The chemical industry produces well over 80,000 different chemicals, many of which end up in our homes - and less than 10% of them have been tested for potential harm. Naturally, as with any unwanted intruder, I’m sure we all wish we could say we had nothing to do with this, but alas we welcomed these chemicals into our homes with open arms. Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, they came in household cleaning products, air fresheners, pesticides and cosmetics. They came in detergents, solvents, and hair sprays - their virtues and values extolled by advertising agencies that told us we needed to have 100% germ-free surfaces and a special cleaner for each room. At the time we didn’t know any better - how could we? But now that we do, it is our collective duty to do something about it.
But first - let’s back things up. How did we even get here?
As with many industries, the chemical industry gained significant footing in the American lifestyle during the years after the World Wars. Prior to World War I, use of synthesized chemicals in everyday practice was in its infancy. Soaps and cleaning products in particular were very basic, utilizing ingredients such as fats and vinegar to create their simple yet effective cleaning concoctions. In that simpler time, the lives of most people were all-natural by default - and certain illnesses such as asthma were far less prevalent than today.
As the years of war ravaged through countries and many lives were lost, it quickly became apparent that the enemies of battle were not the only threat to the lives of our troops. Disease-carrying insects such as mosquitos and lice brought diseases including malaria and typhus to many fighting men, rapidly becoming a silent killer amongst the already perilous combat conditions. In fact, approximately sixty thousand American soldiers perished due to malaria in the Pacific and African theatres of WWII. Finding a cure, or at least a preventative measure against these infections quickly became a top concern for the United States to ensure a victory on all fronts - and Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, also known as DDT, was the cure. Or so they thought.
After the war, DDT quickly became a household staple for anyone wishing to get rid of any unwanted pests around the home. After the military use of the product vanished, the production companies set their sights on the American consumer, and recruited the famed advertising agencies of the 1950’s to take this untested “wonder chemical” and get it into the homes of every single citizen. They broadcasted the diverse uses and benefits of this seemingly safe product as “harmless to you, your garden, and your house.”
After years of prevalent use, the United States government began to reassess the safety of this so-called wonder chemical. Realizing the product never went through any sufficient testing, it was unclear whether the product could really be classified as “safe.” Lo and behold, they were all wrong. Lab testing eventually showed DDT to be a significant endocrine disruptor and possible carcinogen, ultimately resulting in the chemical’s ban in the USA in 1972. In the decades following, many other countries caught on to the harmful properties of DDT and followed suit. As of 2004, the World Health Organization has established a worldwide ban of the substance.
The story of DDT is only one example of the many synthesized chemicals that became prevalent in the American home in the years after the the world wars. Unfortunately, the innocent-until-proven-guilty model that allowed DDT into every home has also invited many equally harmful substances into our homes that still dwell there today.