By Tom Dare
INCREDIBLE SCENES from the mid-1940s showing entire neighbourhoods of men, women and children being covered in the dangerous pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) have resurfaced.
Footage from several different newsreels taken in the mid-1940s gives an insight into the lack of health and safety regulations in the mid-20th century.
The first scene shows a small town in Texas being coated in DDT in an attempt to halt the spread of polio in the area, with the United States government under the belief at the time that the pesticide would help to eliminate the mosquitoes that had been carrying the disease.
The next scene in the video shows groups of children being sprayed with DDT while they eat or swim in the local pool in another area of Texas. The same shocking practice can be seen being implemented in the final clip from the video, with United States army personnel supplying DDT to the people of Naples toward the end of the Second World War. Children can be seen having the pesticide applied to their heads and inside their clothing during the clip.
DDT began to become prevalent in the United States from around 1943 onwards, with many seeing it as a form of ‘miracle cure’ for one of the deadliest diseases in the country; polio. Polio, or poliomyelitis, is a potentially deadly infectious disease, caused by the poliovirus. The virus spreads from person to person and can invade an infected person’s brain and spinal cord, causing paralysis in the host. America’s wartime President Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt is one of the most high-profile victims of the disease.
It was believed at the time that polio was spread by mosquitoes that carried the disease, and so the decision was reached to tackle areas with a high rate of polio with pesticide. DDT was perhaps the best and most effective pesticide available at the time, and so an astonishing 1.34 billion tonnes of the chemical was sprayed across the United States in the years between 1946 and 1962.
However the United States decision to use the chemical was short-sighted to say the least. It’s impact on the environment was significant, making its way into the food supply and being reported to cause neurological problems in livestock such as cows. It is also widely considered to have contributed significantly to the falling number of bald eagles in the US at the time; following the chemical’s ban in 1972, numbers have increased significantly.
And while the effects on people are more widely debated than the above, there are still reports of significant health issues being caused as a result of exposure to DDT. The Pesticide Action Network (PAN) of North America states:
“Studies show a range of human health effects linked to DDT and its breakdown product, DDE including, breast and other cancers, male infertility, miscarriages and low birth weight, developmental delay and nervous system and liver damage”
DDT was used well into the 1950s, with little or no effect on the rate of polio, before scientist Rachel Carson published her 1962 book Silent Spring which looked in depth at the negative effects the use of pesticides in general, and DDT in particular, were having on the environment. After a review in which additional research was carried out, the U.S. government moved to ban the use of DDT in 1972.