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The Tangled History of Arsenic and Farming

Arsenic is a poisonous metalloid–most commonly associated with rat poison and pesticides, and is highly toxic and deadly. So what does it have to do with farming? Farmer Will Allen gives us yet another story of how arsenic (by way of business and advertising) has gotten tangled up with American farming, and from there–into our food.

The following is an excerpt from The War On Bugs by Will Allen:

Since most farmers and householders in the 1800s knew about the dangers of arsenic and lead, it is often hard for people today to understand how such well-known killers could have been so widely applied and accepted. But it is helpful to recount that arsenic was not only a pesticide; it could be found everywhere and in almost everything in the 1800s that was manufactured. More than a hundred products had arsenic as an ingredient, including but not limited to wallpapers, paint, cosmetics, medicines, fruit preserves, candies, bakery goods, cocoa, sweetmeats, tobacco, book coverings, book bindings, lampshades, decorated plates, toy decorations, cardboard boxes, labels, carpets, watercolors, dental fillings, stockings, veils, stuffed animals, and candles. And this widespread use of arsenic persisted until the 1930s. Besides food and manufactured goods, arsenic was common in many medicine chests in the form of a heroic patent medicine known as Fowler’s Solution, which was concocted in 1786 by Thomas Fowler, a London physician. Fowler’s Solution was alleged to cure everything, and it was widely used until the 1930s, even though people feared its effects and became chronically ill or died from taking it.

Though arsenic was controversial and feared by the general populace, its effectiveness as a medicine and as a pest destroyer enabled the manufacturers to develop several arguments in its favor. A common one was the following: “If it is not too dangerous to be taken as a medicine or used in cosmetics, then how could it be more dangerous to dust on food plants a small amount that the rain will wash off?”

Arsenic advocates frequently quoted university agriculture experts, such as the professor named Kedzie mentioned in the letter to the Country Gentleman above. These references to academic “experts” provided scientific credibility for their propaganda. This claim of credibility using Kedzie as the academic prop persisted even though Dr. Kedzie had grown lukewarm to using arsenic well before 1890, and many other scientists had begun to express concern about the safety and effectiveness of arsenic as a pesticide.

But the arsenic advocates continued their saturation advertising and promotions using any scrap of credibility they could employ, however suspicious the claims might be.

Another regularly cited claim of safety told of the existence of a population of Austrians in the former duchy of Styria who like many ancient farmers ate dirt to see whether it was sweet (alkaline) or sour (acidic). The Styrian dirt was rich in arsenic but apparently caused no ill effects to the farmers when they tasted it. The chemical-corporation experts argued that the Styrian example proved that arsenic was safe enough to eat. But scientific investigators finally discovered, after analyzing the Styrian farmers’ stomach remains, that they in fact ate very small amounts of dirt that contained some arsenic, which passed through their bodies without being assimilated. This claim of arsenic safety continued to be used long after independent scientists had debunked the Styrian myth.

All of the promotional tricks for arsenic certainly increased sales. However, arsenic’s effectiveness as a killer of almost all farm and garden pests provided its most convincing advertisement. For the “show me” farmers and householders, the proof was in the results: arsenic killed almost everything. Unfortunately, that included many thousands of farm children. Nevertheless, since this toxic metal also proved very effective against so many hard-tokill pests, many users overlooked its lethal dangers to their children. Instead of eliminating arsenic from their chemical sheds, farmers threatened their children with harsh punishment if they went anywhere near the shed.

Armed with testimonials and editorial arguments, companies aggressively promoted the use of arsenic against everything that crawled, flew, hopped, or rotted, in spite of the known risks that emerged in the widespread food poisonings during the 1890s. As a result of these sales campaigns, arsenic became the most widely used pesticide from 1880 until the 1950s, greatly outdistancing total DDT usage in the United States.

Though DDT is often seen as the first war-related pesticide, arsenic ranks as an even earlier war hero. Foresters and landscapers used arsenic in the gypsymoth wars before the turn of the century, and then the Army used it somewhat effectively to combat syphilis and several other pests in World War I. Because it was felt to be indispensable to the war effort and war reconstruction markets, high arsenic use was tolerated on food and fiber crops both during World War I and afterward. Arsenic’s warrior status also helped prevent a meaningful public dialogue in the United States about its regulation until quite some time after World War I had ended.

The most important propaganda breakthrough occurred when advertisers realized that they had to trivialize arsenic’s public health and environmental damage. Instead of discussing real concerns about health and safety and the poisoning of farm kids, the chemical companies ignored those issues and focused their propaganda and advertisements on the toxic
potency and consistency of their products. They developed a strategy that highlighted successful farmers who had won county and state fair prizes for perfect fruits, vegetables, grain, cotton, or tobacco by spraying arsenic on them.

They began portraying arsenic and the other farm poisons as tools or weapons in the farmer’s war to survive. The chemical companies and the advertisers successfully magnified farmers’ fear of pests and dramatized the problems in such a manner that the farmers felt forced by bankers and the fear of crop loss into using this terrible poison on their farms and families. That the chemical advertisers were able to sell these poisons to farmers already frightened of arsenic and lead was pure advertising genius. It also required deceptive, manipulative, dishonest, and endless promotions.

The availability of such massive amounts of cheap byproduct arsenic and lead helped advertisers win the hearts, minds, and pocketbooks of farmers. Arsenic, for example, was much cheaper than the pyrethrum pesticides derived from chrysanthemum flowers, like Buhach powder. Ads and propaganda for arsenic appeared everywhere, whereas the advertising scope and frequency of Buhach powder was much more limited. The conflict between the biological approaches and the chemical solutions became much more dramatically unbalanced in favor of cheap arsenic, especially in the hard economic times that dominated the close of the nineteenth century. The chemical battle with bugs had begun, and arsenic manufacturers rapidly shifted their energies from the medicine cabinet to the farm.

The new market on the farms proved to be a boon to chemical-supply houses, which previously had sold thousands of pounds of arsenic for medical applications per year but whose sales were sagging. Now they would sell millions of pounds of waste arsenic instead. One of the major innovators in arsenic products was the German chemical corporation Hoechst. After arsenic proved to be an effective pesticide, Hoechst alone sold hundreds of thousands of tons of arsenic to control farm pests.

Some of the earliest toxin marketing successes were fashioned by German chemical and mining firms. In the late 1800s, German chemical and fertilizer firms mimicked the successful model of Rockefeller’s Trust and began to form huge fertilizer syndicates and chemical cartels. Their interlocking connections enabled them to control the manufacture and marketing of farm chemicals before the end of the century. Their collusion and resultant wealth also enabled them to advertise constantly.

The German and Swiss chemical corporations then began conspiring with each other and ultimately divided among themselves the world market for organic and inorganic chemicals, dyes, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and chemical-industrial processes. Copying the German Kaliwerks model, the pesticide manufacturers advertised constantly. Copying earlier fertilizer advertisers, they also advertised irresponsibly.

The late 1800s was a time when pesticide, fertilizer, and patent-medicine manufacturers enjoyed an unregulated marketplace. The corporations and their scientists claimed whatever they wanted for their products, since no regulatory agency existed to evaluate the claims of advertisers or prosecute offenders. Customers would have to wait some years before a federal pesticide act was created, and even longer for a trade commission to take any action. Unfortunately, their wait was mostly in vain, as we shall see, since government agencies have consistently failed to protect consumers or farmers.

After the success of arsenic pesticides became well known in the farm community, the ethics and practice of pest-control self-sufficiency began to slowly erode, just as fertilizer self-sufficiency eroded after the promotional campaign for Peruvian guano. The attitude of almost all of the farm journals changed with respect to the scientists and their products. By the mid-1890s Liebig’s scientific form of chemical farming was being accepted by a growing number of farmers.

By the turn of the century chemical corporations, including Bayer, Hoechst, DuPont, Grace, Ciba, Geigy, Sandoz, Monsanto, Dow, BASF, Nobel, Graselli, ICI, Rhone-Polenc, American Cyanamid, Wheeler, Reynolds and Stauffer, Standard Oil, Caselli, AGFA,
and literally all the tobacco corporations, began saturation advertising campaigns for their chemical concoctions in U.S. farm journals.

At about the same time that arsenic and lead pesticides became more commonly accepted by the large-scale farmers, the resistance to poisons by many growers lessened, and the corporations began to peddle additional toxic substances to farmers. Numerous products were introduced and promoted, including carbon bisulphide.

Ads appeared often for carbon bisulphide, one of the first successfully advertised fumigants. The Wheeler Company began marketing this chemical in California in 1882. A very effective but dangerous pesticide, it was most commonly employed as a soil fumigant for deep soil diseases and to kill soil worms (nematodes) on grapevines and fruit and nut trees. The advertising campaign for this product was the earliest intensely repetitive sales pitch for a pesticide. Carbon bisulphide actually received advertising space in several populist magazines much earlier than arsenic products, since they opposed arsenic.

Farmers also destroyed plant lice (aphids) with carbon bisulphide, as described in the following 1896 Farm Journal editorial from Professor Smith of the New Jersey Experiment Station:

The melon louse can be destroyed … by evaporating a small quantity of bisulphide of carbon over the plants. As soon as a hill is seen to be infested put one or two teaspoonfuls of the liquid on a bit of sponge or rag tied to a stick. Stand this up in the center of the hill and put a cover of paper or other material over all to keep the fumes near the plant. … The fumes being heavy sink down and find every insect. … Those who have late pickles now should try this remedy, and all melon, cantaloupe and pickle growers should be prepared to give it a trial next June when the lice first make their appearance.

In spite of such glowing advertisements, editorials, and endorsements by the Bureau of Agriculture and the state experiment stations, many farmers refused to use this pesticide because explosions frequently occurred when the applicator hit buried rocks or a chunk of steel or iron. In addition to its explosive and pest-killing abilities, all the tests on carbon bisulphide indicate that it is a neurotoxin and fetotoxin that causes thyroid and adrenal changes and heart, liver, and kidney damage. In spite of its considerable toxic drawbacks, it is today a widely used fumigant for insect control in stored grain. When used as a grain fumigant it is usually combined with carbon tetrachloride to reduce fire and explosive hazards.

Not all of the advertised pesticides were as deadly as the advertisers claimed; some were worthless. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, advertisements for Ongerth’s Insecticide Powder and Ongerth’s Liquid Tree Protector were common, and these products gained considerable popularity for a time. After years of complaints about their effectiveness, both state and federal government tests found them to be totally ineffective. They were quack products, but even after long-term public criticism, farmers continued to buy them. In 1890, Insect Life reported that a farmer from Alameda, California, applied some of Ongerth’s compound to his trees, and in a short time more than one hundred of his prize citrus trees died. In many cases the active ingredient in products such as Ongerth’s remains unknown, because they were deemed to be company secrets—and held as intellectual property rights. Subsequent tests by the state and federal bureaus of agriculture determined that several other “miracle” products were also worthless.

Though pesticides and fertilizers were aggressively advertised and promoted, farmers commonly were both skeptical and fearful of them because of dangerous and useless products like those promoted by Wheeler, Ongerth, Liebig, Mapes, chemical corporations, the farm journals, and the U.S. Bureau of Agriculture. That skepticism about synthetic fertilizers and pesticides continued for decades, especially among farmers operating small and medium-sized farms. Consequently they consumed very few of these products. The large-scale farmers were also concerned about shoddy fertilizers and poorly fabricated pesticides and eventually forced government regulators to set up standards for chemical products.

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