November 3, 2012
DDT and Its Effects on Peregrine Falcons
The Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), or Duck Hawk, is a medium-sized raptor weighing 2 to 2 ½ pounds. These remarkable birds of prey measure 15-21 inches and have a wingspan of about 3 ½ feet. Their name, Peregrine, comes from the Latin word peregrinus, which means “to wander”. The name fits, given that they have one of the longest migrations in North America and are found on every continent besides Antarctica. Peregrine Falcons hunt pigeons, crows, waterfowl, starlings, jays, and other small to medium sized birds. They are also known to hunt for bats and other small mammals (Defenders of Wildlife). They are best known for their spectacular hunting methods in which they catch their prey mid-air. If that is not impressive enough, they do it while plunging at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour, killing or stunning its prey instantly (National Geographic). What is even more impressive than any of this is the fact that the Peregrine Falcon was on the verge of extinction and has made a remarkable comeback. The cause of their brush with extinction was the result of the use of organochlorine pesticides, mainly dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) (The Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group).
DDT was first synthesized in 1874. However, its effectiveness as an insecticide was not discovered until 1939. This discovery was made by Dr. Paul Herman Müller of Switzerland. Müller worked as a laboratory technologist at the great dye-manufacturing firm of J.R. Geigy. Müller started working on inventing new insecticides in 1936 and by 1939 had synthesized DDT. After years of perfecting the new compound, he proved its effectiveness in controlling Colorado Potato Beetles on crops. During WWII, he also found it just as effective in destroying lice on war refugees. As testing continued, Müller and his associates were convinced that he had discovered the most potent and powerful insecticide known at the time. DDT was fatal to insects in a very minute quantity, yet was completely nontoxic to humans. Geigy, the company that Müller worked for, patented the formula in 1940 and the manufacture of DDT began. The need for an insecticide during the war was one of absolute necessity. At the time, the main source for insecticides was from a flower imported by Japan. War with Japan cut off the major source, and with no effective and safe insecticides, the U.S. became desperate. With the spread of malaria carried by mosquitoes, and the fact that Japan had cut off exports, DDT gained attention. The popularity of DDT grew when in 1943 the U.S. Army placed it on supply lists. By the end of the war, DDT had become the most publicized synthetic chemical in the world. After 1945, DDT became widespread in the U.S. for commercial and agricultural use. The popularity was due to its effectiveness, cost, versatility and persistence. Dr. Paul Herman Müller was awarded a Nobel Prize for his discovery of this remarkable insecticide in 1948 (Davis). The next 30 years would be a wake-up call to many people around the globe. The long-term effects of DDT were still a mystery, but would soon surface.
During the same time that Dr. Paul Herman Müller was perfecting the DDT compound in Switzerland, a woman named Rachel Carson was teaching in the zoology department of the University of Maryland. During her college years, she had majored in English composition and biology. Her desire to write landed her a job with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries before it became the Fish and Wildlife Service. Her career prospered in the following years. In 1941 she wrote her first book, Under the Sea Wind, which had won critical acclaim and earned her the position of Editor In Chief of the Fish and Wildlife Service. With this new position, she was required to read a large deal about the new insecticide, DDT. She was not happy with what she read about experiments that had been going on....