Now really, is this a thrilling title? Sounds like a real yawn, right?? Nope! Not when Ken Frank is telling the story. A mash-up of politics, science and human frailty! Lots of drama!
In this case, “near Philadelphia” means Riverton, NJ, on the Delaware River just north of the Tacony Palmyra Bridge. Right in my back yard.
Consider the timing, just before World War I. It was well known that introduced insect pests could wreak havoc on farming and the economy in general, but comprehensive regulatory controls were not in place.
The date of this unfortunate introduction is known with some precision. In 1916, agricultural inspectors found unfamiliar beetles at the Henry Dreer Nursery in Riverton. Perhaps they had wandered up from the American south? Further investigation was postponed.
Within a few years, due to the geometric population growth of the beetles, the situation was out of control. The only, long shot solution was applying a “scorched earth” policy to Dreer’s nursery – excavation, poisoning, fire…
Dreer fought back, accusing supporters of even relatively mild measures like quarantine of TREASON, because of interference with the economies of our World War allies. Dreer was publicly “outed” as the source of the appalling infestation. Ken Black compares Dreer’s response to that of climate deniers. Dreer’s political strength was formidable. When quarantine and embargo were finally imposed, they applied only to CORN. Nurseries were completely exempted from regulation.
The Japanese beetle continued its spread. Today it afflicts about half the continental United States, and the annual cost of control is estimated to be in the billions of dollars. California, not yet afflicted, takes stringent measures against Japanese beetles.
That’s not even half the story! This turned out to be a situation in which the “cure” was worse than the disease. The pesticide of choice used against the Japanese beetle was LEAD ARSENATE, a very slight improvement over the previously popular copper arsenate. The quantities recommended boggle the mind – 1500 pounds per acre.
There were several big intellectual disconnects here.
- Nobody seemed to ask where the lead arsenate would end up.
- Nobody seemed to consider its toxicity to mammals (including humans).
- Nobody seemed to consider its toxicity to non target insects including potential natural enemies of the Japanese beetle.
Ken Frank took his investigation of this episode to Riverton, where he talked to residents, including a Master Gardener. Three citizens of Riverton came to hear his lecture. They provided insight into the area’s agricultural past, and shared their concern that they may still be living with the consequences of the very heavy application of LEAD ARSENATE in areas now occupied by suburban housing. They believe the incidence of cancer in the Riverton area may be abnormally high. (I know, as a former public health employee, how hard it is to define and evaluate a “cancer cluster”.)
Ken Frank credits the Japanese beetle outbreak and subsequent control efforts with inspiring Rachel Carson to investigate the impact of DDT on the environment. Carson was born in western Pennsylvania in 1907. She is credited with stimulating the American environmental movement which led to passage of major legislation in the early 1970s. Right when I graduated from college and jumped ship, leaving the field of chemistry to become a pollution control specialist!
Ken Frank’s lecture was great and I hope he writes an article soon, so it can be shared. There’s a great deal to be learned from this tale. We are still learning how to manage ourselves and our environment, and the complexities and demands on our scientific judgment continue to increase.
Ken Frank’s lecture took place at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, at a meeting of the American Entomological Society. Science is fun! Check out the Academy or the AES to get in on the action.