People Are Not Pests

The Role of Pesticides in Violence, Racism and the Spread of COVID-19

After sending out a recent Black Lives Matter solidarity statement, NCAP received several responses asking us to “stick to pesticides” and environmental issues. This month, staff and board took some time to reflect on the history of pesticides and ask you to join us in reviewing the role of pesticides in violence and systemic racism. 

Herbicides and insecticides are so integrally involved in today’s food system that it’s easy to forget chemical pesticides were not originally designed for agricultural use. Early chemical fumigants were used in WWI to drive the enemy out of the trenches and shoot them with machine guns.1 Later, the chemicals were repurposed for use against soil-borne pests.

Overtly racist imagery in WWII era posters depict people as diseases, like this one from 1945. Image scan by National Museum of Health and Medicine.
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In the early 20th century, insects were feared as potential carriers of disease. Chemical insecticide use began as a way to save people from deadly illness. As soldiers joined the war effort in WWII, Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) was employed to protect soldiers from the threat of typhus and malaria abroad. Sprinkled in sleeping bags and dropped from planes, DDT was heralded by the U.S. Army as the "war's greatest contribution to the future health of the world."2 Cartoons from the era, like the 1945 poster above, illustrate people as diseases. Here, an overtly racist caricature of a Japanese person wearing devil horns represents malaria.

After the war, insecticide use was expanded to households and agriculture. DDT use became so prevalent that a law was passed requiring coloring to be added to insecticides to prevent confusing them for baking soda or flour when cooking. Until 1962, the year Rachel Carson's pesticide exposé Silent Spring was published, Americans were far more inclined to regard DDT as a miracle than as a menace.3

Image by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1941-1945, Public Domain.
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Turning next to the Vietnam War, pesticides were again used to advance the war effort. This time, herbicides were tactically used to destroy cover-providing vegetation or to destroy crops that provided food. We now know that the infamous Agent Orange — composed of 2,4,5-Trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T) and 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,D) — had deadly impacts on Vietnamese people as well as the American soldiers who handled the chemicals.

Today, pesticides continue to play a role in violent acts. Capsaicin is a regulated pesticide by the Environmental Protection Agency. Made from chili peppers, it is used as a repellent against rabbits and squirrels and applied to the foliage of plants to keep insects from munching on leaves. It’s also the active ingredient in pepper spray and some tear gases. Though less harmful than the tear gas fumigants used in WWI, modern day pepper sprays and tear gases are still being used to violently control groups of people. In recent weeks, at least 100 law enforcement agencies — many in large cities — used some form of tear gas against civilians protesting police brutality and racism, according to an analysis by The New York Times.4 In Lafayette Square, in Washington D.C, United States Park Police fired “pepper bullets” against peaceful protesters to clear the way for President Trump’s photo opportunity at St. John's Episcopal Church.5

Protesters chant “Hands up! Don't Shoot!” as smoke from tear gas lingers in Lafayette Square. Photo by Michael S. Williamson, The Washington Post.

In North Dakota, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline have been repeatedly sprayed by tear gas and water while protesting the construction of the pipeline. As tribal members and their supporters occupied a stretch of contested land directly in the pipeline’s path, police dressed in riot gear and equipped with armored personnel carriers sprayed protesters with tear gas for refusing to vacate the road they’d been blocking.6

The use of tear gas and all asphyxiating gases are now banned in warfare by the Chemical Weapons Convention, yet they continue to be used against civilians to gain control of a situation, even during a pandemic. In addition to the danger imposed on those with underlying medical or health issues, tear gas is likely to spread COVID-19. Health experts warn that increased use of smoke and irritating chemicals on American protesters could accelerate the spread of coronavirus and make people more susceptible to it. “When you get sprayed with tear gas or pepper spray, you cough, shout and scream. That projects the virus so much further. It gives the virus droplets super spreading power,” said Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of California at San Francisco. “For those who don’t have the virus, the first thing you’re going to do is touch your eyes, nose, mouth. Even if you were wearing a mask, that’s now soaked with irritant — you’re not going to keep it on anymore. From a transmission perspective, it’s a disaster.”5

NCAP advocates for alternatives to pesticides that harm our soil, water and the air we breathe, which harm our communities, wildlife and food systems. Let’s remember that pesticides originated as dehumanizing tools of war and continue to play a role in violence against Black, Indigenous and People of Color and those protesting racist acts.

Protesters are not pests and the employment of pesticides to disperse a crowd is unacceptable. Instead, we must work to address the systemic racism and violence that caused these protests in the first place. As NCAP supporters, we invite you to join us in this work.

  1. Feigenbaum A. Tear gas: from the battlefields of World War I to the streets of today. Verso Books; 2017. 
  2. Atlanta Journal. DDT seen for public by spring. 1945 Aug 6.
  3. Dunlap T. DDT, silent spring, and the rise of environmentalism. University of Washington Press; 2008.
  4. Lai KKR, Marsh B, Singhvi A. Here are the 100 U.S. cities where protesters were tear-gassed. The New York Times. 2020 Jun 18 [cited 2020 Jun 24]. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/06/16/us/george-floyd-protests-police-tear-gas.html
  5. Hauslohner A, Wan W, Miroff N. White House says police didn’t use tear gas and rubber bullets in incident that cleared protesters with chemical irritants and projectile munitions. The Washington Post. 2020 Jun 3 [cited 2020 Jun 24]. Available from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/media/trump-demands-journalists-correct-stories-on-the-use-of-tear-gas-according-to-the-cdc-it-was-tear-gas/2020/06/02/bf68726c-a544-11ea-bb20-ebf0921f3bbd_story.html
  6. Enzinna W. I witnessed cops using tear gas, rubber bullets, and sound cannons against anti-pipeline protesters. Mother Jones. 2016 Oct 31 [cited 2020 Jun 24]. Available from: https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/10/standing-rock-protests-pipeline-police-tasers-teargas/

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