Pesticides and the perils of synecdoche in the history of science and environmental history

History of Science 57 (4):469-492 (2019)
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When the Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT late in 1972, environmentalists hailed the decision. Indeed, the DDT ban became a symbol of the power of environmental activism in America. Since the ban, several species that were decimated by the effects of DDT have significantly recovered, including bald eagles, peregrines, ospreys, and brown pelicans. Yet a careful reading of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring reveals DDT to be but one of hundreds of chemicals in thousands of formulations. Carson called for a reduction in the use of all chemical insecticides. Carson’s recommendations notwithstanding, policymakers focused on DDT and other chlorinated hydrocarbons, culminating in the DDT ban, passage of the Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act of 1972, and subsequent bans on aldrin and dieldrin. Similarly, the history of pesticides has focused inordinately on DDT, providing a myopic image of the ongoing challenges of pesticides in agricultural practice and ongoing environmental protection efforts in the modern world. “Pesticides and the perils of synecdoche” argues that focusing on DDT oversimplified the environmental risks of chemical insecticides and narrowed the parameters of the debate, and in the process both policy and subsequent histories neglected the highly toxic organophosphate insecticides, which dominated agriculture in the United States and the world after the DDT ban, with unintended consequences for farmworkers and wildlife.



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