Elena ConisJul 13, 2022
How to Sell a Poison
The Rise, Fall, and Toxic Return of DDT
Bold Type Books 2022
The story of DDT as you’ve never heard it before: a fresh look at the much-maligned chemical compound as a cautionary tale of how powerful corporations have stoked the flames of science denialism for their own benefit In the 1940s, DDT helped the Allies win the Second World War by wiping out the insects that caused malaria, with seemingly no ill effects on humans. After the war, it was sprayed willy-nilly across fields, in dairy barns, and even in people's homes. Thirty years later the U.S. would ban the use of DDT—only to reverse the ban in the 1990s when calls arose to bring it back to fight West Nile and malaria. What changed?
How to Sell a Poison: The Rise, Fall, and Toxic Return of DDT (Bold Type Books, 2022) traces the surprising history of DDT’s rapid rise, infamous fall, and controversial revival to reveal to show that we’ve been taking the wrong lesson from DDT’s cautionary tale. Historian Elena Conis uncovers new evidence that it was not the shift in public opinion following the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring that led to the ban but in fact the behind-the-scenes political machinations of Big Business. She makes a compelling case that the real threat was not DDT itself but the prioritization of profits over public health. If we don't change the ways we make decisions about new scientific discoveries and technologies, Conis argues, we’re doomed to keep making the same mistakes and putting people at risk—both by withholding technologies that could help them and by exposing them to dangerous chemicals without their knowledge or consent. In an age when corporations and politicians are shaping our world behind closed doors and deliberately stoking misinformation around public health issues, from pesticides to vaccines to COVID-19 to climate change, we need greater transparency and a new way of communicating about science—as a discipline of discovery that's constantly evolving, rather than a finite and immutable collection of facts—in order to combat the war on facts and protect ourselves and our environment.
Claire Clark is a medical educator, historian of medicine, and associate professor in the University of Kentucky’s College of Medicine.