Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Cover story: "Banned"

Frederick Rowe Davis is associate professor of history at Florida State University. A lifelong birder and naturalist, he is author of The Man Who Saved Sea Turtles. He lives with his son in Tallahassee, Florida.

His new book is Banned: A History of Pesticides and the Science of Toxicology.

Here Davis explains the connection of the book's cover to the pages within:
The cover of Banned: A History of Pesticides and the Science of Toxicology shows a striking image of a spray truck spraying a cloud of insecticide on a beach as boys in swimsuits run towards the spray. If we look closer, we can read the sign on the side of the truck. It says, “D.D.T. Powerful Insecticide Harmless to Humans.” What? Is that the same DDT that was banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1972? Could this be the same DDT that Rachel Carson exposed in her stunning book Silent Spring as the chemical that accumulated in ecosystems and threatened wildlife and humans alike? What is going on here?

Perhaps the title gives us clues: Banned. “Banned” suggests that this is a book about the process of evaluating and regulating pesticides. Indeed, the subtitle “A History of Pesticides and the Science of Toxicology” reinforces this suggestion. Banned examines how scientists developed the science of toxicology to evaluate chemical insecticides that proliferated across the Twentieth Century. In some cases, such evaluations led to bans or “deregistrations” of certain chemical insecticides including DDT in 1972.

However, even as we settle into the comforting notion that regulators at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency utilized the findings of toxicologists to restrict or eliminate the use of certain pesticides, we might wonder how farmers controlled insect infestations in lieu of DDT. The exuberance of the boys running into the pesticide cloud was matched by economic entomologists, who believed that they had discovered the magic bullet in the fight against the insects that threatened crops and public health.

The end of WWII saw the release of synthetic insecticides including chlorinated hydrocarbons like DDT and organophosphates like Parathion. By 1962, Rachel Carson criticized the widespread proliferation of these chemicals in agriculture in Silent Spring. Carson’s critique included both classes of insecticides, but legislators and regulators focused more narrowly on DDT and the chlorinated hydrocarbons. Thus, Banned reveals a tragic irony in the aftermath of the DDT ban in 1972 by answering the question, what chemicals did farmers use to control insect pests following the DDT ban?
Learn more about Banned: A History of Pesticides and the Science of Toxicology at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue