cover image How to Sell a Poison: The Rise, Fall, and Toxic Return of DDT

How to Sell a Poison: The Rise, Fall, and Toxic Return of DDT

Elena Conis. Bold Type, $30 (400p) ISBN 978-1-64503-674-6

Historian Conis (Vaccine Nation) offers a thorough history of the U.S. government’s use of the chemical insecticide DDT. Swiss chemist Victor Froelicher is credited as breaking it into the U.S. market, having brought his research on a new pest-killing compound called dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane to the USDA in 1941. The U.S. military was quick to implement its use in the Pacific, where dengue fever, malaria, and typhus were running rampant among U.S. troops. After the war, DDT was floated as a potential solution to polio stateside, resulting in the use of planes to dust entire cities with the chemical. Though DDT proved to be ineffective at curtailing polio, dusting continued as a means of eliminating crop pests. Though many credit environmentalist Rachel Carson as having spearheaded anti-DDT efforts, Conis goes beyond that narrative to highlight the roles some less celebrated figures played: in 1957, for example, a lawsuit was filed by the Committee Against Mass Poisoning, a group of concerned citizens on Long Island. This lawsuit, led by organic farmer Marjorie Spock, was crucial in Carson’s writing of the 1962 bestseller Silent Spring, and the EPA’s ban of DDT followed in 1972. Conis’s account is impressively researched, and her narrative carefully constructed. This is a worthy contribution to environmental history. (Apr.)