an index and an excellent list of principal sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duggleby, John. Pesticides. New York: Macmillan, 1990. This forty-five-page booklet discusses what pesticides do, how to measure danger, and alternatives to pesticide use. Juvenile reading. Contains a glossary and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Easton, Thomas A., ed. Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Environmental Issues. 11th ed. Dubuque, Iowa: McGraw-Hill/Dushkin, 2005. An introduction to debates and controversies in environmental policy and science, including policy on the use of DDT.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“EPF Takes DDT Appeals to Court.” The New York Times, December 29, 1969. Available from the Environmental Defense Fund: http://www.environmental defense.org/article.cfm?ContentID=2447.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Greer, Douglas E. “Environmental Protection.” In Business, Government, and Society. New York: Macmillan, 1993. This chapter reviews the topic of environmental policies by asking relevant questions. Contains an appendix on clean air and lists for additional reading. Written for undergraduate students.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gunn, D. L., and J. G. R. Stevens. Pesticides and Human Welfare. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. Presents a balanced opinion on the use of pesticides. Discusses the problems, strategies for use, and the legal environment up to 1975. Detailed appendix outlining terminology, reading lists at the end of each chapter.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hosansky, David. The Environment, A to Z. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2001. An encyclopedic work that includes entries on DDT, the Environmental Protection Agency, and pesticides.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mott, Lawrie, and Karen Snyder. Pesticide Alert: A Guide to Pesticides in Fruits and Vegetables. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1987. This manual discusses pesticide residues and federal regulation of pesticides. Lists several fruits and vegetables and pesticide uses for each. Intended for the adult reader, this manual contains notes, a section on sources of additional information, and further reading. Also contains a glossary, a bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, Ron. Facts on Pesticides and Fertilizers in Farming. New York: Franklin Watts, 1990. Discusses pesticides and their uses in thirty-two pages. Contains four-color illustrations and color photos. An excellent introduction to ecology for the juvenile reader. Contains a glossary and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wharton, James. Before “Silent Spring.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974. Discusses recognition of insect problems and regulations in force prior to 1962. Also includes a history of pesticides and public health. Contains bibliographic notes by chapter and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, Dennis C. “The Guardian: EPA’s Formative Years, 1970-1973.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1993. http://www.epa.gov/history/publica tions/print/formative.htm.

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