Here’s something to look out for the next time you see footage on a documentary of the concentration camps in the Second World War. You often see people being dusted with a powder.
The chances are that it is DDT. At the end of the war Europe was on its knees with widespread destruction of infrastructure and a shortage of food. Many people were displaced as well as hungry and were moving about trying to get back to their homes. The situation was ideal for the emergence and wide spreading of disease. But that problem, at least was avoided, thanks largely to DDT. It had been developed as an insecticide in 1939 and was deployed in large quantities to prevent mites, the habitual spreaders diseases as the war ended in 1945.
For someone who grew up in the Seventies when DDT was a big story, it comes as quite a jolt to discover that DDT has in fact probably saved millions of lives. I can’t think of many organic compounds that have ever had such a bad press. The news was full of the problems caused by this particular pesticide. The mention in Joni Mitchell’s hit Big Yellow Taxi gives the flavour.
Hey farmer farmer
Put away the D.D.T. now
Give me spots on my apples
But leave me the birds and the bees
Mistrust of chemicals in general is now so widespread that it is hard to remember that back in the Fifties and early Sixties people were generally positive about the benefits of chemistry. DDT wasn’t the only recently invented life saver. Penicillin and other drugs were conquering disease. In a world where people could remember rationing, chemical fertilisers increasing crop yields could only sound like a good thing.
But it was pesticides that really changed the sentiment. The problems with the use of agricultural chemicals was the first big environmental issue that captured the public imagination, and set off the chain that led to today’s marketers going out of their way to stress just how natural everything is. You can no longer enter a shop without seeing a graphic of a green leaf with drops of dew on it.
So what was the problem with pesticides, in particular DDT? Prepare for another surprise. Its problem is not its toxicity. In fact if anything, its problem is that it isn’t toxic enough. At one stage a pro-DDT chemist was very keen to demonstrate this by ostentatiously eating quite large doses of it in public. He came to no harm. But his party piece was completely irrelevant to the real issue.
If you want to understand why DDT was a problem despite its relatively low level of toxicity and don’t have the time to enrol on an environmental science degree, consider reading Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. This book is very nearly 50 years old now but it remains one of the books that anyone interested in the environment really must read. This was the first book to bring the problems of pesticide use to the public attention.