Toxic Politics: A Collection of Research Projects

The global economy produces pervasive contaminants, harmful pollutants, damaging particles, and poisonous atmospheres, which are inescapably part of everyday life, though the harms and benefits are unevenly distributed. They are often invisible, unruly, recalcitrant and difficult to identify scientifically. In the face of these conditions and challenges, people have been creating new forms of politics in the 21st century. Ordinary people, scientists, and other experts are coming together to form emergent publics; they create novel links between evidence and action – the crux of toxic politics.

Various collectives are devising novel ways to identify toxicity, and then to express modes of harm. Other collectives are experimenting with new methods of making suffering visible; they include protocols and evidence not validated by expert cadres. These groups are changing how toxic sensing and affect are expressed, for instance by utilizing bodies, plants or DIY technologies as sentinel devices. Citizen-led collaborations with these devices create new recursive arenas of intervention and participation, hence strengthening collective action. For example, people with chemical sensitivity syndrome use their own bodies to identify harm; non-profit organisations create open source do-it-yourself technologies for environmental monitoring. Other collectives demand their right to know the source of various environmental injustices underpinning their lives; they link toxics with the political power that has shaped development patterns, especially in the global South

Such ‘toxic politics’ attempt to promote new definitions of harm and their attendant rights for human protection; to create new indicators and contest established epidemiological classifications; to invent alternative ways of governing toxicity and bodies; to problematize chemical accumulation trajectories; and to propose alternative policies, towards different futures. From arsenic to plastics, cases of toxicity have become both means and an ends to doing political work.
The following collection of abstracts highlights research projects on toxic politics, providing a snapshot of the state of the field from around the world.

Breastmilk in Deep Time—Environmental toxicity at a prospective mining site in Northern Norway
Hugo Reinert
Tallinn University

 Photo of Norwegian Arctic field site by Hugo Reinert.

Photo of Norwegian Arctic field site by Hugo Reinert.

Drawing on ethnographic material from a projected mining site in the Norwegian Arctic, the proposed text examines how environmental toxicity is materialised and given political form within local and national discourses. The argument focuses on media interventions by representatives from a regional midwives association, who developed a distinctive rhetorical framing based on their professional identity as “ambassadors for the unborn life”. A key element in these interventions was the image of a mother, breastfeeding her child with milk contaminated by environmental toxins in her own body. Through the variously marked bodies this image of “poisoned milk” brought into play, the act of nursing was constituted as a moment of vulnerable and compromised transmission—extending harm, consequence and accountability into “deep time”, not through linear extrapolation but rather by rendering the periodicity of generational time itself as fragile. The “toxic politics” of this resonated with broader emergent discourses on environmental harm, time and toxicity in the region; locally, it also intersected in complex ways with other renderings of the present as a moment of discontinuity and ruptured transmission—resulting, for example, from the historical erasure of indigenous Sami language and place-names in the area, or from the near-total destruction of the built landscape during the scorched-earth retreat of the German forces at the end of World War II. Exploring these intersections, the argument locates pervasive environmental toxicity as one of multiple local ruptures in the structure of time, then relates this to ongoing debates about Anthropocenic temporality.

Poisonous Foods on Our Plates: Preventive Practices and Governance Structure in India
Dr. Anup Kumar Das
Jawaharlal Nehru University 

Citizens of India have been awakened by the recent revelation of poisonous substances in instant Maggi noodles. Branded instant noodle is very popular among the urban and semi-urban middle-class and poor population, as it helps in cooking instantly for a quick meal or snack. It particularly helps the working women to manage household demand for a quick meal or the evening snack during their bone-tired moments. The food inspectors of Uttar Pradesh and other states have detected traces of poisonous lead and MSG (monosodium glutamate) beyond their permissible limits in some batches of Maggi noodles. In a knee-jerk reaction, the state and central governments have banned selling of Maggi noodles and put severe restrictions to other branded noodles. The common citizens were not much aware of the food adulteration as taking place in India. Although there are several government machineries, which are supposed to be involved in the prevention of food adulteration, many of these regulatory institutions remained existence on paper only. There are lackadaisical attitudes of the bureaucrats, legislators and politicians towards implementation of the preventive measures. The collective capacity of food testing laboratories, working under the states in implementing the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act 1958, is much less than the quantum of packaged and non-packaged food products available in India. In many states, the manpower is abysmally low. This impedes assessing the adulterated foods available to their citizens. In this connection, this paper will map preventive practices and governance structure with the special focus on new initiatives of the Union government to revamp food safety and standards authority and state-run food-testing laboratories in India.

The Courier-Mail, June 08, 2010

The Courier-Mail, June 08, 2010

Toxic Politics Downunder: From Willawong to Paradise Reinvented or Imagined?
Richard Hindmarsh and Kate Feeney
Griffith University

Australian toxic waste dumps and their management have been little researched, alongside environmental justice questions of controversial facility siting, in a nation typified by top-down policy styles. The 1998 decommissioned Willawong toxic waste dump—the site for much unidentified toxic waste of local governments in SE Queensland in 30 years of non-existent regulation—is situated only 16 kilometres from the CBD of Queensland’s capital Brisbane. Past consultancy reports, ongoing land observations, and experiences of ‘toxic politics’ see local residents questioning rehabilitative adequacy. Recently, workers of the bus depot built on the site claim cancers and other health conditions, like past workers at Willawong and their relatives when it was ‘live’. Now a large residential development is planned nearby. But planning at best illustrates tokenistic community engagement under the frame of ‘essential development’.

This study analyses via academic, policy and grey literature, media articles, and archival materials, the history of Willawong on the so-named Paradise Wetlands, with complete disregard for residents in a low socio-economic suburb who believed they indeed lived in ‘paradise’ for decades. It asks: Can the planned residential development be considered ‘paradise reinvented’ or an imaginary that further neglects residents, both existing and futures ones? Key issues and implications of the Willawong legacy and its toxic politics are situated both within and in regard to contexts of citizen sensing and collaborative methodologies as modes of politicisation; chemicals and environmental justice; intervention, legitimacy and ethics; and democracy and technology; in relation to sustainability and good governance.

“Stop Poisoning Paradise!” – Toxic politics around agricultural Biotechnology in Hawaiʻi
Mascha Gugganig
Department of Anthropology
University of British Columbia

In recent years, Hawaiʻi’s fields have served the agricultural biotechnology industry as major global research & development site for testing and cultivating experimental genetically engineered (GE) crops. Activists on the island of Kauaʻi aiming to regulate such testing and the related use of Restricted Use Pesticides (RUP) have provoked public deliberations that evolved into a narrative of a “divided” island. Yet “both sides” share a civic epistemology resting more or less on the authoritative claim of numbers (Jasanoff 2005) and Hawaiian, culturally-constitutive sentinel devices. These are bodily – in the naʻau, guts, as seat of intelligence and emotions -, ancestral – listening to one’s elders -, or in mālama ʻāina, caring for the land. Other claims of toxicity, such as people’s experienced bodily abnormalities accompany a lack of quantitative State monitoring of such toxic marks (birth defects, cancer cases, etc.) as presumed result of undisclosed pesticide use.

Activists have shaped these toxic politics by shifting the debate away from GE towards pesticides, thus a category scientifically more recognized as harmful in the U.S. context. In that sense, Hawaiian sovereignty activism claiming independence from the United States has experienced a similar shift to a wider scale by now talking of (not poisoning) “paradise” – a paradise speaking to more than just Native Hawaiians. TI argue that enmeshed “Hawaiian values” and health/environmental concerns forms grounds for societal expertise that contest those experts at the intersection of science and politics, how this intersection is “invasive,” even “toxic” to Hawaiianness, and how these processes redefine the very conceptions of Hawaiianness.

Measuring asbestos, environment, and risk: Environmental health activism and expertise in South Korea

Yeonsil Kang
Graduate School of Science and Technology Policy
Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology

Asbestos, an important occupational hazard, began to and more seriously regarded as an environmental problem in South Korea from the mid 2000s. In such a backdrop of changing social characteristic of a pollutant, credible and precise measurement of asbestos pollution, or “environmental asbestos” has become an important issue. Environmental activists were and are the most active in questioning the credibility of ‘official’ asbestos measurement and using the alternative methods of sampling and technologies of analysis. In this paper I take an example of asbestos problem in South Korea to understand in what sense making evidence has become a central issue of “toxic politics.” I particularly delve into the two different technologies of measuring asbestos, one standard methods used by the expert and the government institution and the other invented by the activists, taking into account of a larger contexts of institutional settings of environmental measurement, history of environmental activism and environmental policy of South Korea. By doing so this paper will reveal that measurements of asbestos is enmeshed with different definitions of risk, environment, ‘good’ and credible measurement as well as the different purposes of the measurement itself. Measurement technologies for the environmental activists is not only the means to make asbestos pollution visible, but also a means to claim their expertise in asbestos measurement as activists-­‐experts thus to establish themselves an equal partner in scientific debate. By measuring asbestos, the environmental activists in South Korea has politicized the material, the air, the public health, and routine scientific practices.

Where could be the missing public of models? Environmental regulation and predictive toxicity in the case of QSAR models
François Thoreau
Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation, Mines ParisTech

Environmental regulation is undergoing drastic changes with the use of computational models to predict environmental toxicity. Such models are made out of large datasets, stored on hard-drives and performed through software interfaces running algorithms. Their use is routinized and standardized by pharmaceutical industries and the OECD alike (see Demortain 2013). In the EU, many chemicals compounds (those produced between 1 to 10 tons/year) will fall under REACH’s scope by 2018. Within this framework, the European Commission endorsed predictive modeling as valid regulatory evidence. What misses so far is public awareness about these issues, let alone collective experimentations. Regulatory approaches to toxicity are often criticized for matching industrials’ interests or for lacking “public participation”, and rightly so. However, this paper suggests to take the science of models seriously. In times of algorithms proliferation, it calls for “a public culture of models”. To do this, it focuses on the “QSAR toolbox” being developed at the level of the OECD (Quantitative Structure-Activity Relationships). It argues that while opening the black box of the construction of such models remains important (see Sunberg, 2009), it matters to offer a “non-formalist description” of the specific formalism they entail (Latour, 2008). Drawing from extended fieldwork, this paper frames models as operations and examines what they perform. In a pragmatist perspective, it calls for a possible “art of consequences” (Pignarre & Stengers, 2005) of predictive modeling. More specifically, it speculates three problematic dimensions by which models could become relevant for concerned publics and open to collective experimentation.

Demortain (2013), “Regulatory toxicology in controversy”, Science, Technology & Human Values, published “online first” in May 2013.
Latour, B. (2008) “The Netz-Works of Greek Deductions”, Social Studies of Science, 38, pp. 441-459.
Pignarre & Stengers (2005), La sorcellerie capitaliste. Pratiques de désenvoûtement, Paris : La Découverte.
Sundberg M. (2009). “The Everyday World of Simulation Modeling: The Development of Parameterizations in Meteorology”, Science, Technology & Human Values, 34(2), pp. 162-181.

Aerial view of Highway 402 passing through Sarnia. The Blue Water Bridge is visible, and Lake Huron can be seen at the top of the image, still frozen. Image: WikiCommons.

Aerial view of Highway 402 passing through Sarnia. The Blue Water Bridge is visible, and Lake Huron can be seen at the top of the image, still frozen. Image: WikiCommons.

Contesting Everyday Exposures: Case Studies in Toxic Exposure, Public Health and Canada’s Regulatory Regime
Ellen Sweeney
Nova Scotia Health Research Foundation 

‘Everyday exposures’ to toxic substances, including carcinogens and endocrine disrupting chemicals, has increased the need for attention to the environmental links of disease. This paper will demonstrate the ways in which Canada’s regulatory regime is ineffective in protecting against everyday exposures and how the politics of toxic substances engages with issues of socioeconomic status, gender and race. The Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 and Chemicals Management Plan were designed to protect the entire Canadian population from risks associated with exposure to toxic substances. Despite efforts from activists, the primary prevention of environmental health outcomes has not been a strong feature of public health policy and legislation. Two contemporary case studies demonstrate politicized debates which engage with issues central to health, risk and the environment. Sarnia, Ontario and the Aamjiwnaang First Nation are located in one of the most polluted hotspots in the country where residents experience increased rates of cancer, reproductive and developmental disorders. Local activists attempt to raise awareness by holding toxic tours and biomonitoring studies demonstrate the toxic body burden of its citizens, but these efforts have not drawn sufficient attention nor regulatory reform. Pressure from middle class white mothers related to exposure to bisphenol A resulted in limited but inadequate regulatory reform. These cases demonstrate concerning issues of contestation and legitimacy where both the citizens’ activism and related health outcomes are questioned. Ultimately, the regulatory regime contains important gaps which do not protect against everyday exposures to toxic substances and place human health at risk.

Fraud and Suspicion: The Toxic Politics of Chinese Milk
Dr. Megan Tracy
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
James Madison University

In 2008, products from twenty-two of China’s dairy corporations were found to be adulterated with the industrial chemical, melamine. With largely children affected, public outrage was strong, further fanned with revelations that corporate and local government officials knew about the adulteration but continued to distribute contaminated products. This outrage endures in today’s discussions over China’s persistent food safety problems where the scandal is used to illustrate the threat an insecure food supply presents for the nation’s continued growth. In its wake, China’s domestic dairy industry and regulatory regime placed renewed focus on technologies and policies that could provide more effective means to monitor food safety and quality, such as a push to move small farmers to “cow hotels” as a means to centralize production and more easily trace the food-to-table chain. Yet, recent surveys show continued food safety concerns among Chinese consumers, suggesting that these actions have not fulfilled consumer demands for safer food and greater accountability. Adopting a multimodal approach, I draw on fieldwork conducted during 2012 and 2013 in northern China, to examine the material and semiotic settings where different scales of actors—including farmers, consumers, site managers, food safety experts, corporations among others—co-construct varied logics about Chinese food safety and toxicity. Although these actors operate at different scales of experience, they draw on the same material and information resources, often reaching different conclusions. This approach highlights and disentangles the dense layers created as various actors attempt to meet regulatory, policy and public demands.

Anglers of the harbor basins near Fos-sur-mer steel factory, Arcelor-Mittal, (photo IECP)

Anglers of the harbor basins near Fos-sur-mer steel factory, Arcelor-Mittal, (photo IECP)

‘Neither leave nor die, but live here.’ Lessons from mobilisation in the Fos industrial area against pollution for the government of toxic risk societies
Austruy**, C. Barthélémy*, P. Chamaret**, X. Daumalin***, C. Gramaglia****, V. Granier**, V. Lavaud-Letilleuil*****, I. Berry-Chikhaoui*****
*             IECP, Fos-sur-mer, France
**           LPED, Marseilles University, France
***         TELEMME, Marseilles University, France
****       G-EAU, IRSTEA Montpellier, France
*****     ART-DEV, Montpellier University, France

The Fos industrial area, currently about 10 000 ha, was created in the 1970’s following the decision of an interministerial commission on regional development. Upheavals were fast and numerous. Instead of the Crau steppe and the Camargue wetlands nearby the towns of Fos-sur-mer and Port-Saint-Louis-du-Rhône, several heavy industrial plants such as steel and petrochemical ones, some classified as dangerous under the Seveso rules, were built. Large harbour basins were digged to receive freighters and tankers. Local landscapes and practices were severely affected.

Besides, a series of breaking off, spatial, social and political, impaired the links which related the Fos territory and its (former and new) residents. From the first months after the start of the plants, pollution generated strong concern and protest. As early as 1971, the administration had to create a new collegial organization, the S3PI[1], to restore dialogue between local stakeholders so technical solutions to reduce some of the industrial emissions could be discussed. Despite its relevance, the S3PI (similar organizations were to be reproduced in other French industrial areas later), had to face several difficulties as the economic crisis stroke. Claims against pollution became less a priority with the restructuring of the local industry and ongoing threats for jobs. However, the construction of a waste incinerator in the Fos area in the 2000’s for the benefit of the Marseilles municipality mainly generated another breaking off. Large demonstrations took place to oppose this new facility. Residents pointed at the lack of knowledge about the industry’s cumulative consequences on their environment and health. Under pressure, their representatives requested a territorial check-up. They also supported the creation of another organization, citizen-based, the IECP[2], whose aim is it to develop research on the chronic effects of contaminants ahead regulatory norms (setting up biomonitoring experiments) but also to push the administration towards the reinforcement of its actions in that domain.

Our objective is to reexamine the history of the Fos area industrialization and the breakings off it lead to, as well as the ways residents reacted and tried to cope through time with overwhelming constraints coming from the outside (we go back as far as the XIX th century to investigate former criticism triggered by first industrialization attempts, underlining continuities and discontinuities in claims about the territory’s qualities). One of the protesters’ slogans in the 2000’s was, as in the years 1830-1840 protests, ‘Neither leave nor die, but live here’ stressing their attachment to a place so heavily impacted by pollution that it had become a source of ontological insecurity (Giddens 1990), but also their determination to find means to defend what made it fit to inhabit (Freudenburg 1997; Mah 2012). We focus on the work done by the S3PI and IECP at two different periods of time, showing how they contributed, through public debate then co-construction of knowledge (which this interdisciplinary research aims at enacting), to the renewal of relations between scientists, decision makers, industrialists and civil society in the domain of toxic risks assessment and management. We would also want to, elaborating on actor-network theory and other recent developments of sociology of science, draw lessons from these innovative experiences, despite the imbalance of forces, for the government of societies which fate could be put in jeopardy by the ontological insecurity generated by pollution.

GIDDENS, A. 1994. The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity.
FREUDENBURG, W. R. 1997. “Contamination, Corrosion and the Social Order: An Overview.” Current Sociology 45(3): 19-39.
MAH, A. 2012 Industrial Ruination, Community, and Place, University of Toronto Press.

This research program is partly funded by the OHM Littoral Méditerranéen, Labex DRIHMM.

[1] Permanent office for the monitoring of pollution
[2] Eco-citizen institute for knowing pollution

‘Toxic assets’ and ‘toxics as assets’
Pankaj Sekhsaria, Maastricht University Science and Technology Studies

‘Toxic assets’, the term that defined the tail spin of the recent global economic crisis was coined and popularized by the founder of Countrywide Financial, Angelo Mozilo, who used the term ‘toxic’ to describe certain mortgage products in early 2006. ‘Toxic’ that has more generally been used in the environmental context, mainly as waste, was seen crossing into realm of finance and ‘toxic asset’ offers both an interesting metaphor on the one hand and an important commentary on the other.

The term however is the classical oxymoron. If it’s an asset, it is positive and has to be preserved. If it’s toxic it is best avoided, even better disposed. What does their juxtaposition in ‘toxic assets’, then imply? Is it a dichotomy of the real world or can it be dismissed merely as a play of words? The term appears to have made the boundary between financial and environmental risks unexpectedly and visibly porous. A similar porosity, albeit of lesser visibility, had also been created by the climate change debate – in the solution offered by transacting in ‘carbon credits’. Carbon, a kind of toxic waste was sought to be packaged as an asset.
A waste can become an asset for another system when it complete exits the host system. What happens then when we don’t try to reduce or remove carbon for the earth’s system and still try to monetize it? Can it really be a solution or will it only exacerbate the problem?

Seeing Dioxins: the technological controversies in the anti-incineration movement in Guangzhou, China
Zhang Jieying
The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Solid waste pollution is one of the most serious environmental issues in China. Following the rise of consumerism, in 2004 China overtook the US as the world’s largest waste producer. Trying to relieve the problem of garbage, China developed plans for the construction of massive waste-to-energy incinerators. Such projects provoked a number of nationwide protests and campaigns. The activists are concerned that the pollutants, especially the toxic materials such as dioxins, a kind of POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants), released by incinerators will impact the environment and public health. This research focuses a critical eye to the anti-incineration movement in Guangzhou, China. Employing an anthropological methodology, I conducted my 16-month filedwork study in the city of Guangzhou, worked closely with a local anti-incineration NGO and a waste treatment technology research institution.

This project aims at gaining an understanding of the controversies on pollutants on the basis of an examination of the technological debates in this anti-incineration movement. In more specific terms, I will examine how the experts as well as the activists articulate their knowledge of garbage, dioxins and environmental risks, especially, how they demonstrate the toxicity of dioxins that are unseen and unperceivable. Further, I will explore how the activists challenge the “local appropriateness” of the incineration by employing their local knowledge. One objective of this research is to deepen the understandings of the problem of “universality and specialty” as well as the lay/expert dichotomy, which are the central concerns of anthropology and STS.