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History of Pest Control

Summary: The history of pest control tells us that insects have been around a lot longer than people, so, presumably, people have had to deal with pests for the entirety of human existence. The history of pest control is a somewhat more modern concept, and many new innovations in pest control are still being developed today.

Humanity has always had a œcan't live with them, can't live without them kind of relationship with insects. Most insects are either beneficial to humans or they don't intrude into our daily lives. The fact is that we couldn't live without insects even if we wanted to. They are too important to the food chain, if nothing else. It is estimated that 80% of the animal species on the planet are arthropods. (This group also includes arachnids and crustaceans.) We depend on insects to pollinate flowers, provide a food source for larger animals, and to help decompose organic refuse. The importance of arthropods should not be understated.

As we all know, insects can be pests. Insects are not the only kind of pest, and insecticides are not the only kind of pesticide. Rodents, weeds and birds are some other big contributors to the headaches of civilization, but the diversity and pervasiveness of insects in the environment ensures them as one of humankind's greatest adversaries. Mosquitoes, for instance, contribute to between one million and three million deaths each year because they are vectors for malaria. It could be argued that the malaria virus is the killer, not the mosquito, but mosquitoes are the factor that humans have some control over. Without mosquitoes there wouldn't be the problem with malaria that is so prevalent in some parts of the world today.

Besides mosquitoes there are numerous pests that destroy crops and invade homes. Caterpillars and beetles feed on and destroy trees and crops. Lice and bed bugs are parasites that feed on human blood, causing uncomfortable skin reactions. Pests can include other plants, fungus, or animal species, too. A kind of water mold was the cause of the potato blight responsible for the devastating famine in 1845 Ireland.

What humans consider a pest varies with time and location. The insects that plague humanity account for a minority of insects, but create a significant enough negative impact on our existence that most people feel that something should be done to curb the damage. This is where pest control comes in.

4,500 years ago the ancient Sumerians used sulfur compounds to kill insects that were infesting their crops. Ancient cultures from India used poisonous plants as insecticides. A thousand years later Chinese culture was using fungicides to treat seeds before planting, and mercury and arsenic for lice treatments. The Romans were big promoters of pest control. They sprayed their crops with an oil-based pesticide, and the first rat-proofed granary was built in 13 B.C. by the Roman architect Marcus Pollio. These were the early actions taken to control insects that were considered pests to health or crops, and thankfully, we have progressed a great deal since then.

As time went on, humans started using insects to their advantage by introducing predatory insects to hunt the crop-damaging insects. Increased attention was paid to getting rid of weeds that reduced crop yields. During this time, and through the middle ages, the basic tools that people had available to combat pests were mechanical tools or biological controls. People could combat pests by killing them manually, or they could use a natural method like crop rotation or the introduction of a new plant species to try to maintain a level of pest control.

A major pest control development came with the discovery of botanical insecticides like pyrethrum and rotenone. Pyrethrum comes from chrysanthemums and rotenone comes from derris, both effective insect killers. Chemical compounds derived from pyrethrum are still commonly used today. This development occurred during the early 1800s when trade between cultures was increasing. The exchange of information increased as well, and more effort was made to maximize the profitability of agricultural practices. Many advances were made at the end of the 19th century that aided this purpose.

It was also discovered at this time that insects were responsible for spreading disease. In 1915, the control of mosquitoes that carried malaria and yellow fever enabled the completion of the Panama Canal. The Mediterranean fruit fly was the first insect to be eradicated from an entire region using pesticides. It was wiped out of Florida in 1929.

By 1930, the first synthetic organic compounds were used for the purpose of pest control. Organophosphate poisons were developed by German scientists in the 1930s for the chemical company I.G. Farben. These organophosphate poisons were tragically misused to kill people in gas chambers during the World War II holocaust. Zyklon B is the name of the infamous poison that was used at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

DDT became a significant synthetic organic compound when its potential as an insecticide was discovered in 1939. The rise of DDT usage proved to be an important stage in the history of pest control. DDT was used in World War II to battle mosquitoes that were spreading malaria, typhus, and other diseases to troops and civilians.  Throughout the 1940s and 50s DDT was manufactured and used as a pesticide. It probably saved millions of lives from deadly diseases. However, Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, published in 1962, revealed the negative impact that DDT was having on the environment. Fish eating birds, for example, were dying off because their eggs would not hatch. Fish were being poisoned by chemical runoff. Birds feeding on the fish got a larger dose of poison than the fish, because the birds ate a large quantity of the tainted fish. The chemicals continued to increase in concentration as animals higher on the food chain fed on the lower DDT contaminated animals.

The growing awareness that chemicals were having an adverse effect on people and the environment led to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 by president Richard Nixon. The EPA banned the use of DDT in 1972. This led to the more careful regulation of pesticides. Some of the synthetic pyrethroid pesticides, synthesized from pyrethrum, were found to be effective pesticides that are less toxic to the environment. Permethrin and Cypermethrin are two examples of this kind of pesticide that are still in use today. The EPA also established Toxicity Classes for pesticides that help categorize pesticides in four groups from I (extremely toxic) to IV (practically non- toxic). In 1986, the Food and Agricultural Organization adopted the International Code of Conduct on the Distribution and Use of Pesticides. This further helped establish guidelines that raised awareness about pesticide hazards and decreased the number of countries that did not have regulations in place about proper pesticide use. The Code of Conduct was updated in 1998 and 2002.

The EPA and Food and Agriculture organizations still strive to help people find a balance between safe pest control methods and environmental responsibility. One tool that many modern pest control companies employ is the strategy of Integrated Pest Management (IPM). IPM is based on the knowledge of ecology and the expected trends of pest population levels. Pest Management Professionals use complementary methods like biological controls, cultural practices and the strategic use of pesticides to decrease the amount of pesticides that are applied while maintaining manageable insect population. Integrated pest management can work even when insects have become resistance to a pesticide because the practice emphasizes the importance of natural controls like natural predators and planting crops that are naturally resistant to pests.

What does the future of pest management hold? No one can be sure. Terrible instances of improper pesticide use cannot be undone. Insects and the problems they cause for people are not likely to go away. We can only try to be more responsible when dealing with pest control issues in the future. Humankind must learn from its past mistakes and learn to live in harmony with the natural world.

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