Toxicity in the 21st century
Location Bowland North Seminar Room 2
Date and Start Time 28 Jul, 2018 at 09:30
Sessions 2


  • Annamaria Carusi (University of Sheffield) email
  • Tom Widger (Durham University) email

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Short abstract

Toxicology has a long history. With unprecedented levels and combinations of chemicals in bodies and environments, and high industrial and political stakes in this domain, this panel gathers critiques of traditional approaches to managing toxins, and the articulation of alternative approaches.

Long abstract

The 20th century saw unprecedented levels of chemicals in the environment, products, foods a vast number of chemicals and chemical mixtures about which we are largely ignorant (EDF 1997). The 20th century was a 'new age of toxicity' (Cronon 2010), and there is certainly no sign of this abating in the 21st, with serious implications for human and animal health, and for the environment. The nature and actions of industrially produced chemicals challenge deep seated traditional conceptions of poisons, as well as the methods, tools and technologies, and broad approaches for testing and regulating them. With high industrial and political stakes in the science of toxicology and the governance of chemicals, this is a domain where science, nature and society are inextricably interconnected.

This panel invites papers that analyse the current situation and advance new and emerging trends in toxicology,, including (but not limited to):

— alternative scientific and regulatory approaches in social, economic and political context 

— histories and politics of toxicology

— feminist critiques of toxicology

— toxicology in cultural context

— local and global toxicologies

— citizen activism and toxicology

— technologies and toxicology

— human and non-human animals and toxicology


Cronon, W., 2010. Foreword: The Pain of a Poisoned World. In Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan. Washington, D.C.: Washington University Press, pp. ix-xii.

EDF (Environmental Defence Fund) 1997. Toxic Ignorance: The Continuing Absence of Basic Health Testing for Top-selling Chemicals in the United States.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


What is a poison? Disambiguation and ethics in the agrochemical industry

Author: Tom Widger (Durham University) email
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Short abstract

What is a poison? I argue that for anthropologists, poison emerges from, and captures, ambiguity. I trace this idea, first, to the poisons contained in gifts and, second, to the poisons produced by industrial capitalism.

Long abstract

What is a poison? I argue that for anthropologists, poison emerges from, and captures, ambiguity - much as pollution emerges from, and captures, disorder. I trace this idea, first, to the poisons contained in gifts and, second, to the poisons produced by industrial capitalism. I locate the ambiguities of both in the Greek concept of the pharmakon, the remedy/poison, which I suggest offers a limited model for understanding what makes a poison for people working at the source of many contemporary poisons - the agrochemical industry. Drawing from my participation in a meeting of agrochemical scientists in Berlin in 2014, I show how for my informants, who subscribed to a sixteenth-century revision of the pharmakon concept, poisons existed unambiguously in the world. I use the agrochemists' theory as a starting point for thinking about poison as a problem of magnitude - a poison is that which demands difficult choices by its sheer force of presence, not whether it is present or absent. This does not constitute a theory of poison but does offer grounds for thinking through the contingencies of how people deal with poison in local contexts.

Toxic technology: a risk discourse on agrochemicals in Cameroon

Author: Annika Witte (University of Goettingen) email
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Short abstract

This paper analyses the risk discourse on the toxicity of agrochemicals in Cameroon. It considers who the risk agents are, what knowledge they draw on and who they accord the blame. It looks at the activities through which the risk is promoted and that seek to regulate it.

Long abstract

While risk discourses on agrochemicals are nothing new in Europe, this paper analyses an evolving risk discourse on the toxicity of agrochemicals in Cameroon. Following a relational and social-constructivist perspective on risks, this paper considers who the agents are that establish agrochemicals as a health and environmental risk, what (global) knowledge they draw on to make their case and most importantly who they accord the blame. Furthermore, the paper highlights the global connections that are visible in this risk discourse that bears resemblance to lobbying strategies of the international chemical industry. In Cameroon, it is not only environmental NGOs who warn of the risk of agrochemicals but also agents of the Ministry of Agriculture - a ministry that also promotes their usage. This paper shows how these agents seek to regulate the use of pesticides and herbicides through trainings and the activities of a "phytosanitary brigade". As this analysis shows, the major problem to them is not the use per se but the misuse. Responsibility for potential damages is attributed to the ignorance, laziness or greed of farmers. The paper is based on recent ethnographic fieldwork in Bamenda within the frame of the UrbanFoodPlus research project.

Grounding the data: community-based toxicology in Northern Alberta, Canada

Author: Sarah Blacker (Technical University of Munich) email
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Short abstract

This paper considers how a collision of evidence practices—toxicology and Indigenous Traditional Knowledge—can bring together different ways of knowing about the presence of contamination and its effects for Indigenous people living upstream of northern Alberta's oil industry.

Long abstract

One of the most important byproducts of Alberta's oil industry are tailings ponds, which are engineered dam and dyke systems that contain the waste products of the bitumen extraction process. Occupying more than 200 square kilometres, tailings ponds contain 1.2 trillion litres of water contaminated with substances such as bitumen, naphthenic acids, cyanide, and heavy metals. Since 2010, tailings ponds have leaked millions of litres of contaminated water into the Athabasca river. The river is an important source of drinking water and food for those who live in its watershed, particularly Indigenous communities.

This paper considers an alternative approach to carrying out toxicology studies in the region: a Community-Based Monitoring program in Alberta that uses a "three-track" methodology presenting toxicology data in three distinct forms. The first track collects standard Western scientific toxicology measurements, the second track documents the presence of contamination through Indigenous Traditional Knowledge (TK), and the third track synthesizes the first two forms of evidence, "grounding" the toxicology data in the TK. I focus on negotiations between toxicology practices and TK, highlighting how the TK lends to toxicology a method for measuring change over time by directing practices of sampling as well as through the interpretation of data collected.

This paper engages with recent STS scholarship on the politics of measurement, focusing on the generative possibilities of a methodology designed to contribute to decolonizing work in science that highlights conflict between knowledges and renders these tensions productive as an epistemological meeting point.

Chemicals in the 21st century: morphing models, blurring boundaries

Author: Annamaria Carusi (University of Sheffield) email
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Short abstract

Chemical safety testing is currently under intense pressure, both scientifically and politically. As the domain undergoes fundamental change, three shifts are prominent: the status of animals as models; the boundaries between organism and environment; and the scientific publication.

Long abstract

Chemical safety testing is a domain currently under intense pressure, both from the increasingly complex nature of chemical interactions with bodies and the environment, and from socio-political forces. This paper considers the way in which traditional toxicology is shifting from an approach based on organisms to one based on molecular pathways using a wide array of alternative methods. In this paper, I show that efforts at this time are concentrated on prising apart old relationships between various kinds of biological, experimental and social entities, and as this occurs, new co-constitutive inter-relationships between chemical, biological and social entities are being forged. Signs of this occurring in three areas are discussed: the shifting status of animals as models; the blurring of boundaries between the organism and the environment; and the shifting boundaries and forms of scientific publication and the social arrangements around them.

The materiality of invisibility: on making EDCs into actionable objects

Author: Mariana Rios Sandoval (University of Amsterdam) email
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Short abstract

Invisibility is often portrayed as something that makes endocrine disrupting chemicals difficult to grasp. I will argue that sometimes invisibility is far from being an obstacle for the apprehension of EDCs, but that it can rather be used to turn EDCs into objects about which something can be done.

Long abstract

'Invisibility' is often portrayed as something that makes endocrine disrupting chemicals difficult to grasp. Often the term invisibility is used to communicate that EDCs are slippery objects: these are pervasive and invisible molecules, with uncertain effects and complex mechanisms of action that defy the current toxicological paradigm 'the rule makes the poison'. My focus in this presentation is on the way people deal with EDCs' invisibility in order to make them into objects about which something can be done in the realms of politics and everyday life. Using insights from my PhD research on the way young environmental activists in France rearrange everyday life and mobilize politically in order to fight off EDCs, I will draw attention to how EDCs' invisibility is situated in a set of relationships and practices. By doing so I aim to throw light at what EDCs, which often serve as a proxy for all ordinary exposures to toxic chemicals, or the toxicity of everyday life, do for young environmentally conscious people. A focus on the materiality of invisibility -on its practices, relations and understandings- reveals that rather than being an obstacle for the apprehension of EDCs, invisibility is used to give the problem of EDCs size, tangibility and relevance, thus turning EDCs into actionable objects.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.