During the first half of the twentieth century, insect pests like bed bugs, mosquitoes, flies, termites and cockroaches wreaked havoc in urban areas throughout the US, and residents were largely defenseless against the pests. During this time, insect pest control methods consisted of simple homemade physical traps, such as keeping a bowl beneath each leg of a bed to capture bed bugs as they attempted to reach sleeping humans. Due to the disease threat posed by overabundant and everpresent fly, cockroach and mosquito populations in urban areas during the early 1900s, residents became skilled at swatting bugs with rolled up newspapers. Surprisingly, even the primitive flyswatter would not be patented until 1900.
Eventually, the first modern synthetic insecticide was introduced during the 1940s, and this same decade saw the proliferation of the first private pest control companies in the US. By the next decade, the private pest control industry had established a widespread presence in the country, and each firm relied solely on the one effective insecticide that had been introduced a decade prior. This insecticide is known by the hard-to-pronounce name of dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethan, but most people know it as DDT.
Initially, DDT seemed to be the insecticide of the gods, as a single indoor treatment would effectively eradicate even the largest indoor populations of all insect pests including the ones that are notorious today for being extremely difficult to eliminate, such as bed bugs and German cockroaches. In fact, the constant use of DDT led to the near eradication of bed bugs in the US only a decade after the insecticide was introduced. However, by the late 1950s and early 1960s, authorities with the US Department of Agriculture began putting restrictions on the use of DDT due to the insecticide’s decreasing effectiveness, and the possible medical and environmental hazards associated with its use. It was during this time that researchers began to document DDT resistance in German cockroaches, and in 1962, the environmental scientist Rachel Carson released a controversial book detailing her research into the negative health and environmental effects of DDT.
This book is called Silent Spring, and it succeeded in spreading public awareness about the negative impact of DDT use, which earned her the ire of chemical company CEOs, certain politicians, and even then President Dwight Eisenhower. One decade after the release of Carson’s book, the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT entirely. Since then, the EPA has been thoroughly testing and closely monitoring insecticide use, and many of Carson’s ideas concerning non-toxic pest control methods are now standard in the pest control industry, such as biological methods of controlling crop pests.
Were you around when DDT was being heavily used all over the nation?