Research team discovers highly potent insecticide from the Nazi era

Research team discovers highly potent insecticide from the Nazi era

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Lost mosquito killer from World War II

DFDT is a fast-acting insecticide that was developed in Germany during the Second World War. After the war it was forgotten. An American research team turned to insecticide again due to a lack of alternatives. The team was amazed to find that DFDT is highly potent and that it would probably have done much less damage to the environment if it had been used instead of DDT.

Researchers at New York University rolled out an old Nazi research project to investigate a forgotten insect killer. The team analyzed the now-banned DDT insecticide, which was the most common insecticide in the world in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. By replacing chlorine atoms with fluorine, the researchers received a two to four times more potent insecticide than DDT. It is DFDT, the forgotten insecticide from World War II. The study was recently featured in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Forgotten Nazi research

Old documents showed that DFDT was developed as an insecticide by German scientists during World War II and was used by the armed forces to control insects in the Soviet Union and North Africa. In the chaos of the post-war period, DFDT production ended abruptly. The research received no further attention and was lost. The study situation was classified by the military secret services as thin and inadequate.

DDT has been approved despite unforeseeable side effects

At the same time, the Allied Forces used dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) to combat insects in the military. In the 1950s, DDT was made available to the general public in America, although at this point the FDA had already noticed that DDT accumulates in the diet and is difficult for the body to break down.

DDT became a global success

Then the great triumph of the insecticide in question began. It became the most widely used insecticide in the world between 1950 and 1970. Pests disappeared from the fields almost overnight and in the United States even wallpaper was soaked with them to keep insects out of the houses. All burgeoning concerns were kept small with funded counter-studies.

A giant disappears

Over time, the harmfulness could no longer be concealed and played down. DDT has been classified as carcinogenic. Numerous studies in rats, hamsters and mice have shown that DDT promotes tumors in the liver, lungs and the lymphatic system. DDT is also suspected of promoting premature and stillbirth. In addition, DDT also thinned the eggshells of birds, which then caused them to raise fewer offspring. In 1972 it was banned in the United States and then in 1977 in Germany. Today, DDT is still occasionally approved for mosquito control in high-risk areas of malaria.

What does DDT have to do with DFDT?

The New York research team has now analyzed the crystal structure of DDT in search of new pest control agents. The scientists exchanged chlorine atoms for fluorine and thus developed fluorinated DDT. From this version, the researchers developed a variant with one fluorine atom (monofluor) and one with two fluorine atoms (difluor). The team was astonished to find that the Difluor variant was the forgotten insecticide DFDT from the Second World War. DFDT is a kind of further development of the well-known insecticide DDT.

DFDT is two to four times stronger than DDT

Initial tests showed that DFDT kills mosquitoes two to four times faster than DDT. Due to the greater effectiveness, only smaller amounts of the poison are required, which would likely minimize the environmental impact. In addition, according to the study, the rapid effectiveness prevents the mosquitoes from being able to reproduce. This makes the development of resistance unlikely.

History is written by the winners

"We were surprised to find that DDT had a strong competitor from the start," said chemistry professor Bart Kahr from the study team. According to the researchers, the choice at the time to use DDT was not made from a scientific point of view. Instead, geopolitical and economic circumstances and the connection to the German military are the main reasons why DFDT lost the competition. "A faster-acting and less stubborn insecticide like DFDT could have changed the course of the 20th century," Kahr suspects. (vb)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Graduate editor (FH) Volker Blasek


  • Mengdi Qiu, Michael D. Ward, Bart Kahr, u.a .: Manipulating Solid Forms of Contact Insecticides for Infectious Disease Prevention, Journal of the American Chemical Society, 2019,
  • New York University: Researchers Rediscover Fast-acting German Insecticide Lost in the Aftermath of WWII (accessed: October 14, 2019),

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