There’s been much in the news lately about the brown pelican being delisted as an endangered species since its recovery from the effects of DDT. I happen to know people whose work I trust who disagree as to whether DDT actually thinned bird eggshells and thus led to declines in various species. That said, all of them are agreed as to the value in saving lives in poor areas – including parts of Africa today.
A poignant reminded comes in Rick Atkinson’s wonderful history of the Italian campaign in World War II, The Day of Battle. He first describes the typhus epidemic in recently-liberated Naples that carried off a fourth of its victims. “Carts hauled away the dead at night, as in medieval times. Typhus, which had killed three million people in Russia and Poland during and after World War I, is spread by lice, and 90 percent of the civilian population in Naples reputedly harbored head lice.”
Mass delousing was planned for the entire populations, which would be spayed “on the hoof” at fifty “public powdering stations.” Transport planes brought emergency supplies of . . . DDT . . . and eventually sixty tons would be shipped to Italy. At one commandeered palazzo, MPs carrying sacks of the stuff stood by with spray guns . . . . “The men were sprayed from head to foot,” [as one witness described it]. “The women were shot down their bosoms and backs and were sprayed back to front” Other spray teams prowled caves and shelters, and soon the typhus epidemic ended.