- Toxic Drift Pesticides and Health in the Post–World War II South
Pete Daniel has written valuable books on southern agriculture and culture, Mississippi River floods, and much else, and now he adds to the too-small but growing library of books on the environment in southern history. His topic is an important new presence in the air, soil, and water of the twentieth-century South—new agricultural chemicals to control pests, and the controversies they produced when the new pesticides' benefits to farmers also yielded serious animal and human health problems.
His narrative roughly coincides with the story of Rachel Carson and Silent Spring, both in the years covered and the prevailing interpretation of what was at stake. By 1957, some two hundred basic chemicals in 80,000 registered formulations [End Page 109] (with labels like Parathion, Malathion, Dieldrin, Endrin, Heptachlor, 2-4D) were on the market, poorly tested or not at all. As the use of these new chemicals expanded, so did public outcry, beginning in the 1940s and increasing sharply in the 1950s. Thousands of complaints (and some lawsuits) about the poisonous effects on humans and wildlife from exposure to these new chemicals can be found in news media across the South and in the files of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS). Housed within the USDA, the agency served as the clearinghouse for pesticide approval, scientific center, and sponsor of insect-control projects. ARS was part of a network of entities—county USDA offices, state agriculture departments, chemical companies, "independent" scientists ready to minimize health concerns as expert witnesses—and served as coordinator of both offense and defense for "the agribusiness agenda" of unfettered chemical pest control that tied them all together. Daniel builds his book on prodigious research in these sources, with special attention to the bureaucrats in ARS. He mines these files and news reports to tell a story of animal and human poisoning, countered by bureaucratic and scientific obfuscation and denial, and narrates this with blunt condemnation, calling the behavior of federal bureaucrats in particular "shameless" and "unethical."
In broad outline, this story will not surprise readers of Edmund Russell's War and Nature: Fighting Humans and Insects with Chemicals from World War I to "Silent Spring" (2001) or Thomas Dunlap's DDT: Scientists, Citizens and Public Policy (1981). The concentration on the South, however, gives this study coherence and freshness. Daniel brings into view a sometimes broken and corrupt criminal justice system, most notably in the case of Charles Lawler, who, while welding on a gin shed in Sunflower County, Mississippi, in August 1956, was drenched in insecticide and experienced both debilitating illness and the near-futility of personal lawsuits against the combined force of the agricultural chemical industry and the farm establishment. Out of that case emerged at least two heroes—Lawler's lawyers Pascol Townsend and Elizabeth Hulen, the first woman in Mississippi history to argue before the Supreme Court. Daniel also brings into vivid life, and with a touch of sympathy, the crop duster pilots who were both dare-devils and devil-deliverers of toxic chemicals.
Daniel's book ends in the early 1970s, without an ending: "While the environmental movement slowed the chemical treadmill, the struggle over regulation and safety continues," he writes. If there is no ending here, there is a lesson, and Daniel delivers it with the bark off: "The corporate compulsion to market first, test later, and resist regulation has left a legacy of widespread sickness and death." As we know from other books, there is another side to this story of rising agricultural yields and their benefits to humanity, and the uncertain nature of the science and politics of pesticide regulation. Daniel's book is shorter and more forceful because he tells the story from the point of view of those who were made sick—mostly humans, though he acknowledges that fish kills, cattle and bird deaths, and mutations [End Page 110] are also part of the story. It is not just a southern story, but...