DDT and the American Century: Global Health, Environmental Politics, and the Pesticide That Changed the World

DDT and the American Century: Global Health, Environmental Politics, and the Pesticide That Changed the World

DDT and the American Century: Global Health, Environmental Politics, and the Pesticide That Changed the World

DDT and the American Century: Global Health, Environmental Politics, and the Pesticide That Changed the World

Synopsis

Praised for its ability to kill insects effectively and cheaply and reviled as an ecological hazard, DDT continues to engender passion across the political spectrum as one of the world's most controversial chemical pesticides. In DDT and the American Century, David Kinkela chronicles the use of DDT around the world from 1941 to the present with a particular focus on the United States, which has played a critical role in encouraging the global use of the pesticide.

The banning of DDT in the United States in 1972 is generally regarded as a signal triumph for the American environmental movement. Yet DDT's function as a tool of U.S. foreign policy and its use in international development projects designed to solve problems of disease and famine made it an integral component of the so-called American Century. The varying ways in which scientists, philanthropic foundations, corporations, national governments, and transnational institutions assessed and adjudicated the balance of risks and benefits of DDT within and beyond America's borders, Kinkela argues, demonstrates the gap that existed between global and U.S. perspectives on DDT. DDT and the American Century offers a unique approach to understanding modern environmentalism in a global context.

Excerpt

In 1969, the World Health Organization (WHO) suspended one of the largest public health campaigns in world history. Established in 1955, the Global Malaria Eradication Programme was designed to rid the world of the parasitic disease at its source. Because malaria is transmitted by the bite of the female anopheles mosquito, the only mosquito genus capable of infecting humans with the disease, the public health campaign targeted the insect rather than the disease-causing plasmodium. In other words, malaria eradication required mosquito eradication.

Public health experts believed eradication would ultimately succeed in the historic struggle against malaria. And they had what many considered the perfect weapon, DDT. First synthesized in 1874, DDT had become the predominant method of insect control after the Second World War. DDT was inexpensive, easy to produce, effective, seemingly harmless to people, and it could be used in a variety of settings. For public health, the preferred method, what we now call indoor residual spraying, was a process in which health workers sprayed a fine mist of a DDT-petroleum mixture on the walls and ceilings of houses, public buildings, barns, and anywhere a mosquito might rest after taking its blood meal. Other techniques included spraying mosquito-breeding areas, ponds, swamps, or any body of standing water. To cover large areas, spray planes and helicopters were used, although this method was also deployed for agricultural, rather than for public health, purposes. Under the best circumstances, DDT residues remained effective up to six months after application. Between 1955 and 1969, millions of gallons of the chemical were used to annihilate mosquito populations, resulting in a sizeable decrease in malaria rates worldwide.

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