The Chemical Age: How Chemists Fought Famine and Disease, Killed Millions, and Changed Our Relationship with the Earth

Univ. of Chicago. May 2020. 368p. ISBN 9780226697246. $29. NAT HIST
Hippel (ecotoxicity, Northern Arizona Univ.) writes a history of pesticide development from 1845 to 1962, outlining the vital role of scientific investigation and chemical research in attempting to eradicate malaria, yellow fever, typhus, and bubonic plague. As the subtitle states, those chemical compounds have proved to be a mixed blessing to humanity. However, insecticides intended for disease vectors such as mosquitoes, lice, or fleas have also been deadly to beneficial insects, birds, animals, and humans. As Hippel notes, they have been overused, speeding organism resistance and loss of effectiveness. Scientists and chemists have also produced chlorine gas, mustard gas, Agent Orange, and other chemical weapons of war. Some pesticides, such as Zyklon B, were actually used for human extermination by the Nazis. That dark side development is also traced here. Hippel concludes by highlighting the career of biologist Rachel Carson, who provoked outrage from the American chemical industry with her warnings about unintended effects of pesticides.
VERDICT Hippel’s leisurely and wide-ranging history will raise readers’ awareness about the power of toxic chemical compounds introduced into our environment.
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