Label on a can of DDT. BigPictureEducation image
It’s a footnote, but an important one right now, when the anti-science, anti-environmental protection, anti-learning wing of American culture again gears up to attack the memory of Rachel Carson, the science findings that led to the ban on crop use of DDT in America, and upon health care and medicine and science in general.
DDT kills. DDT can kill humans.
Daily Beast, usually a sober-enough, accurate enough online news organ that has absorbed the old print magazine Newsweek, recently carried a column by Paul Offitt, repeating the hoax claims that DDT was banned contrary to science, by a conspiracy of power-made environmentalists, that DDT is harmless to humans, and that had DDT not been banned, millions of humans would have survived malaria.
Long-time readers of this organ know each of those points is false, hoaxes ginned up to impugn science, leftists, environmental protection, or just for the hell of it. Offitt’s is just the first of several of these hoax-based articles which will cause us all grief this spring, I predict.
Probably the most difficult-to-explain hoax claim is the one that says DDT is “harmless” to humans.
DDT usually doesn’t come in a dose great enough to kill humans outright. That should not be mistaken for safety. DDT was known to kill early on, and as it turns out, it has become a method of human suicide across Asia. Unfortunately for policy study, those cases rarely get reported in science journals.
Some medical researcher should study the issue, to determine how widespread DDT suicide might be, what physicians do to save a person so poisoned, if they ever can. And I often wonder, is any suicide by insecticide reported as “DDT,” though it may be some other toxin?
I stumbled across the story of a DDT suicide in India some time back. It was a short report. I found no follow ups.
Some time ago I was surprised to hear an author talking about DDT suicide, which she had mentioned in one of her stories. The story was published in The New Yorker, “A Sheltered Woman.” The magazine interviewed the author, Yiyun Li; Li explained why she mentioned DDT suicide in the story.
This week’s story, “A Sheltered Woman,” is about a baby nurse named Auntie Mei, a Chinese immigrant who has established a solid career for herself looking after infants and their breast-feeding mothers in the Bay Area. When did the character of Auntie Mei first come to you?
A year ago, while rummaging through old things, I found a notebook that I had bought at a garage sale in Iowa City when I first came to America—I had paid five cents for it. The notebook was in a good shape; though it remained unused. A character occurred to me: she paid a dime and asked if there was a second notebook so she did not have to have the change back. Such greed, the character said, laughing at herself. From that moment on I knew I had a story.
Auntie Mei keeps a distance between herself and her charges, rarely staying longer than the first month of a baby’s life and establishing an orderly regime in the households she enters. Yet her disciplined approach starts to falter when she’s faced with Chanel, a disgruntled young mother, and her son. Why is Chanel able to unsettle Auntie Mei? Did you know this would happen when you starting thinking of the way the two characters would interact?
Auntie Mei’s life has a reliable pattern: the moment she enters a house to take care of a new set of mother and infant she can already see the exit point. But any pattern is breakable. When I started the story, I knew that the situation would change for Auntie Mei. Chanel, by not being ready to be a mother, forces Auntie Mei into a dilemma: When the baby in her charge is not loved by his parents, should she step in and offer her love? And what danger would she find herself in if she does not suppress that love?
You said in a recent interview that your characters don’t struggle as immigrants but are concerned rather with internal struggles and with the problems they’ve brought with them from China. That’s certainly the case here, where Auntie Mei is haunted by the legacy of the two women who raised her, her mother and her grandmother, who rejected the men in their lives. Does Auntie Mei’s childhood reflect anything in particular about Chinese-village life? Could you imagine a similar situation had she grown up in America?
Part of Auntie Mei’s childhood reflects Chinese-village life. For instance, her mother threatened to kill herself with DDT. DDT was banned in the United States in 1972, but, when I grew up, it was widely used in China, and, in the countryside, suicides by DDT were common. The peculiarities of Auntie Mei’s grandmother and mother would have been less readily accepted had she grown up in America, or even in a big city in China. However, Auntie Mei’s struggle is not specific to China. I imagine it’s a situation that can happen in any country. Our knowledge of history in general is limited, but at least there are historians who strive to enlighten the public. The murkiest history is within one’s own family, and oftentimes things remain unexplored and unsaid, and what is said may be misrepresentation or even distortion. Auntie Mei is not alone in her struggle with a shadowy past. In fact, I wonder how many people are truly exempted from the past.
One more anecdote, but one we may put stock into. DDT suicide is a thing. DDT can kill humans acutely, when the dose is great enough. Statements that DDT is harmless are inaccurate.
It’s a good short story, by the way.