No DDT, thanks, we’re good

In the coming days we’ll describe some of the challenges we face in the fight against bed bugs and the solutions we believe should be considered.

Something that we want to get out of the way at the outset, though, because it hovers over every news report and clouds every discussion of what we as a society must do about bed bugs, old DDT.

I am fond of the way May Berenbaum put it in the Washington Post in 2005:

Banned in the United States more than 30 years ago, it remains America’s best known toxic substance. Like some sort of rap star, it’s known just by its initials; it’s the Notorious B.I.G. of pesticides.

Yes! We read the Post. Imagine that. And you should definitely read Berenbaum’s article; it is absolutely fantastic. I will only quote one more thing:

What people aren’t remembering about the history of DDT is that, in many places, it failed to eradicate malaria not because of environmentalist restrictions on its use but because it simply stopped working. Insects have a phenomenal capacity to adapt to new poisons; anything that kills a large proportion of a population ends up changing the insects’ genetic composition so as to favor those few individuals that manage to survive due to random mutation. In the continued presence of the insecticide, susceptible populations can be rapidly replaced by resistant ones. Though widespread use of DDT didn’t begin until WWII, there were resistant houseflies in Europe by 1947, and by 1949, DDT-resistant mosquitoes were documented on two continents.

Resistance to DDT in bed bugs was first observed in 1947 in the United States. 1951 in Israel, 1956 in Italy. And on and on. Long before DDT was banned in 1972, DDT was not the weapon of choice against bed bugs.

Recently, researchers in the United States have tried DDT in their labs once again and have found that some bed bug populations are nearly 100% resistant to DDT.

I feel a bit silly saying that we do not advocate the return of DDT. As if! I hear you saying. Of course, we know that. There is no chance, no way, never gonna happen. But, just so you know, and because the issue is brought up again and again.

We do not advocate the return of DDT.

Still, while you are here, how about some DDT nostalgia? Come on, it’ll be fun!

Did you know that all manner of historical treats are available online from Time?

Let’s set the stage, from Cimex Lectularius, November 4, 1929:

It is at night that he marauds, hiding in crevices in daytime. He confines his activities to man, whose blood he sucks, upon whose body he makes his permanent home.

Not quite, but let’s not get all technical on 1929 copy, especially when it’s so downright fabulous.

Signs of a new hope, DDT, June 12, 1944:

Censorship was lifted last week from one of the great scientific discoveries of World War II. It is an insecticide called DDT. DDT stopped a typhus epidemic in Naples. It promises to wipe out the mosquito and malaria, to liquidate the household fly, cockroach and bedbug, to control some of the most damaging insects that prey on the world’s crops. Lieut. Colonel A. L. Ahnfeldt, of the U.S. Surgeon General’s office, exclaimed last week: “DDT will be to preventive medicine what Lister’s discovery of antiseptics was to surgery.”

But wait, the wonders of DDT are then enumerated:

Sprayed on a wall, it kills any fly that touches the wall for as long as three months afterward.

A bed sprayed with DDT remains deadly to bedbugs for 300 days.

Clothing dusted with it is safe from lice for a month, even after eight launderings.

A few ounces dropped in a swamp kills all mosquito larvae.

In a swamp? Mamma.

Two months later, the lay of the battlefield, from Insect Front, August 28, 1944:

Manhattan harbors every known species of urban insect—and many of their country cousins. The battle against them costs $5,000,000 a year in labor alone, many millions more for weapons. Three-quarters of the city’s business buildings and apartment houses are constantly sprayed and fumigated.

…a pre-women’s lib diagnosis of the problem:

The bedbug is harder to poison. Unlike the roach, it is an epicure: it feeds on human blood. A loathsome, wingless insect, it is light brown and flat before feeding, swells up and turns mahogany afterward. Chief difficulty in fighting bedbugs : housewives hate to admit their presence.

…and some skepticism:

Veteran exterminators are interested but not enthralled by the idea of such war-born insecticides as DDT (TIME, June 12). They are inclined to think bugs will survive DDT, too.

Then, just two years later, a dark cloud, This Summer–DDT, June 24, 1946:

Some commercial DDT preparations available to U.S. householders and gardeners have proved 1) disappointingly feeble, 2) harmful to plants and animals. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture last week declared that DDT, properly used, is still the best insecticide.

I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did! Thank you, Time!

Do please remember, the enemy marauds at night.


  1. Pingback: Bedbugs, DDT « Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub

  2. Renee

    Update of sorts: someone has started a “bring back DDT” petition in relation to bed bugs.

    Sigh. I don’t really understand if it’s because people don’t trust what scientists are telling us or there’s just a kind of desperation that has crossed a threshold of some kind.

    What a total waste of energy and resources and time.

    I wish people who give interviews to the media would use more caution and put the DDT background in context.

  3. Pingback: DDT resistance: once more, with tables and sources « New York vs Bed Bugs

  4. Pingback: “The next day, there were no bed bugs… the soldiers had not been bitten the night before” — New York vs Bed Bugs

  5. David Varley

    Bedbugs in the Liverpool of 1970 were cetainly not resistant to ‘Keating’s powder’.

    (I thought this was DDT but the net now seems sure it was pyrethrum based)

    Shortly after renting a cheap bedsit to attend Riversdale College my roomate and I were attacked by bedbugs (clearly identified by sight and spending their day where the top sheet was tucked under the end of the matress).

    One pot of Keating’s was sufficient to clear them out.

    I don’t know if Keating’s is still available but it was always kept in the medicine cupboard of my youth and used often for the trreatment of the cats for fleas.

    I am surprised about the fear of chemical usage. Surely modern techniques can ensure the nastiest of ‘stuff’ is on site only during the extermination process leaving the bugless accommodation also free of residues.

    In any hotel south of Channel my mother would insist that the rooms were sprayed with ‘Flit’, certainly DDT, and we slept is a light haze of the stuff. I have made 60 with out any apparent damage from this. My eggs have as fine a shell on them as you would wish!

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