The Real Story Behind the War Against DDT

Charles Wurster pens a personal account of how the Environmental Defense Fund took down the most notorious pesticide in history.

Crushed eggs. Dead eagles. Birth defects. The 1960s and ‘70s were a trying time for the American environment, thanks to DDT. The effects of the toxic pesticide became obvious quickly despite agricultural companies’ prolonged attempts to give it a clean bill of health. With the release of Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring—published in part as a series in the New Yorker the same year—news of DDT’s toxic effects spread. As public awareness peaked, the debate caught fire, causing President Kennedy to order a scientific inquiry.

What the public didn’t—and still might not—know is that the fight against the chemical wasn’t over even when the horrifying facts came to light. In fact, the battle raged on and victory was only secured a decade later, thanks to the rise of the Environmental Defense Fund, a group of scientists formed explicitly to fight DDT. It's this battle that Charles Wurster, one of the founding members of EDF, explains in his new book, DDT Wars, which came out earlier this month. He leaves no detail uncovered—especially when it comes to describing the complexities of navigating the U.S. legal system—as he outlines the surprising victories that arose from the endeavor. Wurster's story is that of the scrappy underdog triumphing over powerful businessmen and politicians—a timeless struggle that offers lessons and insights still relevant today.

A Young Scientist Finds His Way

In addition to his role in the EDF, Wurster was a field biologist whose own research was vital in establishing how harmful DDT is to birds. In 1959, Wurster, equipped with a PhD in organic chemistry from Stanford, took a job at Monsanto—one of the earliest manufacturers of DDT. But after three years, he felt he was in the wrong line of work. He dropped the corporate position for a more research-based one at Dartmouth College.

He had come to the right place: In the spring of 1963, the town of Hanover, New Hampshire sprayed its elm trees with DDT to fend off bark beetles. Wurster and his fellow scientists were curious how the non-pests would be affected, and decided to conduct bird surveys in the area. In the days following the spraying, they found zero avian mortalities. But within a few weeks, they had collected 151 carcasses. Wurster dissected the specimens—mostly American Robins, as well as a few Yellow-rumped Warblers—and found that DDT had caused the birds to lose control of their nerves and muscles. Many died after experiencing major convulsions.

The small citizen-aided survey in Hanover proved to be seminal. After crunching the data on SUV-sized computers in the college’s basements, Wurster and his team published two major studies, one in Science and one in Ecology. Hanover heeded the birds’ morbid warning; the following year they opted for methoxyclor, which unlike DDT, doesn’t persist in soil or inflict damage on the entire food chain.

Great (Determined) Minds Band Together

Wurster then moved to Long Island to become a professor at SUNY Stonybrook. There he met a small gang of scientists-turned-activists, and threw himself into the DDT war with extreme fervor.  “Sue the bastards” was the group’s slogan; with the help of attorney Vic Yannacone, they put together a strong case against the Long Island Mosquito Commission for contaminating water with DDT. But the group soon realized that the solution was not so straightforward: The judge largely ignored the science and ruled that the county legislators should have the final say in banning the compound.

In September of 1967, the Long Island conservationists took their skirmish to the next level. They infiltrated the National Audubon Society’s biannual convention (held that year in Atlantic City, New Jersey) to coax the NGO to join the fight against DDT. Roland Clement, Audubon’s then-vice president, supported the idea, but other leaders did not. So the nine-person unit from Long Island went rogue—in October of 1967, they independently founded the EDF, as a means of taking their scientific concerns to the courts. It was “born from the frustration of a group of environmentalists unable to move the system . . . and the deep conviction that we had an idea that was going to work because we had seen it work,” Wurster writes.

With that target in mind, EDF went on a suing spree. As chronicled in DDT Wars, it started first with states, bringing in the evidence to convince the legislatures to ban the chemical. They spoke loudly of the issues, lamenting over dead grebes, pelicans, and eagles, explaining how DDT trickled up the foodstream (causing birds of prey to lay eggs with extremely thin shells), and even flying in a toxicologist from Sweden to present research on how DDT could be transferred through human breast milk. 

After racking up the victories, EDF realized it was time to go national. Though the Department of Agriculture had restricted DDT use in 1969, the compound still hadn’t been eliminated completely. While picking up the fight on the national level, EDF also teamed up with other conservation groups, including Audubon, to overcome local conflicts. Wurster weaves together all these tales in a dramatic exposition. He enriches each scenario by girding it with science, and gives a full play-by-play for every trial and ruling. The story continues to build, thanks to these many layers, as it approaches the final verdict.

The federal case took a major turn in 1970, when the newborn Environmental Protection Agency took over the beleaguered battle on banning DDT. By now the case had gone up to the D.C. Court of Appeals, and EDF had opened an office in Washington D.C. In the book, Wurster’s frustration over the EPA’s reticence to prohibit DDT is palpable. His chagrin is justified: Only a few weeks after its inception, the EPA had already abandoned its mission to safeguard the environment. Finally, in 1972 the Agency decided to ban DDT use across all 50 states, and by 1973 the chemical was completely lifted from the U.S. market. In the subsequent years many suffering bird populations rebounded—there are now 25 times as many Bald Eagles in the lower 48 states as there were in 1970. Peregrine Falcons, Ospreys, Brown Pelicans, Cooper's Hawks and others have made remarkable recoveries. 

The Long-Lasting Legacy of EDF

For Wurster, the fight's still not over. Appeals to the EPA’s decision were filed immediately after it came out, and the attacks haven't stopped even to this day. But the EDF hasn't backed down in its stance, and has instead grown into a larger organization, taking on cases in clean energy, ocean restoration, and wildlife protection. 

In his book, Wurster draws a comparison between DDT defenders of the '60s and '70s and the climate deniers of today. “In recent years we have experienced the mother of all propaganda campaigns by the oil and coal industries . . . it’s enough to turn the American public around, from favoring action against climate change to opposing it,” he writes. Though this is the next generation’s battle, Wurster points out that there are lessons to be learned from the DDT wars.

It’s this connection that makes Wurster’s book such a timely and relevant read—the story may be old, but the means of battle—and the passion required for such a crusade—are still alive. If the modern environmental movement can mirror the founders of the EDF, with all their fortitude and persistence, then even the biggest of fights will be ripe for the picking.


DDT Wars: Rescuing Our National Bird, Preventing Cancer, and Creating the Environmental Defense Fund , by Charles Wurster, Oxford University Press, 265 pages, $18.83. Buy it at Amazon.