…wrote Joni Mitchell in her hit song ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ in 1970.
DDT that most infamous of synthetic pesticides, the use of which arguably launched the environmental movement as we know it today, first made it’s appearance during World War 2. Used to control malaria and typhus in civilians and troops it wasn’t until after the conflict that it was made available for agricultural use.
Rachel Carson’s book ‘Silent Spring’ published in 1962 highlighted the impacts of indiscriminate spraying of DDT in the USA, and questioned the logic of using a substance without understanding its long-term effects on people and the environment. Eventually the outcry that the book provoked led to the outright banning of DDT in 1972.
In humans, DDT has been identified as a potential cause of cancer, birth defects, asthma, and diabetes. In animals DDT accumulates up the food chain, especially in birds, and was linked to loss of fertility and death. What’s more DDT is strongly absorbed by the soil and can take a very long time to disappear. DDT has a half life (the time it takes to lose half of its potency) of up to 30 years. Nasty stuff.
DDT was not banned in the UK until 1984. The Stockholm Convention, ratified by 170 countries, went into effect as of 2004 and banned all agricultural use. The Convention banned 12 other hazardous substances. DDT is still used on fields in India, North Korea, and quite possibly elsewhere. India is the only country still manufacturing DDT, after China ceased production in 2007.
The use of DDT in non-agricultural insect control is still allowed, and indoor spraying to control malaria-bearing mosquitoes is practiced in some countries. There remains a controversial debate surrounding this use of DDT. Many people believe that DDT has a part to play in the fight to prevent malaria claiming almost 900,000 lives per year. Others think the risks outweigh the benefits. For one thing, the regulatory system in many developing countries is probably not robust enough to prevent the deviation of DDT from the health sector to agriculture.
DDT and Nicaragua
‘The smell of pesticides – the smell of my country’, wrote Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal, also in the 1970s.
In the 1960s and 70s Nicaragua had a big pesticide addiction. Central America as a whole received 40% of total US pesticide exports to the Americas. As the largest country in the region, it’s certain that Nicaragua got its fair share. Overuse was leading to resistance in certain strains of pest, and in turn to increased use of chemicals. Sometimes crops were sprayed up to 35 times per season. Mind-boggling. Subsequently yields fell and costs spiraled.
Pesticides contaminated the environment to an alarming extent – for example, DDT in the breast milk of women in the Leon area was found to contain 40 times the World Health Organisation safe level. In 1980, human tissue samples from Nicaragua contained the world’s highest burden of the chemical. In each of the ten years from 1962 to 1972 more than 3,000 farm workers suffered from acute pesticide poisoning. These were the recorded cases, it is certain that many more sufferers existed undiagnosed or untreated in rural areas.
After the revolution the Sandinista government made efforts in the 1980s to wean Nicaragua away from its pesticide addiction. Imports of chemicals such as DDT were gradually phased out. The government promoted educational programmes training peasants, factory and rural workers in pesticide handling, and imported new and safer equipment to reduce the exposure of pesticides to workers.
Progress was made yet a legacy remains. Reliance on chemicals is still very much in evidence, and no-one can be completely sure that nasty substances aren’t lurking in stockpiles here and there. The now banned pesticide toxaphene was manufactured in Nicaragua until the 1990s.
I found statistics from 1998 estimating that 10,000 cases of acute pesticide poisoning are diagnosed annually. Having seen campesinos out in the field spraying by hand – a plastic container strapped to their back, wearing no protection of any kind – these stats, unfortunately, seem totally believable.
Over to Joni for some final words of wisdom
Hey farmer, farmer
Put away that DDT now
Give me spots on my apples
But leave me the birds and the bees
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Til its gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot