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Know the West

Keep the spray out of the oatmeal


One advertisement urged housewives to “MURDER Flying Pests” with the Black Flag bomb, which basically consisted of aerosol DDT. Another exhorted parents to cover the walls of their kids’ rooms with Trimz DDT, “a children’s room wallpaper” infused with pesticide to protect babies from flies, mosquitoes and ants. Parents Magazine said the wallpaper was perfectly harmless, with bug-killing powers that could last for up to two years.

In the 1940s, ’50s and even the ’60s, DDT was considered a miracle of modern-day chemistry. It was sprayed indiscriminately to kill insects like mosquitoes, which carry diseases, as well as the many others that are harmless. You could dust your tomatoes, your dog, your cattle or your cupboards with the stuff. In one promotional film from the ’40s, a guy sprays a bunch of DDT onto his oatmeal, and then eats it.

Then Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring revealed the dangers DDT posed to humans and the environment, and in 1972, it was banned for agricultural use in the United States. The public’s perception of the pesticide had radically changed. I still remember my horror when I first stumbled upon a bottle labeled “DDT.” I was about 10 years old, looking through my late grandfather’s shop for some tool, and it was as if I had discovered that he wasn’t actually a farmer, but a war criminal.

DDT is long gone from this country, and nobody’s eating pesticide-laced porridge these days, at least not on purpose. But as Rebecca Clarren reports in this issue’s cover story, millions of pounds of other pesticides are still sprayed annually from helicopters and planes onto forest clear-cuts in order to kill the shrubs and weeds that can crowd out profitable timber. In windy, steep terrain, the chemicals sometimes drift away from the target and onto nearby homes and communities, as happened at Gold Beach, Oregon, in October 2013. The short-term consequences of this can be horrific, as the victims of that spraying can attest, but the long-term hazards may prove even worse.

Americans today are generally more aware of pesticides’ dangers than they were back in the 1960s and ’70s, and the applicators are far more careful about where they spray them. But in Oregon, at least, the regulatory framework has been unconscionably weak.

After word spread about the Gold Beach incident, though, Oregon’s attitude seemed to shift. The state did a belated investigation, and the timber company and sprayer were slapped with a bigger fine than usual. And now the Legislature is pondering tougher regulations on aerial sprayers. It might not be Silent Spring, but it’s a significant example of how information can spur action. The DDT fanatics of the 1950s could still plead ignorance. Today’s leaders and regulators have no such excuse.