10 July 2019

Hey, farmer, farmer, put away the DDT now

Posted by Shane Hanlon

This is part of a series of posts from our own Shane Hanlon’s disease ecology class that he’s currently teaching at the University of Pittsburgh Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology. Students were asked to write popular science posts about (mostly) wildlife diseases. Check out all the posts here.

By Kaitlin Healy

Music has often been used as an outlet for activists to reach a broader audience on issues concerning politics, social issues, and environmental crises. Joni Mitchell was a prominent and very influential recording artist in the 1970’s that embodied this idea of using music to educate the public.  One of her most popular songs “Big Yellow Taxi,” called out various environmental issues like deforestation and, what stood out the most to me, the use of DDT.

Excerpt from “Big Yellow Taxi”: Hey, farmer, farmer, put away that DDT now. Give me spots on my apples, but leave me the birds and the bees. Please!

DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) is a synthetic insecticide that was first developed in the 1940’s.  It was primarily used for two purposes: 1) combatting insect-borne diseases like malaria and typhus among military and civilian populations, and 2) use in crop and livestock populations to limit and control insects.

DDT became a popular choice for insecticide and soon with the overuse many insect pests developed a resistance.  In addition to this, it started to become evident that with this pesticide came numerous adverse effects to the environment as well as humans and wildlife.  DDT has been found to collect in fatty tissues and can cause vomiting, tremors, and seizures in humans. Liver tumors were also found in animals after prolonged exposure in laboratory experiments, suggesting that it was a probable carcinogen.

While this insecticide was originally meant to combat diseases in humans and crops, it ultimately has become another “evil” we must fight.  As the song lyrics portray, DDT is detrimental to many of the necessary pollinators that are already in decline like Bees. Today, DDT is banned in the United States as issued by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) in 1972.  However, some countries still use the pesticide. It has also been found to be very persistent in the environment causing concern for countries like the United States that have already banned the pollutant.

“Big Yellow Taxi,” by Joni Mitchell, was produced right at the time that the public was becoming concerned for their health and safety in reference to DDT.  She portrayed the concern that many people were already feeling after Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, was published in 1962 criticizing the indiscriminate use of pesticides and spreading of disinformation by the chemical companies producing them.

We will always be in search for solutions to limit crop failure, and to protect people from diseases such as Malaria, but we must keep in mind the consequences we may face of doing such.  DDT is a prime example that we need to weigh all costs of possible “solutions.” This is not to say DDT is entirely bad. It is still a very effective weapon against Malaria, but it is only used, with clear regulations on how to use it, in areas that face severe and abundant cases.