The DDT Myths: History, Science, and Stories of Health and Environment Project Summary The pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) was effectively banned in the U.S. in 1972, in light of evidence that it harmed wildlife and threatened human health. To this day, DDT persists in the environment; it also persists in narrative form, its story invoked everywhere from history textbooks to press conferences on the latest insect-borne epidemic. In this familiar story, DDT was embraced by Americans in the 1940s, became a rallying cry for environmentalists in the 1960s, and morphed into a panacea for intractable insect-borne diseases, namely malaria, in the 1990s. DDT's story is oft-repeated because it captures profound social and cultural shifts in twentieth-century U.S. history, from the U.S.'s emergence as a global superpower, to the rise of the social movements of the 1960s and 70s, to the creation of an enlightened form of U.S. global leadership at the turn of the millennium. It is also oft-repeated because DDT's twists of fate make its story an adaptable morality tale on the optimal pursuit of public health. This project puts forth a new, domestic history of DDT, based on overlooked aspects of its history and directed by questions of class, gender, race, power, and the relationship between health and environmental values. The project has three specific aims. First, to reveal the oversimplifications in the prevailing DDT narrative and examine the cultural and ideological functions this narrative has served over time. Second, to put forth an exhaustively researched new narrative, one that recovers lost voices and little-examined episodes. And third, to demonstrate the utility of incorporating historical knowledge in health policy making processes, in part by demonstrating how narratives about public health's past impede or advance the achievement of public health goals in the present. This new history will be published as an academic/trade book by a top press and written and marketed for a broad audience of academics, policymakers, environmental and public health advocates, and the interested public. Research methods for this historical project include location and analysis of a range of primary sources. These include historical society and museum collections; state, federal, and global agency archives; private papers of activists, scientists, and politicians; collected papers of organizations, such as the United Farm Workers and Environmental Defense Fund; industry document collections, such as Toxic Docs and the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library; foundation records, such as the March of Dimes and Rockefeller archives; specialized digital collections, such as the Bracero Archive; and a range of periodicals, including small-town newspapers, farm papers, trade magazines, and New Left and mass media publications.

Public Health Relevance

The DDT Myths: History, Science, and Stories of Health and Environment Project Narrative This research project will produce a revised history of the pesticide DDT, one of the most storied of all modern chemicals and one of the most significant public health discoveries of the twentieth century. The final outcome of this project will be a book manuscript that, in addition to telling this new history, reveals how oft-repeated tales of DDT's history took shape, whose stories and which episodes they omit, and why and how they have become morality tales on the optimal pursuit of public health. The book's analysis will also demonstrate how the interplay between health and environmental values in the modern U.S. has influenced the public's health, and the applicability of broad historical knowledge to contemporary public health practice and policy making.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Library of Medicine (NLM)
Health Sciences Publication Support Awards (NLM) (G13)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZLM1)
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Vanbiervliet, Alan
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University of California Berkeley
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United States
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