Toxicology of Pesticides: A Brief History

  • Lucio G. Costa
Part of the NATO ASI Series book series (volume 13)


Pesticides have been used to a limited degree since ancient times. The Ebers Papyrus, written about 1550 B.C., lists preparations to expel fleas from the house. The oldest available record is Homer’s mention (about 1000 B.C.) that Odysseus burned sulfur “…to purge the hall and the house and the court” (Odyssey XXII, 492–494). Pliny the Elder (23 to 79 A.D.) collected in his Natural History many anecdotes on the use of pesticides in the previous three or four centuries (Shepard, 1939). Dioscorides, a Greek physician (40 to 90 A.D.) knew of the toxic properties of sulfur and of arsenic. There are records showing that by 900 A.D. the Chinese were using arsenic sulfides to control garden insects. Veratrurn album and v. nigrum, two species of false hellebore, were used by the Romans as rodenticides (Shepard, 1939). In 1669, the earliest known record of arsenic as an insecticide in the Western World mentioned its use with honey as an ant bait. Use of tobacco as contact insecticide for plant lice was mentioned later in the same century. Cbpper compounds were known since 1807 to have fungicidal value, and the Bordeaux mixture (hydrated lime and copper sulfate) was first used in France in 1883. Hydrocyanic acid, known to the Egyptians and the Romans as a poison, was used as a fumigant in 1877 to kill museum pests in insect collections (Shepard, 1939). Carbon disulfide has been used as an insect fumigant since 1854.


Bordeaux Mixture Hydrated Lime Hydrocyanic Acid Body Louse Arsenic Sulfide 
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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 1987

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lucio G. Costa
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Environmental Health, SC-34University of WashingtonSeattleUSA

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