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Dan Anderson and DDT

Dan Anderson clutches a herring gull in 1967 while doing research on DDT concentrations in gulls and other wildlife on Sister Island in the Green Bay.

STEVENS POINT — Wisconsin’s legislative chambers haven’t always been tainted by cynical and brazen abuses of power like those of last week.

In fact, 50 years ago almost to this day, the Assembly chambers hosted a gathering of worldwide significance that gave citizens a voice. It was the site of the opening forays of Wisconsin’s DDT hearings, when a group of Wisconsin citizens put the pesticide DDT on trial for polluting the state’s waters and wreaking ecological havoc. The administrative hearing initiated by the state-based Citizens Natural Resources Association and the fledgling New York-based Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) drew national and international attention. The action was widely backed by citizens across the state.

This proud moment in Wisconsin history led to a national ban on DDT, better control of toxic substances in the environment and other gains that marked a golden era of citizen engagement. The national ban was preceded by state actions, including Wisconsin's in 1971. In a bipartisan show, the state Assembly voted 98-0 in favor.

Unfortunately, some of the same forces that fought a DDT ban are more powerful than ever.

One of the people responsible for Wisconsin's action was Charles Wurster, a gutsy, young New York biochemist and one of the founders of EDF. He was a familiar face at the DDT hearings, which lasted six months and which Madison's Capital Times was the only media outlet to cover from gavel to gavel.

Wurster, now 88, lives in Silver Spring, Maryland. He shared his thoughts recently: “Fifty years ago the pesticide industry denied the reality of the DDT problem while attacking scientists who described it. Today, fossil fuel industries deny the reality of climate change while attacking scientists who define it and who warn that catastrophes lie ahead if we do not take swift actions.”

In Wisconsin, the science denials aren’t limited to climate, though we have seen the Walker administration not only deny climate science but seek to silence it in the Department of Natural Resources and other agencies. Powerful forces also deny that excess pumping of our groundwater threatens not only that resource but surface waters. Some of the same forces deny that today’s agricultural practices are polluting surface and ground waters, despite ample evidence.

Nationally, the chemical industry and Republicans in Congress continue the attacks. The World Health Organization classified the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup) as a probable carcinogen earlier this year. The response from Republicans in Congress was to threaten to cut off funding for WHO. Just a few weeks ago, the Environmental Working Group issued a report that said everything from popular breakfast cereals to canola oil contains concentrations of the widely used pesticide. Meanwhile, the Trump administration spit in the face of scientists who established a clear link between the pesticide chlorpyrifos and severe developmental delays in children, among other risks. Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency refused to follow the advice of its own scientists calling for a ban. The state of Hawaii this year tired of waiting and banned chlorpyrifos on its own.

Yes, the denials of science continue.

Science played a key role in the DDT ban, and a young graduate student at UW-Madison is credited with cracking the case. Dan Anderson was sent around the country and beyond by his graduate professor, Joseph Hickey, to measure eggshell thickness in collections. Anderson’s work helped establish DDT was responsible for thinning the eggshells of raptors and other birds, dramatically inhibiting reproduction.

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Anderson continued his work in ecotoxicology at the University of California-Davis. From Davis, he shared some thoughts:

“I had come to be rather optimistic that science would indeed help provide solutions to problems that might arise in future pollution situations…(But) given the present attitudes of many governments today, and more importantly the vastness and extent of climate change, new and more subtle contaminants, and building mixtures of pollutants in the overall environment, my optimistic attitude has been tempered a bit.”

Bill Berry of Stevens Point writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times.

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