SI Vault
John O'Reilly
May 02, 1960
In the war against his insect enemies, man has reached the point where his poisons not only kill birds and animals but threaten the human population as well
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May 02, 1960

The Deadly Spray

In the war against his insect enemies, man has reached the point where his poisons not only kill birds and animals but threaten the human population as well

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All the foregoing were the results of a program which, according to the Pesticide Committee of the International Association of Fish, Game and Conservation Commissioners, in 1958 accomplished the following: "Chemical controls were applied to more than 100 million acres of land in the United States, with additional millions more in Canada and Mexico. Mixed with dusts, oils, water and other solvents, emulsifiers and carriers, the volume totaled between 2 and 3 billion pounds and cost the consumer over $500 million. Currently, one sixth to one fifth of our croplands and millions of acres of forest and range lands are treated annually with pesticides in quantities of a few ounces to 25 or more pounds per acre." As for the future, the report added: "Entomologists expect a fourfold increase in the use of insecticides during the next 10 or 15 years."

On March 28 Justice William O. Douglas in effect proposed that the entire problem of mass spraying of toxic chemicals be reviewed by the Supreme Court of the United States. He stressed the importance of the issue in an indignant protest when the Supreme Court refused to consider the legality of a Department of Agriculture program to spray DDT from airplanes on more than 3 million acres of land in 10 states.

Justice Douglas' action climaxed a four-year battle by 13 residents of Long Island, N.Y., including Dr. Robert Cushman Murphy, the ornithologist, and Archibald B. Roosevelt, son of President Theodore Roosevelt, to curb pesticide spraying in their area. They had sought an injunction in 1956 against the Department of Agriculture's spraying of DDT to eradicate the gypsy moth, on the grounds that it would poison vegetables, animals and human beings. While the case was moving through the courts the department moved through the air and the spraying was done. The Government then said it had no intention of repeating the spraying. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals held, therefore, that the question was moot, or a dead issue, and the Supreme Court refused to review this decision.


After discussing some of the testimony in the case, Justice Douglas wrote, "The public interest in this controversy is not confined to a community in New York. Respondents' spraying program is aimed at millions of acres of land throughout the eastern United States. Moreover, the use of DDT in residential areas and on dairy farms is thought by many to present a serious threat to human health, as evidenced by the record in this case as well as by alarms sounded by others on the problem. The need for adequate findings on the effect of DDT is of vital concern not only to wildlife conservationists and owners of domestic animals but to all who drink milk or eat food from sprayed gardens....

"I express no views on the merits of this particular controversy. Nor do I now take a position on the issue of mootness. But I do believe that the questions tendered are extremely significant and justify review by this court."

It is not only the scope of the spraying program but the changing nature of the compounds used that has led to such mounting concern. Since World War II, when DDT was put on the market, the deadliness of pesticides has increased markedly. Insects were found to develop immunity to DDT, and so the demand arose for stronger compounds with a wider killing effect. A long list of new organic pesticides was therefore developed, including the chlorinated hydrocarbons. Now more than 200 pesticides are sold in various formulas under thousands of trade names.

Dr. Clarence Cottam, director of the Welder Wildlife Foundation, Sinton, Texas (SI, Jan. 21, 1957), and former Assistant Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is one of the leaders in the campaign against the wholesale and indiscriminate spraying of these toxic materials.

"The magnitude of this problem is tremendous," Dr. Cottam says. "It suggests to me that ultimately legislative action by Congress may be necessary to give more effective protection to man and his resources against overzealous operators. Knowledge needs to be available concerning the probable or possible indirect, as well as the direct, effect of the projected operational program."

The new chlorinated hydrocarbons have many curious properties. As a group they are highly toxic, but some are more poisonous than others and their effects are different upon different organisms. Upon being ingested some of them change form. In the body tissues of animals, for example, heptachlor metabolizes to heptachlor epoxide, which has proved to be more poisonous than the original compound. These chlorinated pesticides are also surprisingly stable and remain in the environment long after they have been deposited. Dieldrin and heptachlor remain lethal to invading fire ants from three to five years and possibly longer.

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