Rachel Carson should be quite alive and living locked in a New York City apartment with a very bad infestation of bedbugs, and a big-ass pesticide sprayer of DDT.

I wonder, expressed in minutes, how long her ecological purity would last.
(Comment by Mr. W on 8/28 @ 5:52 pm at Protein Wisdom)

My father never lost affection for sulfonamide antibiotics despite personal familiarity with the disaster of 1937 that gave us the modern FDA, but he declared flatly that DDT was the pinnacle of achievement of all mankind. In conversation that allowed joking, he would say the full name: di-CHLOR-o-di-PHEE-nyl-tri-CHLOR-o-eh-THANE (that’s dactylic tetrameter (modified),  in case you were wondering, and he could swing it).

Of course, Dad spent most of WWII in jungle clearings on one or another Pacific Island. (He wasn’t a combat troop. His job was keeping geeks in line in a communications company.) He and his men didn’t worry about bedbugs. They would have loved bedbugs, and made pets of them and sung them songs. The pests they had to worry about ate bedbugs — and snakes, and soldiers, and the Bakelite® cases of radios. One of his few war reminiscences was of the day on New Britain Island when they got a skid of 25-pound bags of DDT powder. The brigade commander wanted them to go to a USO show (or something like that, I was never clear), and they all refused, instead setting to work spreading magic powder around their encampment. That night, for the first time since they’d waded ashore, they were actually able to sleep.

News of bedbugs in New York and Washington, D.C. makes me chuckle. Banning DDT, which has nil or less biological interaction with warm-blooded creatures (R. Carson was a liar), meant that it had to be replaced with pyrethrins. At the time, pyrethrins were patented and profitable where DDT had long since lapsed into the public domain. If you like irony, the spectacle of people damning DDT and at the same time raging against “corporatist profiteers” can’t be beat, because pyrethrins made Dow Chemical a LOT of scratch. (I wonder if they slipped St. Rachel a few blocks of stock on the side. Good for business, y’know.)

Pyrethrins also do have significant effects on higher-order creatures, especially amphibians and reptiles; most insecticides come with bloody-minded warnings about getting the stuff in water because it’s death on fish and crustaceans. That’s also why you have to carefully read the label on hardware-store insecticides and triple the dose if you want dead bugs instead of just filling the house with stink. They don’t want you to have an effective insecticide, because it’s pyrethrin-based and nasty if it gets away.

So: bedbugs. Take all the bedding and clothing out of the house and spread it in the sun; leave it there all day. Meanwhile judiciously apply DDT in a water/soap/diesel-fuel emulsion on the walls and floor of the house, paying close attention to baseboards and cracks. Wash all the clothing and loose bedding in hot water with soap (not detergent); heavy bedding (mattresses, etc.) gets thoroughly beaten and an application of DDT powder, or (if you can afford it) goes back to the gin to have the padding removed and run through the mill while the “tick” gets laundered. Presto! No bedbugs — nor ticks, fleas, or cockroaches, either. We called it “spring cleaning”, and in the Fifties South it was a regular ritual every year when the Sun got hot.

The same DDT emulsion got atomized by truck-mounted sprayers and blown out as a fog by fans on still summer nights, doing the mosquitos no good, which was the point, of course. Now that was a bad idea. It made it a lot easier to sleep, because the humming whine of the bloodsuckers was kept down, but it also killed butterflies, beetles, and any number of other beneficial insects. General spraying, not a chance. But when it becomes obvious that complex modern insecticides aren’t going to give New Yorkers a night’s rest, and the only realistic alternative becomes clear, I’ll be chuckling happily, dancing in the dark with the ghosts of ten million African babies who died of malaria, singing


Catchy tune, ain’t it?