My cousin Barbara Jean is visiting us this week, and we’ve entertained each other with tales of growing up in the late 1950s. It is amazing to me that children of this era share similar stories even though they lived miles and miles from each other.
Sitting on the porch and drinking coffee this morning, Ronnie told us about the trucks that drove up and down the alleys in Pampa, TX, spraying chemicals to rid the night of biting mosquitos. They called the drivers “smoke men” and chased after them, inhaling the sweet aroma of DDT. Since DDT has no odor, the scent must have been added by the city’s public works department—or maybe from the manufacturers—so people could be assured the pesticide was saturating the air.
Barbara Jean and I responded with our own stories of the numerous times my family visited hers in Baytown, TX. Our parents, enjoying their cocktail hour, frequently sent us children outside to play in the dusk. More times than not, that meant chasing the mosquito killing trucks that drove around the neighborhood. Summer after summer, we probably inhaled enough DDT to grow an extra set of ears.
Breathing DDT particles in the air, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, affects the nervous system. The government agency says the pesticide was used on insects that carried malaria, so Americans had a choice: Would folks rather be eaten alive by mosquitos that might be carrying deadly diseases or douse themselves with harmful repellents full of potentially dangerous chemicals? In the 1950s manufacturers convinced the public to choose the latter. Given the choice, the danger of malaria trumped any concerns about neurological problems.
Times have changed. Today, DDT is banned in the U.S. and has been since 1972.
The replacements for DDT, however, are not free of side effects. Products with high concentrates of DEET can cause rashes, disorientation, and seizures. Picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus are two other repellents that have come to stores in the last decade. Experts say these repellents make good alternatives to DEET. They also have side effects, but they are less serious… temporary irritation of the skin, eyes, and/or lungs. (I guess temporary is the descriptor that makes them less serious.)
The fact is, three-fourths of the American public, according to Consumer Reports, are more concerned about West Nile and other deadly diseases carried by those pesky flying insects that populate warmer climates than any side effects the pesticides have. As the old saying goes, “Better living through chemistry.”
But is it the right call? I don’t know.
I can only tell you this, decades later, neither Barbara Jean, Ronnie, nor I have any more visible ears than the original two God gave us. As for the mosquitoes that are swarming around us in the late afternoons, they are keeping their distance. Our nervous systems? That’s a different story.