Our Daily Poison: How Chemicals Have Contaminated the Food C

Our Daily Poison: How Chemicals Have Contaminated the Food C

Postby Oscar » Sun Nov 30, 2014 8:35 pm

Our Daily Poison: How Chemicals Have Contaminated the Food Chain

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Sunday, 30 November 2014 00:00 By Marie-Monique Robin, The New Press | Book Excerpt

The following passage is an excerpt from Our Daily Poison:

DDT and the Beginning of the Industrial Age

"Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life?" Rachel Carson posed this question in Silent Spring, published in 1962, considered the founding work of the ecological movement. "They should not be called 'insecticides' but 'biocides.' " She went on: "This industry is a child of the Second World War. In the course of developing agents of chemical warfare, some of the chemicals developed in the laboratory were found to be lethal to insects. The discovery did not come by chance: insects were widely used to test chemicals as agents of death for men."

Fritz Haber's work on chlorinated gases did indeed open the way to the industrial production of synthetic insecticides, the most well-known of which is DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), one of the large family of organo- chlorines. An organochlorine is an organic compound in which one or more hydrogen atoms have been replaced by chlorine atoms, forming an extremely stable chemical structure that is therefore resistant to environmental degradation. Some are considered "persistent organic pollutants" (POPs), because they accumulate in animal and human fatty tissue and because their extreme volatility enables them to move through the atmosphere to contaminate the remotest areas of the planet. I will return to the damaging effects of POPs, several of which—known as the "dirty dozen" (from the 1967 Robert Aldrich film)—were banned by the Stockholm Convention adopted on May 22, 2001, by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), but still pollute the environment and even mothers' milk. Among them are Monsanto's polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), along with nine pesticides, including DDT, the "miracle insecticide" that began its brilliant career during World War II, bringing in its wake many molecules developed between the wars.

Synthesized by the Austrian chemist Othmar Zeidler in 1874, DDT was left in a laboratory drawer until 1939, when the Swiss chemist Paul Müller, who was working for the Geigy company, identified its properties as an insecticide. His discovery had such great success that, only nine years later (record time) he won the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Appearing in solid form, insoluble in water—to be used it has to be dissolved in an oil—DDT was first used by the U.S. Army in Naples in 1943, to contain a typhus epidemic; the disease, transmitted by lice, was decimating Allied troops. The massive operation was repeated in the South Pacific to eradicate the anopheles mosquito, the carrier of malaria, and later as an antiseptic for death camp survivors, Korean prisoners, and the German civilian population when the defeated country was occupied.

Yet the organochlorine pesticide was never used for military purposes during World War II, because it seems all high commands had learned the lesson of the Great War. In any event, this is what Major William Buckingham suggested in a book published in 1982 by the U.S. Office of Air Force History, where he notes that "the Allies and Axis in World War II abstained from using the weapon either because of legal restrictions, or to avoid retaliation in kind." But in the aftermath of the war, DDT was universally celebrated as a "miracle insecticide" able to defeat any harmful insect. I have been able to consult some hallucinatory audiovisual archives in which one can see entire cities in the United States treated with DDT in the 1950s. Sprayers go up and down the streets spewing huge white clouds, while housewives are asked to disinfect their cupboards with sponges soaked in the insecticide. Authorized in agriculture in 1945, DDT was later used massively in the treatment of crops, forests, and rivers, in an impressive expenditure of resources.

In 1955, the WHO launched a vast campaign against malaria in many parts of the world—Europe, Asia, Central America, and North Africa. But initial successes, sometimes accomplishing complete eradication of the disease, were followed by disillusionment, because the mosquitoes carrying the parasite that causes the disease very rapidly developed resistance to DDT, resulting, in particular in India and Central America, in a spectacular resurgence of the scourge. But for the chemical industry, with Monsanto and Dow Chemical in the lead, it was a jackpot: from 1950 to 1980 more than forty thousand tons of DDT were sprayed around the world every year, with production reaching a record of 82,000 tons in 1963 (making for a total of 1.8 million tons between the early 1940s and 2010). In the United States alone, some 675,000 tons were sprayed before the agricultural use of DDT was banned in 1972.

As Rachel Carson pointed out in Silent Spring, "the myth of the harmlessness of DDT rests on the fact that one of its first uses was the wartime dusting of many thousands of soldiers, refugees, and prisoners, to combat lice." In addition, there is its low acute toxicity in mammals: classified as "moderately hazardous" by the WHO, its LD50 is only 113 mg/kg (for rats). On the other hand—I will come back to this in Chapters 16 and 17—its long-term effects are terrible: acting as an endocrine disruptor, it leads to cancer, birth defects, and reproductive disorders, in particular for those subject to prenatal exposure.

Boosted by the success of DDT and other organochlorine pesticides, a second category of insecticides appeared in the wake of World War II. These were the organophosphates, whose development was directly connected to research on new poison gases, but which, for the same reasons as for DDT, were never used for military purposes. As the official site of the French Observatory for Pesticide Residues (Observatoire des résidus de pesticides, ORP), established by the French government in 2003, soberly states: "not having been used during hostilities, they were used against insects." Designed to attack the nervous system of insects, these molecules have a much more elevated acute toxicity than organochlorines, but they degrade more quickly. In this family are highly hazardous insecticides like parathion (LD50: 15 mg/kg), used as early as 1944, malathion, dichlorvos, and chlorpyrifos, as well as carbaryl (responsible for the Bhopal disaster), and sarin (LD50: 0.5 mg/kg), a highly toxic gas developed in 1939 in the IG Farben laboratories and now considered a "weapon of mass destruction" by the United Nations.


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