Annals of DDT: When they sprayed DDT from airplanes to stop polio


March of Dimes Foundation photo:

March of Dimes Foundation photo: “Nurses tended to polio patients in iron lung respirators at the Robert B. Green Memorial Hospital polio ward in San Antonio in 1950. It was a common scene throughout the polio crisis that swept Texas.” From the San Antonio Express-News article on the history of polio in the city.

It didn’t work.

In a desperate move to stop polio epidemics, after World War II but before the Salk polio vaccine was available, some American towns authorized aerial spraying of DDT over their cities.

Of course, DDT doesn’t stop viruses, and polio is a virus. Polio virus is not spread by a vector, an insect or other creature which might have been stopped by DDT, as mosquitoes spread malaria parasites and West Nile virus.

Aerial spraying of DDT against polio did not one thing.

A podcast from the Science History Institute discussed these misdirected events recently, and someone there did a sharp, short video to explain the issue.

YouTube explanation:

An animation drawn from episode 207 of Distillations podcast, DDT: The Britney Spears of Chemicals.

The podcast is a short 15 minutes, and fun, “Distillations.”

Americans have had a long, complicated relationship with the pesticide DDT, or dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, if you want to get fancy. First we loved it, then we hated it, then we realized it might not be as bad as we thought. But we’ll never restore it to its former glory. And couldn’t you say the same about America’s once-favorite pop star?

We had a hunch that the usual narrative about DDT’s rise and fall left a few things out, so we talked to historian and CHF fellow Elena Conis. She has been discovering little-known pieces of this story one dusty letter at a time.

But first our associate producer Rigoberto Hernandez checks out some of CHF’s own DDT cans—that’s right, we have a DDT collection—and talks to the retired exterminator who donated them.

I bring it up here because in recent weeks there’s been a little surge on Twitter, and probably on Facebook and other places, in people claiming DDT causes polio, or causes symptoms so close to polio that physicians could never tell the difference. A lot of anti-vaccine advocates pile on, claiming that this would prove that the polio vaccine doesn’t work.

That’s all quite hooey-licious, off course. Polio’s paralysis of muscles in almost no way resembles acute DDT poisoning, which causes muscle misfiring instead of paralysis. As with almost every other disease, acute DDT poisoning can cause nausea; but DDT poisoning either kills its victim rather quickly, or goes away after a couple of weeks.

Polio doesn’t do that.

In the podcast, you’ll hear the common story of kids running behind DDT fogging trucks, because people thought DDT was harmless. In the concentrations in the DDT fogs, it would be almost impossible to ingest the 4 ounces or so of DDT required to get acute poisoning.

In any case, it’s one more odd facet of a long story of human relations to DDT and diseases. It’s worth a listen for history’s sake. But in this case, it’s entertaining, too. You’ll hear stories of people who opposed government actions to spray DDT, and who thought the government was too lax in its regulation and use of DDT.

More:

San Antonio Express-News file photo.

San Antonio Express-News file photo. “A young boy gets polio vaccine in this undated photo.”

Tip of the old scrub brush to Science History Institute (@SciHistoryOrg on Twitter).

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2 Responses to Annals of DDT: When they sprayed DDT from airplanes to stop polio

  1. We kids used to ride our bicycles (without wearing helmets!) behind the fogger truck because it was neat. I don’t know when the town began the sprayer program, or what effectiveness it had on mosquitoes, but I never heard it mentioned in connection with polio. We were getting vaccine injections at that time.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ll come back and watch this one! I remember the polio scare.

    Liked by 1 person

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