DDT 3/6/22

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Here’s a thought that might get a few people on their nerves.  Every pesticide ever released was safe when it first hit the market.

Before you send me lists of pesticides and chemicals, give me a chance to explain.  Nobody, not even a chemical company, will knowingly release a product that they know will get them sued.  That’s just reality.  So why are they released?  Because they believe them to be safe.

A friend (yes, I have a friend) was having lunch with me today when I mentioned that there was a time when bald eagles were hunted for food.  As their numbers declined, they were put on the protected species list and hunting them became illegal, but it wasn’t the hunting that led to their decline.  The reality is that it was DDT.  Today DDT is a banned chemical, but how did it come to risk the bald eagle?

When a new pesticide (or other chemical-based product such as a medication) is developed, they test the safety of it.  Unfortunately, the cost of developing the product is usually expensive, and the patent lasts from the moment it is deemed potentially valuable and protects the product for a limited number of years.  So they test, but the testing is limited in duration for the amount of time and in scale according to the laboratory space and scope of the testing.  The company really wants to start making its money back, so if the results suggest it is reasonably safe, then they will send their data to the appropriate legislative oversight group (such as the FDA) who does feel pressure to agree because of the cost of delay, although they will and have disagreed on occasion. 

Once the product hits the market, of course it is new and exciting and improved and is advertised as such.  Blame the manufacturer if you like, but the consumers are also to blame a far too many of us will rush to purchase these exciting new products.  Suddenly they are used and distributed on scales far larger than what could be done in a lab, and in environments far more diverse than laboratory scientists could imagine, and for durations far longer than the company can afford to continue testing.  In the case of DDT, the pesticide was used in environments with Bald Eagles.

Over time, biologists noted a disturbing decline in new eagle births.  For those who may not have picked up on it, I didn’t say Bald Eagle deaths, but a decline in birth rates.  Bald eagles themselves were not dying, as I’m sure the lab tests showed (not that they tested specifically on bald eagles, but probably did test on representative animals that would have included birds).  It takes longer to notice a decline in births than piles of poisoned animals, so this might not have been noticed very quickly.

As it turns out, the DDT was affecting the eagle shells making them soft and vulnerable.  They were basically being broken by the mom during the incubation period because the shell was too soft.  Once discovered, DDT was banned.  In the ‘80’s, I was working for an environmental chemistry lab testing soils, water and air for pesticides and herbicides.  Usually, we would find DDT contamination in the parts per million range, but one sample we had contained approximately one third DDT.  The site was probably a corporate dump area where they decided to illegally get rid of their DDT stock. 

As consumers, we have a habit of diving into new things with both feet.  Today, the wave seems to be “impossible meat” substitutes.  I hope it’s as healthy and problem free as it seems it should be, but we won’t really know until it’s been around long enough that any problems it might have can surface.  Olestra was one of those products that, as it turned out, had a tragic humor ending.  Olestra was a fat-free oil substitute, which would be good for losing weight, and lowering cholesterol.  It hit the market and consumers (some consumers) went after it with a vengeance.  Unfortunately, the unknown side effect for over consumption of the product was anal leakage.  The reality is that, regardless of your cholesterol score or how much weight you lose, nobody with anal leakage is attractive.  Well, maybe to people with a certain fetish, but that’s a story for another time. 

So should we avoid new products?  No, that’s not really what I’m trying to say here.  But maybe we should treat new products with a little more caution. 


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