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Character Assassination, Slander, and DDT Science

A review by Henry T. Armistead

DDT Wars, by Charles F. Wurster

Oxford University Press, 2015

256 pages, $24.95–hardcover

Pity the poor non-birder guy from Time, stuck in the back of a station wagon for 24 hours as we blasted over 500 miles of Delaware highway on one of Dave Cutler’s legendary Big Days, recording 187 species, slightly below par for those days of May 1967. A photograph in the June 2, 1967, issue of the magazine showed us in action that day: Jim Merritt, me, and Charles Wurster.

That photo in Time establishes Charles F. Wurster’s bona fides as a birder, or birdwatcher, as we were called back then. Four months later, Wurster and nine others would sign the articles of incorporation for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

Wurster DDT WarsDDT Wars is the engaging account of the first struggles to get DDT and some other chemicals banned. Wurster and the others involved in those earliest actions, even before EDF was founded, were all birders. That first handful of warriors were uncompensated, working on their own time, with no letterhead and no office. Yet they pioneered the legal procedures that resulted in the establishment of environmental law as a field taught in the law schools and represented at the big firms. Theirs was a David vs. Goliath effort, reminiscent of the conflict in the film “Erin Brockovich.” But their science was impeccable, and their powerful agri-chemical opponents ultimately could not marshal the research or the legal strategies to defeat them.

Wurster is a graduate of Philadelphia’s Germantown Friends School; Quaker schools maintain the tradition of fostering interest in natural history, and this institution has produced such other ornithologists as Christopher C. Witt, Daniel A. Cristol, Daniel D. Roby, George L. Armistead, Donald Stokes, Matthew F. Sharp, Eben Goodale, and Keith Russell. Wurster went on to earn a Ph.D. in organic chemistry at Stanford, and is now Professor Emeritus of Environmental Studies at Stony Brook University.

Early on, according to Wurster, the DDT warriors

had neither wealth nor political connections…Their strategy was to take environmental problems to court using scientific evidence. Significant legal obstacles challenged the campaign from the beginning…The DDT battles paid nothing. If anything they were a detriment

to the careers of people like Rachel Carson, whose 1962 Silent Spring was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Chemical and agricultural interests spent a fortune lambasting her for lacking a doctorate, for being unmarried, and for being a woman. Wurster, too, was subjected to character assassination and slander.

In this book, Wurster does a good job of reporting on the research that had documented the bad effects of DDT even before Rachel Carson came on the scene. The targeted insects, it was found, often developed immunity to DDT and other similar chemicals, and, notoriously, those pesticides killed countless numbers of non-target organisms. The Osprey population of New York’s Gardiners Island, for example, plummeted from 300 pairs in 1948 to just 75 or so in 1965. Bald Eagles were recorded only twice from 1966 to 1979 on the Cape Charles, Virginia, Christmas Bird Count (CBC), and the average tally for the species on the Southern Dorchester County, Maryland, CBC in the 1960s was only 11. Bald Eagles failed to breed at all along the James River in Virginia for a five-year period in the 1970s. Brown Pelicans ceased nesting in Louisiana—causing the image of the state’s official bird to be quietly removed from license plates. And the eastern North American subspecies of the Peregrine Falcon, anatum, simply went extinct.

There’s more to the story than DDT. Wurster and his early colleagues also went to court to combat the use of aldrin, dieldrin, heptachlor, chlordane, the DDT derivative DDE, and mirex. Mirex was widely used in the southeastern U.S. to kill fire ants. Nothing is that simple, though, and mirex killed not just the fire ants but also most other insects, including the native ants that compete with fire ants. It allowed some of the pests the fire ants preyed on to increase. Millions of acres were also treated with dieldrin and heptachlor in the effort to eradicate fire ants; large numbers of birds, fish, crustaceans, and even farm animals died as a result, and the fire ants continued to expand their range.

EDF and the EPA administrators William Ruckelshaus and Russell Train helped derail the harmful uses of these chemicals. The hearings on mirex “droned on for two years with 100 witnesses filling 13,000 pages of transcript,“ but finally, in 1978, it was banned, and the proposal for a “12-year, $200 million program to spread mirex by World War II bombers on 120 million acres in nine states” was scuttled.

DDT, meanwhile, had been banned in 1972, and that victory led directly to the robust population recoveries of Peregrine Falcons, Bald Eagles, Ospreys, and Brown Pelicans in the U.S. In the 2010s, the average Cape Charles CBC has counted an astounding 46 Bald Eagles, and there are now about 100 breeding pairs on Virginia’s eastern shore. In Dorchester County, Maryland, 119 Bald Eagles were in sight simultaneously from the observation tower at Blackwater NWR in January 2015. Bryan D. Watts tells me that there may now be as many as 2,000 breeding pairs on Chesapeake Bay.

The post-DDT recovery of breeding Brown Pelicans on the East Coast has been similarly astounding. Until 1986, they bred no farther north than Oregon Inlet, North Carolina. Recent years have seen a colony at South Point Marsh, north of Virginia’s Tangier Island, with 1,000 pairs or more. The first Maryland breeders were in 1987, and, a few years ago, we banded 1,456 chicks in one day at Holland Island, Maryland, under the direction of David Brinker and John Weske.

Ospreys, too, have largely recovered in Connecticut and on Long Island. Counts of more than 1,000 migrants on a single day have been reported from both Kiptopeke, Virginia, and Cape May, New Jersey. Dozens of pairs of Peregrine Falcons now nest in the East, thanks to the pioneering efforts of the Peregrine Fund and Tom Cade—and how about the 1,506 migrant Peregrines counted October 10, 2015, at Hammock State Park, Marathon, Florida! All of this is directly attributable to the banning of DDT in 1972. Thank you, EDF.

Deniers commonly maintain that environmental problems are a “hoax” intended to help scientists win grant funding. Wurster reports that some critics accuse environmentalists of engaging in genocide because their opposition to DDT has caused “millions” to die of malaria. He explains the limited efficacy of DDT in combating that disease, and also discusses the possibility that DDT causes cancer in humans.

The action in DDT Wars takes place in many venues, including courtrooms in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Wisconsin, Michigan, and the Southeast. Wurster’s own first brush with DDT was on the Dartmouth campus in New Hampshire, where in 1963 numbers of American Robins were dying from chemicals sprayed to control bark beetles.

Some may find DDT Wars too much of a paean to EDF, which now has more than 1.4 million members worldwide, a dozen offices, and a staff of some 300. But that organization’s accomplishments in its early years and beyond have been crucial. Others may be uncomfortable with EDF’s present close relationship with some big corporations, a criticism that also has been leveled at The Nature Conservancy. But working with the big outfits is one way, usually a good way, to get things done.

One minor shortcoming in DDT Wars is the lack of a glossary of legal and technical terms and acronyms. They are explained in the text, but a separate reckoning would be helpful for easy reference to the special meanings of “standing,” “sovereign immunity,” “integrated pest management,” “sanitation,” and other terms, along with acronyms such as FIFRA and BTNRC. But Wurster is to be commended for this excellent history of an important period when some of our most iconic birds seemed to be on the way out.

Highly recommended.

Henry Armistead

– A birder since 1949, Henry T. (“Harry”) Armistead is obsessed with the birdlife of the Chesapeake Bay and Delmarva Peninsula. He is a former Birding Book Review Editor (1968–1981) and American Birds Regional Editor (1979–1993), and is active in numerous citizen-science bird surveys. Armistead’s favorite bird is the American Robin.

Recommended citation:

Armistead, H. 2016. Character Assassination, Slander, and DDT Science [a review of  DDT Wars, by Charles F. Wurster]. Birding 48 (3): 70.

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Birding Book Reviews publishes Birding magazine's reviews on line. Book reviews are edited by Rick Wright.
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  • Gregg Gorton

    What an information-packed review!– fabulous!! The use of information
    gleaned from birders’ sightings is robustly deployed to support the thread
    tracing the loss and recovery of several iconic species from their DDT-driven
    declines. A masterful review of what sounds like a very important book.

  • Patch Davis

    As a Florida native, I can attest to the fact that during my youth (the 50’s), we ran through the woods and the weeds finding many types of insects, colorful beetles and such, which
    were WIPED OUT by insecticides meant to target other species. History shows again and
    again how nature points out the folly of men–

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