In 1954: Early Letters To ‘The Bee’ Warned Of DDT Hazards

The late author Rachel Carson is often credited with awakening Americans to the hazards of DDT contamination in the food chain. But eight years before Rachel Carson cautioned the world about the dangers of the pesticide in her 1962 book, Silent Spring, another voice was calling in the wilderness.

Newtown resident Garry Ober recently brought to the attention of The Newtown Bee a letter published in the paper in April 1954. His son-in-law, Ethan Mannon, pursuing his doctorate at Penn State University, traveled to Ohio in the fall to study the writings of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Louis Bromfield, a 20th Century conservationist best known for developing conservation, or sustainable, farming practices at his Malabar Farm in Richland County, Ohio.

Tucked in among the writer’s notes in the collection in the Rare Books & Manuscripts Library of The Ohio State University Libraries were two clippings, one published in The Newtown Bee, and another letter to the paper that appears not to have made it into print. Both were written by a man identified as Alfred Nelson. They caught Mr Mannon’s attention, not only because they were from his wife, Bethany’s, hometown newspaper, but because the content revealed an early cautioning statement regarding upcoming DDT spraying in Newtown and surrounding communities.

First widely used in 1939 to clear South Pacific islands during World War II, DDT was heralded as a pesticide able to kill hundreds of different insects at once, rather than targeting just one type or family of insects. By 1945, the powerful pesticide was made available to the civilian population.

Naturalist and author Edwin Way Teale raised flags as to the wisdom of using DDT around that time, according to information found at the Natural Resources Defense Council website, writing “A spray as indiscriminate as DDT can upset the economy of nature as much as a revolution upsets social economy. Ninety percent of all insects are good, and if they are killed, things go out of kilter right away.”

Rachel Carson took up the cause shortly after, but multiple attempts by the recognized author to publish articles on the dangers of DDT were turned away. She went forward with her book in 1962, discounting the cavalier attitude of chemical industries of the day.

In his April 30, 1954 letter to The Bee, Mr Nelson wrote in response to the upcoming spraying of DDT to combat the gypsy moth invasion.

“This is being done despite the fact that DDT is known to be poisonous to humans and animals and despite the previous failure of DDT to control the gypsy moth in New England and elsewhere,” Mr Nelson wrote. He went on to list the less than optimal practice of spraying the pesticide from planes and the unwanted spread to properties and crops outside of the designated spray area.

Referring to DDT use in Mississippi in 1953, Mr Nelson wrote, “It was found that the airplane spray drifted on the wind four to 15 miles!”

He recounts the collateral deaths of honeybees, wildlife, fish birds, and crustaceans in various areas of the United States where DDT had been sprayed, without adversely affecting the targeted insect population.

“But our State Entomologist has been very reassuring,” Mr Nelson continued, in a tone that the reader can interpret as more than a little sarcastic. “These experiences elsewhere were caused by improper spraying and by the use of too much DDT. Connecticut is much more skillful in these matters. Only one-half pound per acre will be applied (standard practice for gypsy moth is one pound per acre) and it will be sprayed, not dusted… It is absurd to suppose that Connecticut can do what New York, Florida, Mississippi and our Federal officials cannot do,” he despaired.

“What is worse, DDT does not deteriorate but persists unchanged in the soil and on vegetation for many years and gets into streams and into our drinking water… But most disconcerting of all,” Mr Nelson warned Newtown residents, “our State Entomologist has recently stated (April 1, 1954), ‘It is our opinion that the pest (gypsy moth) is here to stay and that attempts to eradicate it are likely to be unsuccessful…’”

“Why then,” wondered Mr Nelson, “does the state persist in its intention to spray our forestlands?”

Warnings Unheeded

Like the concerns of naturalists and early environmentalists of that era, and in the face of research that showed detrimental effects of the pesticide, Mr Nelson’s warnings appear to have gone unheeded.

An article in the May 28, 1954 Newtown Bee chronicles the “Warfare On Gypsy Moth” to stamp out Newtown’s infestation by the damaging insect larvae. Contract sprayers for the United States Department of Agriculture took to the air that week, with each plane spreading 100 gallons of DDT over infested areas.

The second letter from Mr Nelson is also found within Mr Bromfield’s collection. Addressed to Paul S. Smith, Editor, Newtown Bee, and dated June 14, 1954, the typewritten letter has penciled in at the top “not published.” In this letter, Mr Nelson follows up on a report in the June 11 Newtown Bee concerning a fish die-off at Pierce Hollow Brook in Southbury.

“Thousands of trout and pickerel fingerlings, suckers, red fin, bullheads, rock bass, salamanders and even earthworms were seen on Wednesday for one and one quarter miles along the brook,” Mr Nelson writes in the letter. “Nothing is said about the possibility that the aerial spraying with DDT in this area immediately preceding this event, had anything to do with this sudden and unusual disaster…” he objects. He cites a June 12 New York Times article that blames DDT sprayed on trees near a lake with killing a large number of fish in New Jersey.

Later in this letter he asks, “And what about the curious epidemic among humans that has persisted hereabouts since the day after the sprayings started?” He lists a variety of observed symptoms, including irritated eyes and noses, and headaches, although he does not state the source of this information. “Whether or not the authorities admit it, one need not be a doctor to realize that a lot of people were suddenly made sick immediately after the sprayings,” Mr Nelson ends the letter.

A subsequent article in the June 18, 1954 Newtown Bee credits the new sewage treatment system at the Southbury Training School with discharging chlorine into the brook, and killing the fish. Other discharge pollution is raised up as a possible contributor to the fish kill, but there is again no mention of a possible connection to the DDT spraying the previous month.


Little Or No Follow Up

There does not appear to be a follow up to the fish kill the remainder of the summer, nor do other letters to The Newtown Bee address the DDT spray or Mr Nelson’s concerns. One letter, from Alice B. Stiles of Southbury appears in the July 16, 1954 Communications column in the paper. Ms Stiles is outraged that pollution to the waters of the Pierce Hollow Brook, and the Housatonic, make the water unfit for swimming or wading. As does the June 18 Bee article, Ms Stiles attributes the pollution to the Southbury Training School, and makes no mention of DDT contamination. (The Communications column in The Newtown Bee does not appear in every issue, unlike today’s Letter Hive, and generally featured only one or two letters from the public.)

There are no articles the remainder of the year sounding an alarm over unusual health reports in Newtown or surrounding areas.

It is unclear as to whether or not Mr Nelson ever sent the second letter to The Newtown Bee, nor is it clear how these two missives came to be included in Mr Bromfield’s papers. Perhaps, knowing of Mr Bromfield’s pioneering efforts in the field of conservation and his international recognition for his work, Mr Nelson hoped that his solo voice might be amplified. What is clear is that Mr Nelson was early to identify what would be revealed to be a major health and environmental danger.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency website, “The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal agency with responsibility of regulating pesticides before the formation of the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, began regulatory actions in the late 1950s and 1960s to prohibit many of DDT’s uses because of mounting evidence of the pesticide’s declining benefits and environmental and toxicological effects… In 1972, EPA issued a cancellation order for DDT based on adverse environmental effects of its use, such as those to wildlife, as well as DDT’s potential human health risks… Since the use of DDT was discontinued in the United States, its concentration in the environment and animals has decreased, but because of its persistence, residues of concern from historical use still remain.”


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