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The Tangled History of Arsenic and Farming

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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. 


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