Economic poisons

This is an excerpt of How to Sell a Poison: The Rise, Fall and Toxic Return of DDT, republished with permission from Bold Type Books.

Claxton, Georgia, was a classic small town in the late 1940s, with two soda-fountain drugstores, a grocery, a hardware store, and a bakery famous for its pecan-raisin fruitcake. The Nancy Hanks II streamliner train passed through twice a day, carrying its segregated passengers between Atlanta and Savannah. Highway 280, newly paved, cut through town parallel to the tracks, connecting Savannah to the east and Americus to the west, lined with small farms in both directions.

Doffie Colson was new to Claxton, one of millions of Americans whose lives were uprooted by the war. Her own Methodist family’s roots ran deep in rural Tattnall County, just to the west.

But when Congress authorized the army to build dozens of new camps and training centers for the war effort, her family and hundreds of others—more than half of them Black, the rest white like the Col- sons—were moved off their land to make way for a new antiaircraft artillery range. It was a “forced exile,” said Colson’s sister. But they gave up their homes and, “most valuable,” their neighbors, Colson said, “to help train soldiers in the nation’s hour of need.”

Their new Claxton farms were small but big enough to be self-sustaining. Colson farmed and raised bees with her two daughters. Her sister’s family, on the farm next door, grew vegetables and truck crops and blooms that won the local flower shows. Highway 280 gave them access to Georgia Power, phone lines, and passenger buses right outside their doors.

All told, Colson thought they had found a promising place to live, until the spring of 1945—three years after they moved in. Colson fell sick with a sore throat, “nervous chills,” and muscle pain so intense she sometimes took to bed for weeks at a time. Her sister, Mamie Plyler, fell sick too, her mouth and throat erupting in painful sores and her head aching with a persistent “irritation” that didn’t give way for months.

A local doctor diagnosed Colson with allergies, but his treatments didn’t work. Colson found a specialist up in Atlanta, but his treatments failed too. Then her daughters began to feel sick, and Colson was at a total loss. But her sister had a theory: Plyler wondered if their health problems might be related to the planes that, since the war, had been using Highway 280 as a runway to dust the vast tobacco, tomato, and peanut fields owned by big landowners near their farms.

Sitting in the kitchen of her little farm home on the highway, Colson thought about her sister’s theory as she read the farm papers, where she learned all about the new poisons developed since the war. The papers had much to say about DDT, which killed mosquitoes, flies, boll weevils, bud beetles, corn borers, hornworms, tobacco worms, and more. Compared to the older poisons, such as lead and arsenic, DDT was a “wonder drug,” said the farm paper Capper’s Weekly.

But it was also “fussy stuff” that farmers had to use with care. Channing Cope, Georgia’s popular farm columnist, was impressed with DDT but also nervous: because it killed pollinators, he said, he feared it had “the power to ruin us.”

Colson, like any farmer, knew that the key to using poisons had always been to use just the right amount, right where it was needed. When poisons rained down from a crop duster, however, that was just about impossible. So when the crop dusters flew low over their home, she closed their windows, brought in the animals, and took down any laundry on the line—if she could get to it all in time.

Then one morning in the spring of 1948, a crop duster parked near the entrance to Colson’s property to set up for its flight. As the pilot loaded the hopper, a wind picked up and blew the plane’s load toward the driveway, where her older daughter, Dorothy, stood waiting for the bus to school.

Without warning, the girl was bathed in a fine dust. She ran inside. Before her mother could clean her, she began vomiting and grew weak. Her temperature climbed, and for days she suffered a high fever and severe sore throat.

Colson now knew her sister was right. The illness in her family wasn’t allergies. It was “straight out poisoning,” she said.

Elena Conis is a professor history and journalism at the University of California Berkeley and the author, previously, of Vaccine Nation.

How to Sell a Poison is available now from Bold Type Books.