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DDT WarsRescuing Our National Bird, Preventing Cancer, and Creating EDF$
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Charles F. Wurster

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780190219413

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190219413.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 24 October 2021

A New England Town Sprays Its Elm Trees with DDT

A New England Town Sprays Its Elm Trees with DDT

1 (p.1) A New England Town Sprays Its Elm Trees with DDT
Title Pages

Charles F. Wurster

Oxford University Press

The robin was twitching, tremoring, convulsing uncontrollably, and peeping occasionally. The student handed the bird to me, and in a few minutes it was dead in my hands. It was April 23, 1963, and I was in my laboratory at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, when the student walked in with the bird. A week earlier the elm trees of Hanover had been sprayed with the insecticide DDT to control the spread of Dutch elm disease by elm bark beetles. In the following weeks 151 dead birds filled my freezer, many of them exhibiting before they died the tremors that we later learned were typical of DDT poisoning. Four of us were conducting a small-scale study of the effects, if any, of the DDT spray program in Hanover. We were shocked by what was happening to the local birds, but we would have expected this reaction to DDT if we had read the scientific literature on earlier DDT spray programs on elm trees. We had not. We soon realized that we had rediscovered what other ornithologists had already reported from DDT spray programs in the American Midwest. We also soon learned that DDT was ineffective in preventing the spread of Dutch elm disease and that another procedure, sanitation without insecticides, effectively protected the elms. This DDT spray procedure was all costs and no benefits. Hundreds of towns were killing thousands or millions of birds while not protecting their elms. The whole thing struck me as absurd and tragic. It became a life-changing event for me. I decided that DDT was a chemical that had to be stopped, although I hadn’t the slightest idea where such a conclusion was going to lead. I was 33 years old and had become what in those days was usually called a conservationist. Now such people have been renamed “environmentalists.” I had a dubious beginning as such a person. When I was about seven and living in a northern suburb of Philadelphia, I came across a couple of snakes.

Keywords:   Dutch elm disease, Ecology, elm bark beetles, methoxychlor, rattlesnakes, typhus

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