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"Blitz Fog" Pesticide Cocktail

"Blitz Fog" pesticide package, manufactured for Northern Industries, Inc., Milwaukee, Wisconsin, c. 1965-1967.
(Museum object # 1999.143.22)

This package of "Blitz Fog," which features a casually dressed woman eradicating pesky mosquitoes as she tidies her lawn with a power mower, embodies several mid-twentieth century attitudes about home and nature. The illustration expresses both post-World War II America’s suburban ideal of gracious outdoor living as well as its unquestioned belief in technology to continuously improve the quality of life.

Both ideals were bolstered by one of technical milestones of World War II: dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, or DDT, a synthetic insecticide developed for the U.S. military. Extremely effective against a wide variety of insects, long lasting, and with few evident effects on humans, DDT was acclaimed for saving thousands of lives from insect born diseases during the war. After the war, American chemical manufacturers seized upon the wondrous new chemical to produce a bewildering array of bug control products. By the early 1950s the industry was manufacturing 100 million pounds of DDT annually.

Even small manufacturers got into the act. Milwaukee’s Northern Industries, Inc., a small metalworking shop employing fewer than ten people, began making lawn and garden equipment in the late 1950s. By the mid-1960s their major product was the "Blitz Fog" "thermalized insecticide" dispenser, which attached to the exhaust port of a power mower and disbursed a cocktail of three chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides: DDT, chlordane, and lindane. The company produced Blitz Fog foggers until it closed in 1970.

The presence of three chemicals in the mix reveals a major drawback to synthetic pesticides: insect resistance. As early as 1949, studies began to show that bugs not killed by the first applications of DDT and other chemicals quickly developed immunities to them. Initially this phenomenon only spurred development of ever-newer insecticides to replace those losing effectiveness, but it did not dampen consumer enthusiasm for chemical warfare on pests.

But more serious problems were just around the corner, in the form of growing concerns about the long-term health and environmental effects of indiscriminately used pesticides. When DDT and its successors were developed in the 1940s and 1950s, safety tests concentrated on acute toxicity: the immediately harmful effects produced by a single, often high-dose, exposure. Scientists did not study either the effects of long-term, low-level exposures, nor the ways chemicals spread through and persisted in the environment.

By the mid-1960s, considerable evidence had emerged describing damaging effects of pesticides on the environment and wildlife. Highly publicized testimony before the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in 1968-1969 provided one of the first national venues for airing the full scientific case against DDT. Opponents documented the unintentional spread of DDT throughout the environment, its accumulation in the food chain, and its likely responsibility for worldwide declines in raptor populations. In cross-examining industry witnesses, environmentalists also demonstrated that the industry had not done enough testing to definitively claim DDT was safe for humans.

Partly in response to the DNR hearings, popular opinion turned against DDT. The Wisconsin legislature banned its use, effective March 12, 1970. A few weeks later, on April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day (founded by Wisconsin Senator and DDT opponent Gaylord Nelson) marked the unofficial launch of the modern environmental movement. In one of its first major acts, the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT nationwide in 1972. Many other chemicals, including both chlordane and lindane, have been restricted or outlawed since.

The dream of green, velvety, pest free lawns has not died since DDT was banned, but the fear of environmental poisons has spread like crabgrass. Never again will a chemical manufacturer display such a carefree attitude towards chemical poisons as that shown on this package of Blitz Fog, and never again will the public be quite so confident in the unmixed blessings of technology.

[Sources: Dunlap, Thomas R. "DDT on Trial: The Wisconsin Hearing, 1968-1969," Wisconsin Magazine of History (Autumn, 1978).]

DBD


Posted on April 21, 2005

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