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The strength of chemicals

Aug 24,2017
Swiss chemist Paul Müller was looking for effective pesticide and discovered a “miracle weapon” in 1939. It was a compound first synthesized in 1874 by a German chemist but was not in use. Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) is a colorless, tasteless and odorless insecticide that is effective even when insects don’t consume it. Contact with DDT over-stimulates the nerve system and kills insects. It can also be mass-produced at a cheap price.

Just in time, World War II broke out, and the U.S. forces used DDT in mass. DDT was very effective in killing insects that cause infectious disease. When the U.S. forces occupied Naples in 1943, DDT was sprayed on the locals and eliminated typhus, which used to spread every winter. When the notorious concentration camps in Germany were liberated, the first thing the U.S. forces did was spray DDT.

After the war, DDT was sprinkled around the world. Thanks to DDT, malaria and typhus outbreaks tapered off. Müller was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1948.

However, through the 1950s and 60s, DDT’s effectiveness began to dwindle. Mosquitos, lice and mites became resistant to DDT. Also, it was found that DDT chemicals were stored in the body fat of fish and mammals. DDT is responsible for the near extinction of the bald eagle as it causes thinning of the egg shell and unfertilized eggs.

Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring” in 1962, exposing how DDT kills all insects and ruins the ecosystem, threatening the survival of mankind. As a result, DDT was banned, starting with the United States in 1972. DDT became a prohibited chemical in 1979 in Korea.

At the height of the ongoing egg crisis, DDT has been found in eggs produced in two farms in North Gyeongsang province. The amount is small, and the two farms are located in former orchards, so it is presumed that DDT which had been use for agricultural purposes remained.

DDT does not exist in nature and is not biodegradable by microorganisms. Forty-five years have passed since DDT was banned in the United States, but DDT can still be found in human bodies.

The “miracle weapon” has left a deep shadow. The pesticide was effective but left a long-lasting impact. As the humidifier disinfectant crisis has shown, chemical substances should be used prudently.

JoongAng Ilbo, , Aug. 22, Page 31

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

RAH HYUN-CHEOL