A useful history - even if it does not go into the health impact of using DDT.
A Pro-DDT history of the Pesticide
DDT = Dichloro Diphenyl Tricholoroethane
DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) was first synthesized in 1874 by Othmar Ziedler, a German chemist, who had synthesized the compound as part of his work on the substitution products of aromatic hydrocarbon compounds. However a practical use for this chemical was not found until the late 1930s, when Paul Muller and his research group at Geigy Pharmaceuticals in Switzerland attempted to use DDT against potato beetles and clothes moths. Mullers group had found DDTs insecticidal properties to be amazing and in 1948 Muller was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology for the true discovery of DDT. But one may still raise the question, how did DDT usage become so rampant?
With the United States entering a two front war in the winter of 1941 many health issues had to be addressed. One of the most important issues was how to protect American troops from airborne diseases. Learning its lesson from World War I, a war in which more troops died from disease then combat, the Committee on Medical Research made it the utmost priority to find a cheap, and effective method to combat airborne disease. Troops fighting in Europe and Africa were exposed to typhus as soldiers in the South Pacific were exposed to malaria and other tropical diseases that were carried by the mosquito. In addition to protecting troops the committee was also focused on prevention outbreaks of diseases on dislocated civilian populations, in short they did not want diseases to spread behind allied lines. However there was little hope in finding a solution with the chemicals available at the time.
However in 1942 when representatives from the Swiss pharmaceutical firm J.R. Geigy Company brought samples of a new insecticide to the Department of Agriculture under the trade name Gasarol the answer was found. H.L. Haller, member of the Division of Insecticide Investigation, isolated the active compound in Gasarol to be 1,1,1 trichloro 2,2bis (parachlorophenyl)ethane, more commonly known as Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT. Immediately studies were done in 1942 and 1943 to test the effectiveness of DDT, confirmed to be a cheap, effective insecticide investigations were done to see the chemicals toxicity and accumulation in the body. The Committee on Medical Research gathered health experts around the nation from the NIH, FDA, Public Health Service, Armed Forces medical corps, Kettering Laboratories and other organizations to create a program in which they could test the chronic toxicity and the persistence and accumulation of DDT in the body. However their main objective was the immediate safety of those who would be handling and spraying the chemicals, as well as those who would be directly exposed[i].
With this limited aspect being the scope of the program, results could not have been better. DDT was found to have a very low acute toxicity to humans. Believing that they now had the ultimate weapon in the middle of 1944 the U.S. armed forces began to make DDT the standard insecticide to use in the battle against disease. The DDT era had now begun. In less then half a year, toward the end of 1944 American manufacturers were creating approximately 2 million pounds of DDT per month for military use. As good as the results were in the lab, the effectiveness of DDT in the field was still questionable.
With nearly 3 million pounds being produced per month, DDT was still just an average insecticide, it did not become the magic bullet in disease control until the Naples typhus epidemic of 1943 1944. A few cases had exploded into an epidemic and American and British occupation forces in their attempts to control the outbreak used a variety of new methods as well as multiple insecticides to kill the lice that spread the disease. When the outbreak was over in February of 1944 it was an amazing story. For this was the first time in history that a typhus epidemic had been arrested by public health measures. When the media inquired about the means in achieving this, DDT received the credit. However the truth of the matter was that DDT had only become available for use only toward the end of the epidemic, after the new control methods and insecticides had initially contained the epidemic. Truth during war however, at times was not really the full truth. Newspapers across the globe hailed the wonders of the new amazing chemical known as DDT, saying that it would revolutionize public health.
DDTs true success came in the South Pacific when used for malaria control. The military, using converted transport planes and bombers, sprayed entire with a new liquid solution of DDT. The ability to blanket areas that were inaccessible to ground spraying proved to be what DDT needed to become the miracle insecticide. Not only was it simple to convert DDT into an aerial spray, but also its liberal use over allied lines showed little or no symptoms of poisoning among troops. These wartime programs were critical in enhancing DDTs reputation and providing a body of equipment as well as knowledge for peacetime use. With a pair of blinders, propaganda, coincidence and a little bit of luck DDT within a year grew to be the most heralded chemical insecticide, one that would save the world.
On August 1, 1945 DDT was released for general civilian use.
[i] Edward F. Knipling, DDT insecticides Developed for Use by the Armed Forces, 205
Note by Janine Roberts - in fact there were outbreaks of polio among the US troops sprayed with DDT - see polio articles and other sources on this website-and even the report from Jonas Salk - the developer of the polio vaccine.
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