Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT): Ubiquity, Persistence, and Risks. (Research Review)

Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT): Ubiquity, Persistence, and Risks. (Research Review)

Article excerpt

Due to uncontrolled use for several decades, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), probably the best known and most useful insecticide in the world, has damaged wildlife and might have negative effects on human health. This review gives a brief history of the use of DDT in various countries and presents the results of epidemiologic and experimental studies of carcinogenesis. Even though its use has been prohibited in most countries for ecologic considerations, mainly because of its negative impact on wildlife, it is still used in some developing countries for essential public health purposes, and it is still produced for export in at least three countries. Due to its stability and its capacity to accumulate in adipose tissue, it is found in human tissues, and there is now not a single living organism on the planet that does not contain DDT. The possible contribution of DDT to increasing the risks for cancers at various sites and its possible role as an endocrine disruptor deserve further investigation. Although there is convincing experimental evidence for the carcinogenicity of DDT and of its main metabolites DDE and DDD, epidemiologic studies have provided contrasting or inconclusive, although prevailingly negative, results. The presence and persistence of DDT and its metabolites worldwide are still problems of great relevance to public health. Efficient pesticides that do not have the negative properties of DDT, together with the development of alternative methods to fight malaria, should be sought with the goal of completely banning DDT. Key words: carcinogenesis, DDT, estrogenic effects, wildlife. Environ Health Perspect 110:125-128 (2002). [Online 10 January 2002] /abstract.html


DDT is given credit for having helped 1 billion people live free from malaria, thus saving millions of lives. In 1973, after 30 years of worldwide use of DDT, a World Health Organization (WHO) report concluded that the benefits derived from use of this pesticide were far greater than its possible risks (1). After 25 additional years, the benefits of DDT can be confirmed, but its stability, ubiquitous presence, and persistence in the environment, its accumulation in adipose tissues, and its estrogenic properties raise concern about its possible long-term adverse effects. In addition to a possible carcinogenic effect, DDT has been reported to affect neurobehavioral functions and to be associated with premature births (2,3). No living organism may be considered DDT-free. DDT is stored in all tissues, but the highest concentration occurs in fat. It has been calculated that it would take between 10 and 20 years for DDT to disappear from an individual if exposure would totally cease, but that DDE would possibly persist throughout the life span (4). The half-life of plasma DDE has been estimated to be approximately 10 years (5).

We give here a brief history of the use of DDT, examples of its persistence in the environment, its effects on wildlife, the results of epidemiologic studies, its estrogenic effects, and the results of studies that demonstrate its ability to induce tumors in laboratory rodents. Our emphasis is on the possible carcinogenicity of DDT in humans.

Production and Use

DTT was first synthesized in 1874, but its insecticidal properties were not discovered until 1939 (4), and large-scale industrial production started in 1943. The low price of DDT, which fell from $1 U.S. per pound in 1945 to about $0.25 per pound in the mid-1950s (6), contributed to its worldwide use. It is of interest that the control of malaria and typhus during and immediately after World War II was achieved with relatively small quantities of DDT, while much more DDT was used after 1945 for the control of agricultural and forest pests. In the early 1960s, about 400,000 tons of DDT were used annually worldwide (70-80% of which was used for agriculture) (4,7). …

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