DDT—banned long ago, but far from gone
Updated: Jan 7, 2020
DDT is not going away without a fight.
We think of the danger of DDT in the past tense since it was banned long ago, but it is persistent and still being detected in food. When I read the recent news that residues were found on 40% of spinach samples, it hit home. I eat spinach several days a week, almost always organic. But what about restaurants, prepared foods, juices and smoothies purchased away from home and on-the-go?
DDT is the insecticide that caused mass die-off’s of native birds and fish and the near-extinction of our bald eagle and peregrine falcon. Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s 1962 courageous best-seller exposed the pervasive use of insecticides and pesticides in post-WWII America that made DDT a household word.
About two million tons (four billion pounds) of DDT was used in the United States between 1940—1972, and eighty percent of this was in agriculture. It’s disturbingly pernicious due to the large amount that was used for many years.
Carson inherently understood soil ecology long before it was taught as it is now. She describes a meeting of soil experts at Syracuse University in 1960: “As applications of pesticides continue and the virtually indestructible residues continue to build up in the soil, it is almost certain we are headed for trouble,” (Silent Spring-Ch 5, Realms of the Soil).
We were, and we are, headed for trouble.
Not only did Carson forewarn of the poisoning of our food, she knew that the soil community, all the creatures living underground that enrich soil quality—earthworms, invertebrates, and beneficial insects—were casualties of the chemical spraying. “What happens to the [soil community] when poisonous chemicals are carried down into their world?” she asked, fearing that industrial single-crop farming (monocultures) were destroying the natural ‘checks & balances’ that a healthy soil community provides (Silent Spring Ch-2, The Obligation to Endure).
The blanket of soil that covers farmland throughout much of the United States has absorbed about seventy years of agricultural chemicals. Farm animals are also exposed to chemicals from feed grown in contaminated soil, and this is passed to humans in meat and dairy products.
And it’s not just industrial agriculture—Americans will soon begin their spring rituals of chemical lawn treatments because advertising, along with suburban peer-pressure, has convinced them that the artificial green lawn is necessary. All this will happen with no second thought of the soil invertebrates like the earthworms that diligently aerate and improve soil when given the chance.
Rachel Carson was determined to write Silent Spring so that we would know the health and environmental risks of the industrialized food system, at a time when she, fighting cancer herself, knew the backlash she would get from the chemical industry. As we now are following the Monsanto-Roundup cancer trials (Monsanto just lost the second time) it couldn’t be more critical or timely for everyone to read Silent Spring again, or for the first time, now.
Emily Elert. “U.S. Food Still Tainted with Old Chemicals,” 2010. Environmental Health News, Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/chemical-tainted-food/
EWG-Environmental Working Group. “EU-Banned Pesticide Found on Spinach,” 2019. EWG, Washington D.C. https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/spinach.php
Rachel Carson. Silent Spring, 1962. Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.