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In the 1940s, the insecticide DDT was widely used to combat insect-borne human diseases like malaria and control insects in agricultural applications, gardens, and inside homes. In the 1950s, it became evident that the pesticide was causing extensive health and environmental damage. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring alerted the public to the long-lasting dangers of pesticide use. And in 1972, the United States EPA issued an order for DDT’s cancellation due to adverse environmental effects and human health risks; in the years that followed, dozens of other countries followed suit. The process took decades, and continues to evolve as DDT remains in use for malaria control today.
Historian Elena Conis traces the history of DDT in How to Sell a Poison: The Rise, Fall, and Toxic Return of DDT, following a trail of corporate manipulation and manufactured doubt in science geared to keep the profits flowing. Using the story of DDT as a cautionary tale, Conis argues that we need new ways to communicate about science before it’s too late — especially in our current era of public confusion about protecting our health and the rampant spread of misinformation. Science, she reminds us, is a constantly-evolving discipline and not just an immutable collection of facts — changing how we view it could help us make better decisions about health, both for ourselves and the environment.
Elena Conis is a writer and historian of medicine, public health, and the environment. She teaches at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and the Media Studies Program, and directs the graduate program in Public Journalism. Her current research focuses on scientific controversies, science denial, and the public understanding of science, and has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Institutes of Health/National Library of Medicine, and the Science History Institute. Her first book, Vaccine Nation: America’s Changing Relationship with Immunization, received the Arthur J. Viseltear Award from the American Public Health Association and was named a Choice Outstanding Academic Title and a Science Pick of the Week by the journal Nature.
Sally James is a writer and journalist who covers science and medical research. She has written for The Seattle Times, South Seattle Emerald, Seattle and UW Magazines, among others. For the Emerald, she has been focusing during the pandemic on stories about health and access for communities of color. In the past, she has been a leader and volunteer for the nonprofit Northwest Science Writers Association. For many years, she was a reviewer for Health News Review, fact-checking national press reporting for accuracy and fairness.
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