With the help of Environmental Protection Agency’s Administrator, William Ruckelshaus, the media, and environmental organizations, DDT today is as rare as Mercurochrome. Article after article discusses the decades-long efforts to develop a malarial vaccine, mentioning the unsatisfactory measures in use, but omits the efficacious DDT—the greatest, the cheapest.
Yet the manufacturers of DDT were among the first lawsuits targeted by the infant Environmental Defense Fund, then three guys and a clipboard. One of the three, Victor John Yannacone, Jr., spoke of those early days at the paper industry’s luncheon meeting on May 20, 1970. (We have a transcript.)
Yannacone’s credentials: “I think I ought to disabuse you all, at the beginning, of some basic prejudices. . . . I have no undergraduate degree, and for those of you who wonder about my legal talents . . ., you ought to know that I have the lowest average of anybody who ever graduated in the entire history of Brooklyn Law School , which is not a law school of the first rank.”
Yannacone’s association with EDF: “I’m no longer associated with the Environmental Defense Fund . . . If you haven’t already done your public relations homework, this will come as something of a surprise. We formed the Environmental Defense Fund in 1967, to take direct legal action in matters of environmental crisis where there was a substantial dispute as to the facts, and where there was no forum for the orderly confrontation of experts with their divergent opinions. This accounts for why we picked DDT as a pesticide and Hoerner Waldorf as a paper company. Now you’ve all heard the DDT stories . . .”
[Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, was a devastating attack on pesticides that brought DDT world-wide concerns.]
Yannacone’s background of lawsuit: “In 1969, in August, there was a great conflict among the amalgamated bird watchers of the world over whether or not DDT should be further attacked, or whether we were beating a dead horse. And the conflict was basically over birds or people. . . . We [old civil rights lawyers] . . . sort of drifted into the environmental field by simply making the analogy that the right to the cleanest air and the cleanest water that the existing state-of-the-art in pollution control technology . . . can give us is . . . another fundamental human right.. That’s the . . . argument we advanced in the anti-trust suit against the manufacturers of DDT.
“Now, during August, 1969, I made a public statement to some representatives of the National Agricultural Chemicals Association, saying that if we had a rational pesticide policy in 1946, we could still be using DDT . . . [and] the other chlorinated hydro-carbons in limited quantities because we wouldn’t have 120 million tons of this material circulating around the world. And that what we should be driving at is a rational policy with respect to long-term environmental toxicants. . . . Well, this statement was considered a sell-out to the industry.”
Yannacone’s dispute on tactics: “Well, Dr. Wurster, who was then the leader of [the] scientific team in the DDT fight, decided that we should hire a public relations firm, call a press conference, announce that DDT causes cancer, and demand, under the Delaney Amendment, that the FDA-USDA cancel the use of DDT immediately. I then told Charley [Wurster] that we’ve gone along for two and a half years without ever calling a press conference. We got . . . 19,000 column inches . . . and much more in magazines. . . .by saying what had to be said in a forum where the statements could be tested . . .
“Dr. Wurster then decided that I had finally sold out to industry and that as long as it was DDT we were talking about, the end justifies the means and he was going to have his press conference. That’s when the basic split began in the Environmental Defense Fund.”
“Another widening of the split occurred when a reporter asked the same Dr. Wurster whether or not the ban on the use of DDT wouldn’t encourage further use of the very toxic materials, Parathione, Azodrin and Methyparathione, the organo-phosphates, nerve gas derivatives. And he said ‘Probably.’ The reporter than asked him if these organo-phosphates didn’t have a long record of killing people. And Dr. Wurster, reflecting the views of a number of other scientists, said ‘So what. People are the cause of all the problems; we have too many of them; we need to get rid of some of them; and this is as good a way as any.’ That’s not a random opinion. . . . You’ll hear scientists all over the country now on the population bandwagon talking like that. . . . I’m listening to the same stuff I read a very famous world leader say in the period 1933 to 1936, only in those days he was talking about non-[A]ryans. . . . “
“But, the straw that broke the camel’s back was the next statement . . . ‘Well, doctor, how do you square this killing of people with the mere loss of some birds?’ And this very eminent, very well-meaning scientist said, ‘It doesn’t really make a lot of difference because the organo-phosphates act locally and only kill farm workers and most of them are Mexicans and Negroes.’ . . .
“ [I]t suddenly dawned on me that I was in the wrong group. . . .”
How stands the case? The EDF prospers, and malaria flourishes. DDT was found to be no threat to humans or wildlilfe by the EPA hearing commissioner. EDF appealed to Administrator Ruckelshaus to overturn that decision. Ruckelshaus did.
By Natalie Sirkin