An Unhealthy History: The Health Effects of Outlawed Pesticide DDT

There was a time when chemicals were fairly new to the population. The relocation of people to cities brought with it many health issues. An influx of pests, such as bugs and rodents were a part of these issues. Even rural areas began to use pesticides to further increase the productivity of their crops. The insecticide, dichlorophenyltrichloroethane (DDT), was used around humans and animals in many situations. It was used in homes, and on crops that people hand-picked. From its first appearance in the late 19th century it began causing issues. Many of these health issues were not traced back to DDT until later in the 20th century. There are still people alive today that have questionable neurological diseases.


The use of DDT was widespread in the agricultural community. Even with its early manufacture date, it was not available for use by the public in the United States until the mid-20th century. It was, however, used for insect control in World War II. Malaria was a major issue, and control of insects became a priority. Environmentalists were already concerned about its use shortly after it came onto the market. The concern was raised, partially, due to the lack of research done on its human and environmental impact. The increased awareness and concern led to a ban on the product for agricultural use in 1972. This was limited to the United States, however. The rest of the world soon followed suit. The only used today is for situations where the risks from insects outweigh the risks from the DDT.


Cancer is the main concern for many people when it comes to a variety of environmental toxins. This issue has been somewhat inconclusive with DDT. Some studies showed an increase in pancreatic cancer and some evidence when it comes to breast cancer. All the studies aimed and determining DDT a carcinogen have found to be likely. There is a new generation of adults coming down with various cancers. This particular age group would have been in the womb during exposure. The cancer risk is more related to women and to those that were exposed during their fetal developmental phase. DDT has even been found lingering in homes from the time period. Things like old wallpaper can hold on to it.

Reproductive Issues

The amount of DDT used for mosquito control due to malaria has also caused long-term health issues. The reproductive issues noticed in this part of the world have to do with males that were born and raised in the area. These individual showed a low sperm count and quality when they reached adulthood. Motility issues were also noticed. A higher incidence of birth defects happen in these areas, as well.

The placenta of mothers in these areas were checked. There were traces of the pesticide in the placenta. Children could have also been affected this way. The environmental contamination water. The fish eaten by pregnant women contained the toxin, allowing it to move on to the baby. Contaminated milk was often given to babies for several months, contributing to complications. Some studies have shown that DDT blocks progesterone from binding to the proper receptors. This may explain high rates of premature births and low birth-weight in areas where DDT is till used today.

Women who are adults today but were exposed to DDT while developing in the womb may experience problems becoming pregnant right away. Even more fertility problems that have been noticed over the years may be a result of this pesticide that was sprayed many years ago. The most likely cause for reproductive and pregnancy issues is the effect this pesticide has on hormones.


Exposure to DDT can be caused by inhalation, eating contaminated foods, or even touching surfaces that it is on. Instant reaction to this exposure can cause tremors and vomiting. Seizures are also possible in severe cases. These symptoms happen when the nervous system has been compromised. These immediate effects clue us into the fact that our bodies may suffer long term from the exposure.

DDT in the environment does not leave the natural environment easily. It takes about two days to clear it from the air. However, it does not readily dissolve in water. Therefore if you drink contaminated water, it may be concentrated. The particles adhere to soil and do not sink into the underground water in the way things do. It takes up to 15 years for half of the product applied to break down in soil. A small portion of it is evaporated. Other portions are broken down by natural resources such as sunlight and microorganisms. There is often a buildup of the chemical in plants. This contributes to exposure through foods that are grown in contaminated soil. Animals, fish and birds can all store DDT in their fatty tissues. This can also happen in humans.

DDT is a dangerous chemical that has not been banned from all use. The United States can still use in case of an environmental emergency. It ironic part is that the DDT may very well cause an environmental emergency of its own. DDT reaches humans through water, land, and animal exposure. It is able to cross the placenta, reaching the fetus. Many children exposed in the womb are just now becoming a part of studies on reproduction and disease. The widespread use of this pesticide to control Malaria in developing countries is causing further health issues. DDT and other pesticides were not meant to use in large concentrations. Most are best never used at all.

Editor's Picks

There are very few people on this planet who enjoy their work more than Aner Banner. His friends often readily admit that Aner eats, sleeps, and breaths science 24 hours a day. He is always challenging old methods, proposing new ideas, and seeking to solve difficult problems. Aner spends most of the day imparting his wisdom to the young minds of a small elementary school. Thankfully he has also mastered the art of making science come alive for the future leaders of our nation. He is loved and well respected by students, parents, and faculty alike. His motto forever remains “never stop learning.

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