A new study finds remote lakes in New Brunswick, Canada, remain dangerously polluted, half-a-century after being drenched with the insecticide, DDT. It's no secret that the now-infamous bug-killer, DDT, persists stubbornly in the environment. Still, what scientists found in lake sediments they recently analyzed in the Atlantic province, 50 years after it was last used there, shocked them. The sediment in all five lakes they tested (representing numerous watersheds), were laced with DDT at levels up to 450 times beyond what would be considered safe for key aquatic species and even entire food webs.
by Larry Powell
In some ways, it was like a real war.
A plane sprays DDT on bud worms in Oregon, 1955.
Photo by Forest Health Protection.
In the early fifties, governments and the forest industry teamed up in New Brunswick to launch a massive aerial assault against spruce bud worms (like the one in the photo, above).
The pests had probably been eating their way through conifer stands in eastern Canada and the U.S. for thousands of years. But now, they were causing hundreds of millions of dollars of damage yearly to forests of mostly spruce and fir, highly valued by a growing human population.
By 1968, almost six million kilograms of DDT had been unleashed on the worms. The area treated, varied widely from year to year – from about 80 thousand hectares to two million. Some years, the same area was treated once – others, twice.
“Budworm City,” established in the early 1950s and used as a base for DDT spray operations in northern
New Brunswick. Photo credit: D.C. Anderson.
Then, some two years later, as awareness of the harm the product was doing to fish and wildlife grew, authorities stopped using it altogether.
But not before copious amounts had washed off the land and settled into the water directly from the air. But, this latest research builds even further on what was known back then.
In the words of the researchers, "Surprisingly, DDT and its toxic breakdown products are still very high in modern sediments - above levels where harmful biological effects tend to occur."
Populations of a small water flea, Daphnia sp. were found to have gone down significantly in the lakes tested. While such a creature may not sound impressive, it's considered an important invertebrate in the food webs of lakes.
The study's lead author, Dr. Joshua Kurek, tells PinP, "Just to be clear, the loss/reduction of Daphnia is a concern, as Daphnia eat algae and are also food for fish. Fewer Daphnia mean less food for fish (and other organisms). It also means less grazing pressure on algae. It's very difficult to quantify. But other studies do show more algae (and blooms of algae), when Daphnia are fewer in lakes."
Excessive growth of sometimes toxic algae can clog lakes, robbing them of their oxygen and killing fish. It has become a huge problem in waterways, worldwide.
Because New Brunswick had likely become the most heavily-sprayed forested region on the continent, DDT's harmful legacy could well be playing out well beyond the five lakes that were studied. (There are about 2,500 in the province, in all.)
Another co-author, Dr. Karen Kidd of McMaster University, adds a cautionary note of her own. "The lesson from our study is that pesticide use can result in persistent and permanent changes in aquatic environments."
The project was conducted by experts from three Canadian Universities; Mount Allison, New Brunswick and McMaster. Its findings were published today in the journal,Environmental Science & Technology.
DDT's "rap sheet" is a long one.
Rachel Carson's famous book, "Silent Spring," published in the early 60s, dedicates almost an entire chapter to the New Brunswick experience. Called "Rivers of Death," it documents the loss of countless fish, insects and birds along the Mirimachi River, one of North America's best salmon-fishing spots, in the wake of the spraying. She noted the pilots made no effort to avoid spraying directly over waterways. She also observed that the spraying was having questionable results, in any event, since the amounts applied kept having to be increased, just to keep ahead of the hungry worms.
Also, years ago, DDT was found to cause a thinning of the eggshells of dozens of bird species, leading to reproductive failure. While their numbers have since recovered, raptors, notably the bald eagle, were especially hard hit.
A swift, as depicted in Bird Craft - 1897
And, by killing the bugs they eat, DDT has, for some time, been recognized as instrumental in widespread declines in insectivorous birds such as the swift (r), as well.