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Ciara O'Rourke
By Ciara O'Rourke January 25, 2023

DDT ban didn’t stop U.S. polio epidemic, vaccines did

If Your Time is short

  • Polio is caused by the poliovirus, not DDT pesticide, and a vaccine ended the disease’s spread in the United States. 
  • Before the polio vaccine was available, some communities used the now-banned pesticide to try to combat polio, but those efforts failed.

Health experts credit widespread polio vaccination for eliminating the disease in the United States, but not everyone is buying it. 

"Polio stopped when they stopped dousing the population with DDT not some injection," reads the text on a Jan. 22 Instagram post, above three black-and-white images of something unidentifiable being sprayed on and around people. 

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.)

Reverse-image searches for the photos found they show undated footage of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, a now-banned pesticide better known as DDT, "being sprayed over children in Texas;" a "child crying as she is sprayed with DDT delousing powder" in Germany in 1945; and a truck spraying DDT in 1945 to eliminate mosquitoes on Jones Beach on Long Island, New York.

U.S. communities used DDT to try to staunch polio’s spread in the 1940s, but researchers eventually found that it did nothing to combat the disease. The last few towns sprayed DDT for polio control in 1953, The Washington Post reported, and in 1954, 1 million children signed up for a polio vaccine trial. The federal government licensed the vaccine in 1955 and over the next two years, cases plummeted. 

Featured Fact-check

"Polio has been eliminated from the United States thanks to widespread polio vaccination in this country," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Polio was eliminated in the United States by 1979, though travelers have brought it into the country since then. Public health officials believe that a case identified in New York last year originated overseas

Polio predates DDT, which was first synthesized in 1874, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Polio has existed since prehistoric times, the World Health Organization says. The first known clinical description of polio dates back to 1789 and it was formally recognized as a disease in 1840. 

The disease is caused by the poliovirus, not DDT, and spreads through person-to-person contact. 

We rate claims that the vaccine wasn’t responsible for eliminating polio in the United States and banning DDT are False. 

Our Sources

Instagram post, Jan. 22, 2023

The Washington POst, A misfire in fighting polio provides clues as to how we’ll beat covid, April 24, 2022

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, What is Polio, updated, Jan. 9, 2023

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Why Are We Involved, updated Oct. 19, 2022

Environmental Protection Agency, DDT Regulatory History: A Brief Survey (to 1975), 1993

World Health Organization, History of the polio vaccine, visited Jan. 25, 2023

Getty Images, Child Delousing, October 1945 

Daily Mail, Shocking 1940s video shows how US children were sprayed with dangerous pesticide as neighbourhoods were gassed with the 'miracle cure' that could kill mosquitoes and end Polio, March 6, 2018

Los Angeles Times, My friend was killed riding a bike. He wanted cities built for people, not cars, April 15, 2021

MSNBC, How polio came back to New York for the first time in decades, silently spread and left a patient paralyzed, Oct. 4, 2022


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DDT ban didn’t stop U.S. polio epidemic, vaccines did

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