Adéline chided me for going all the way to town to buy a “natural” mosquito spray that—while hardly effective—I continued to slather on my body every time we jogged the wooded paths of the Forêt Vatable in Martinique. She had gotten used to my declining to borrow her Pyramid brand “Repel 100,” a 100% deet formulation that she swore by, and that worked.[1]   Gesturing to my scar-covered legs, indelibly marked by insect bites badly healed, she lined her calf up next to mine. Her skin was smooth, clear—bite-less. “It’s not that [spray] that you need to worry about, Vanessa,” she said, pointing from my (“SANS DEET”)  bottle of “natural” spray to the sky. “It’s the one that comes from up there.”

In Martinique,[2] contemporary anxieties about bodies, chemicals, and the environment have coalesced recently around two key issues related to spray: first, relative to concerns about the legacies of the 1972-1993 manual application of an insecticide called chlordécone (kepone) to combat charonçons du bananier (banana borer weevils) on the island’s northern banana plantations,[3] and second, about the more recent aerial application of a variety of fungicides to combat cercosporiose noire (black sigatoka fungus) on those same parcels of land.[4]  Épandage aérien (crop-dusting), the spray from “up there,” has re-energized local conversations about environmental contamination, particularly exposures to industrially-produced chemical particles circulating in the air.

At the heart of spray technologies are two processes: the joining of liquids to solids in ratios of reconstitution that bring chemicals to “life,” and the pressurized conversion of those liquids into a mist that can be readily dispersed. Sprays are everywhere. From the personal misters that some carry to keep cool, to aerosol cans that spray paint, to the bottles and tanks filled with chemical concoctions that individual consumers purchase, they are a commonplace. In both tropical and temperate agriculture, cultivators rely on sprays for the efficient delivery of fertilizers and pesticides, for the dispersion of both organic and synthetic compounds. It is the “granularity [of these compounds that] is both the peril and the promise.”[5]

While the European Union banned crop dusting in 2009, over the past four years Martinican banana planters have applied for—and been granted—dérogations (waivers) that have made them the exceptions to these rules.[6] Starting in 2010, when the first instances of cercosporiose noire were recorded on the island, plantation owners (in coalition with mainstream elected officials) sought—and were awarded—a series of dérogations to resume aerial spraying. In response, opposition to crop dusting emerged as a key plank on the local progressive agenda these last years, bringing together organizations like L’Association pour la Sauvegarde du Patrimoine Martiniquais (the Organization for the Preservation of Martinican Heritage) and L’Association Médicale pour la Sauvegarde de l’Environnement et de la Santé (the Medical Organization for the Preservation of Health and the Environment) into a new Collectif Contre l’Épandage Aérien et L’Empoisonnement des Martiniquais (Collective Against Crop Dusting and the Poisoning of Martinicans).  In May 2014, acceding to pressure from organizations in their Caribbean territories, France’s Conseil d’État issued a definitive injunction against the practice.[7]

The history of crop dusting dates to the early 1920s, and while my encounters with struggles over aerial spray unfold in France, the practice’s history begins—predictably—in the United States. Pioneered by the Ohio Department of Agriculture, the first planes to spray crop amendments from the air flew over local fruit orchards to disperse powdered lead arsenate, a substance intended to kill catalpa sphinx moths.[8] As a more efficient technology than hand-sprayers, the rise of aerial sprayers furthered the scale and scope of pesticide diffusion over the course of what would become the United States’ (and eventually the rest of the world’s) “chemical century.”[9]

This history of crop dusting also intersected with that of the United States’ burgeoning military industrial complex, as World War I fighter planes were among the first aircraft converted into agricultural “bombers.” Not only were the tools of war critical elements in the expansion of pesticide application, but the war machine itself became one of the most important, and the most pernicious, users of crop dusters in the twentieth century. The still-active United States Air Force Aerial Spray Unit, for example, remains but one node in a complex history that links chemical dispersion to United States surveillance, siege, and militarization projects both domestically and abroad.[10]

But as Adéline and I sat comparing our mosquito-bitten (or, in her case, unbitten) legs in the dappled shade, those particular geopolitics of spray were far from either of our minds. We were considering spray and the porosity of our bodies’ boundaries at a radically different scale. What Adéline said to me: don’t worry about this spray— worry about that one—sounded like the kinds of negotiations that I had heard people make over the course of my fieldwork about a variety of intractable choices having to do with hazardous exposures. Residents of the island—indeed, residents of everywhere these days—are learning to negotiate the im/possibilities of minimizing the ingestion of synthetic chemicals, both those that are airborne and those that are delivered to bodies otherwise. Some take comfort in the notion that we have greater control over the rate of dispersion when we use personal spray technologies like mosquito repellent (I choose the formulation! I pump the aerosol!). Most are more wary of the spray technologies they cannot control, like the crop duster, not only because the rate of dispersion gets determined elsewhere (in a lab or in a corporate office—meaning: “the man” pumps the aerosol!), but also because the natural forces of wind and rain allow the active components of aerial spray to drift far from the sites to which they were originally directed.[11]

In the end, though, it is both this spray and that one, both the dispersion of chemical molecules close to the skin and the dusting of them far away from it, that forges our bodies’ material entanglements with chemical commodity chains. As solids become liquids, then liquids become mists in the bottles and barrels of sprayers, inert chemicals change form—they are readied for incorporation. The dynamics of their ingestion and egress, of absorption and release, are compelling concerns at a moment when so many people, in Martinique and elsewhere, are seeking effective ways to “detox.” All of our best efforts at ridding ourselves of synthetic toxins aside, historian Michelle Murphy has described their irrevocability as a kind of “chemical embodiment,” powerfully elaborating the ways that our bodies and our environments are altered by these contacts.[12] In the end, it is both this spray and that one, this mosquito repellent and that crop duster, that remind us that at every scale in our social and biological worlds, contingent forms of non-life and life are being entwined, as synthetic chemicals embed, accrete, and leave their residue in our bodies.


Vanessa Agard-Jones is a postdoctoral researcher in the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at Columbia University, where she is affiliated with the Department of Anthropology and the Institute for Research in African American Studies. She is currently writing a book about pesticides, (sexual) politics and postcoloniality in Martinique. In Fall 2014 she will join Yale University’s faculty as Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.


[1] See Sarah J. Moore and Mustapha Debboun’s “History of Insect Repellents,” in Insect Repellents: Principles, Methods, and Uses, Debboun, Stephen Frances and Daniel Strickman, eds. Boca Raton: Taylor and Francis, 2007.

[2] An important locating-point, here: though it sits in the Caribbean Sea, Martinique is a fully-incorporated department/region of France, and as such is a member of the European Union.

[3] For more on the chlordécone scandal in Martinique, see: Agard-Jones, Vanessa. “Bodies in the System,” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 17, no. 3, 42 (2013). In French, key sources include: Boutrin, Louis, and Raphaël, Confiant. Chronique d’un Empoisonnement Annoncé: le Scandale du Chlordécone aux Antilles Françaises, 1972-2002 Paris: L’Harmattan, 2007 and Le Déaut, Jean-Yves, and Catherine Procaccia. “Rapport sur les Impacts de l’Utilisation de la Chlordécone et des Pesticides aux Antilles: Bilan et Perspectives d’Évolution.” Paris: Office Parlementaire des Choix Scientifiques et Techniques (2004).

[4] The five products sprayed in Martinique from 2010- 2013 were: TILT250 (Propiconazole), SICO (Difenoconazole), BION (Acibenzolar-S-Methyl), GARDIAN (Fenpropidine) and BANOLE (a fungicide adjuvant). On 25 February 2014, local station Martinique 1ère reported that three of these five products had been designated carcinogenic and neurotoxic by L’institut européen de recherche sur les cancers liés à l’environnement (the European Cancer and Environmental Research Institute): Last accessed 20 May 2014.

[5] I am indebted to Stacey Sutton for this insight, and am grateful to her for her willingness to think alongside me as I wrote this entry.

[6]Crop dusting was banned in the EU as part of a “package” of European laws on pesticides passed 21 October 2009 (n° 2009/128/CE). For the text of the package, see here Last accessed 20 May 2014.

[7] The Conseil’s 6 May 2014 decision is here: Last accessed 20 May 2014.

[8] By 1924, the first commercial agricultural flying company, Huff Daland Dusters, began operations. They would later become Delta Airlines. For more on the history of crop dusting in the United States, see: Daniel, Pete. Toxic Drift: Pesticides and Health in the Post-World War II South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007.

[9] For more on this history, see: Langston, Nancy. Toxic Bodies: Hormone Disruptors and the Legacy of DES. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

[10] The most infamous of these projects was the spread of dioxin-containing herbicides like Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, as David Zierler recounts in The Invention of Ecocide: Agent Orange, Vietnam, and the Scientists Who Changed the Way We Think About the Environment. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011. For a military-perspective-accounting of the longer history (and its domestic coordinates), see: Breidenbaugh, Mark, and Karl Haagsma. “The US Air Force Aerial Spray Unit: A History of Large Area Disease Vector Control Operations, WWII Through Katrina.” US Army Medical Department Journal (2008): 54-61.

[11] The U.S.-based Pesticide Action Network’s Drift Catcher projects are important interventions that document this kind of exposure:  On pesticide drift, see also: Harrison, Jill Lindsey. Pesticide Drift and the Pursuit of Environmental Justice: Food, Health, and the Environment. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011.

[12] Murphy, Michelle. “Chemical Regimes of Living.” Environmental History 13, no. 4 (2008): 695-703.

Image: “In the spray.” M Hooper, Flickr.

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