Coming to PBS’s American Experience next Tuesday, January 28:
THE POISON SQUAD
American Experience (February 2020)
A government chemist goes on a crusade to eliminate untested chemicals from American foods.
In the late 1800s, as the population of American cities grew as people left farms for factory jobs, food manufacturers turned to new chemicals to preserve food for longer periods to face this societal shift. This meant that substances like formaldehyde, borax, salicylic acid, and copper sulfate became prevalent in American diets, threatening the health of the nation. US Department of Agriculture chemist Harvey Wiley had grave concerns about these unregulated, untested chemicals and launched a very public campaign to bring attention to his fears. He recruited a dozen anonymous men to participate in hygienic table trials – dubbed the Poison Squad by the press – in which Wiley would systematically increasingly poison their food over the course of a year to test the effects of additives. Director John Maggio’s informative film, which follows in the standard PBS format, is less about the Poison Squad than it is about Wiley, and how his efforts, combined with public outrage over Upton Sinclair’s THE JUNGLE, resulted in legislation to better monitor food, including the formation of the FDA,