For the Birds Radio Program: Bring Back DDT?

Original Air Date: Aug. 8, 2003

Some people are making disturbing claims that DDT should be back in use. (Date verified)

Audio missing



Now that West Nile Virus has kicked in in earnest this year, I’ve been getting a lot of calls about sick and dead songbirds, and hearing about the 164 people who have died this year from the disease. But I’ve also been reading some disturbing pleas to bring back DDT. Many of the people who think DDT is going to solve the problem don’t remember the 1970s, when Ohio rivers were on fire, Lake Erie was dead, and the Peregrine Falcon had been wiped out of the entire eastern United States and Canada. The legislation signed into law by Richard Nixon back then provided the underpinnings for what environmental protections we have today. It’s scary to me that now some people are willing to use scare tactics to throw away this progress in the name corporate profits.

Some people are now claiming that DDT was banned strictly to protect birds. It killed songbirds outright, especially during migration when species such as robins, who had accumulated DDT in their fatty tissues during the winter, suddenly metabolized that fat in long distance migration, their bodies becoming overwhelmed with the toxin. Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, and other raptors accumulated DDT too, but didn’t have the same sudden change in flight habits, so they didn’t die from the poison. Instead, DDT affected how their egg shells formed, keeping them from reproducing.

But contrary to revisionist reports, DDT was not banned to protect birds—it was banned after the chemical was found in cow’s milk and human breast milk. It was banned to protect human beings. We’re slower than birds to show the effects of such things, and so some of the effects of DDT from back then are just now being felt. My big brother used to hop on his bike and chase the DDT truck through our neighborhood, along with the other boys, each vying to be first to grab one of the bars on the back of the truck. Now he’s 54 and already has had advanced prostate cancer and kidney cancer which had spread to one of his adrenal glands. Of course we’ll never know for sure what caused this cancer to develop. It may be connected to that DDT exposure, or to Agent Orange from his Vietnam War days. But it’s far more likely to be related to one of these pesticides than anything else—after all, there were no similar cancers in any of our parents or grandparents, or aunts or uncles, who lived out their childhoods before DDT or Agent Orange were invented, and almost all are reaching or lived well into their 80s.

The most ironic element of the DDT argument is that even if we did bring it back, we wouldn’t wipe out West Nile Virus. DDT was heavily used for years in many areas of the US, but mosquito populations didn’t decrease. It’s been used for over half a century in areas of the tropics, but malaria has not been wiped out. The problem is, there are just too many mosquitoes to be able to poison every one of them, and some individuals develop resistance to the chemicals and reproduce quickly. Little by little, we’ve had to increase doses of pesticides to have the same effectiveness, and meanwhile even small doses kill dragonflies that would have otherwise been eating the mosquitoes. I keep reading from ignorant pundits that the Audubon society cares about birds and not people. But in the quarter century that I’ve belonged to Audubon, the stand on pesticides has always been steeped in concern for human beings as well as wildlife. For centuries miners have known that birds need the same clean air we do, and their deaths serve as warnings that something we can’t see or smell or taste might be lurking that could kill us, too. It will be too bad if narrow corporate interests sell people on an impossible dream of wiping out mosquito-borne diseases when our children will pay the price with cancer.