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Toxic Airs

Toxic Airs: Body, Place, Planet in Historical Perspective

James Rodger Fleming
Ann Johnson
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Toxic Airs
    Book Description:

    Toxic Airsbrings together historians of medicine, environmental historians, historians of science and technology, and interdisciplinary scholars to address atmospheric issues on a spectrum of scales from body to place to planet. The chapters analyze airborne and atmospheric threats posed to humans, and contributors demonstrate how conceptions of toxicity have evolved and how humans have both created and mitigated toxins in the air.Specific topics discussed include medieval beliefs in the pestilent breath of witches, malarial theory in India, domestic and military use of tear gas, Gulf War Syndrome, Los Angeles smog, automotive emissions control, the epidemiological effects of air pollution, transboundary air pollution, ozone depletion, the contributions of contemporary artists to climate awareness, and the toxic history of carbon "die"-oxide. Overall, the essays provide a wide-ranging historical study of interest to students and scholars of many disciplines.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7952-4
    Subjects: General Science, Environmental Science, Technology

Table of Contents

    (pp. ix-xvi)

    This edited volume examines toxic airs from the Middle Ages to the recent past on a variety of scales, from lungs to locales and from places to planetary processes. Chapters shed new light on the myriad ways that humans have feared and then made sense of the air they breathe and the climates in which they live. Such understandings have often opened avenues for intervention in the air, improving it for ourselves and sometimes making it more frightening for perceived enemies. The authors examine how cultural assumptions, technologies, and policies were formulated, often in an atmosphere of crisis, and typically...

    (pp. 1-22)
    Brenda Gardenour Walter

    “Fair is foul, and foul is fair, / Hover through the fog and filthy air.”¹ So chant the Weird Sisters in the first act of Shakespeare’sMacbethas they stare into the vaporous gloom, gleaning premonitions of horrific events yet to unfold. Although appearing only sporadically, the witches drive the play’s narrative, much as the winds they command drive sailors and their ships at sea to be “tempest-tost.”² The parallel between the haggard and foreboding witch and the violent and pestilent wind is a commonplace found in many of Shakespeare’s sources. Perhaps the most famous is Holinshed’sChronicles of England,...

  3. 2 SURGEON REGINALD ORTON AND THE PATHOLOGY OF DEADLY AIR: The Contest for Context in Environmental Health
    (pp. 23-49)
    Christopher Hamlin

    The works on cholera of the Anglo-Indian military surgeon Reginald Orton (1790–1835) and of like-minded successors over the remainder of the nineteenth century have much to tell us about why issues involving air and disease have remained troublesome in our own era, both as matters for scientific study and as issues for public response. The goal of this chapter is to explore the problematic status of the atmosphere as a cause of ill health in Western medical heritage before the contemporary era of environmental awareness. From the reception of Orton’s work, and that of others engaged in analogous projects,...

  4. 3 BETTER TO CRY THAN DIE? The Paradoxes of Tear Gas in the Vietnam Era
    (pp. 50-76)
    Roger Eardley-Pryor

    Tear gas, a nonlethal chemical weapon typically used for riot control, presents several paradoxes. Tear gas is not a gas but a micropulverized powder that causes uncontrollable tears, irritated breathing, and escalating pain when inhaled in sufficient concentrations. Although classified as nonlethal, powerful tear gases burn skin, induce nausea, and, though uncommon, can result in death by asphyxiation.¹ Tear gas’s greatest paradox, however, may be that American police forces face few regulations on its use, and citizens can purchase military-grade supplies over the internet, yet international protocols forbid the use of tear gas as a weapon in war, despite its...

  5. 4 TOXIC SOLDIERS: Chemicals and the Bodies of Gulf War Syndrome Sufferers
    (pp. 77-94)
    Susie Kilshaw

    Sufferers of Gulf War syndrome worry about the risky and dangerous atmosphere to which they were exposed during the war and the lingering consequences of that exposure. The majority of veterans has a broad understanding of and anxiety about the role of chemicals in their illness, not only through chemical weapons, chemical warfare, and past hazards specific to their Gulf War experience but through enhanced sensitivity to ever-present (and ever-changing) toxins in their local environments. The exposures of the Gulf War in 1991 have left these soldiers vulnerable and thus they are left at risk of potentially hazardous chemicals they...

    (pp. 95-108)
    Peter Brimblecombe

    The way chemists understand urban air pollution and how they relate this understanding to policymakers underwent great transformations in the twentieth century. These changes cannot be simplified to notions such as: “pollution got worse,” because in many cities the concentrations of aggressive primary pollutants such as fly ash, smoke, and sulfur dioxide actually declined very substantially. The last, for example, decreased by more than an order of magnitude in some cities during the last half of the century, largely because coal was no longer burned in large quantities.¹ Changes in fuel sources—for example, from coal to petroleum—refocused pollution...

  7. 6 CHASING MOLECULES: Chemistry and Technology for Automotive Emissions Control
    (pp. 109-126)
    Richard Chase Dunn and Ann Johnson

    What air could be more obviously toxic than the tailpipe emission of an automobile? Everyone knows automobiles produce hazardous air pollution, whether as the components of visible smog or by emitting invisible, deadly carbon monoxide, or as other less well-known emissions. Yet many adults in the industrialized world depend on or even love their cars; pollution has not frightened most drivers out of their vehicles. The challenge of reducing air pollution without reducing miles driven is real, and engineers have been addressing it since the 1950s. However, the story of emissions reduction is not a simple one in which scientists...

  8. 7 CHESS LESSONS: Controversy and Compromise in the Making of the EPA
    (pp. 127-151)
    Jongmin Lee

    On November 29, 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson visited the Aspen Institute, a nonprofit organization, to begin a weeklong commemoration of the EPA’s fortieth anniversary and celebration of its accomplishments on DDT, acid rain, recycling, unleaded gasoline, secondhand smoke, vehicle efficiency and emissions controls, environmental justice, toxic substances control, cleaner water, and public engagement. One of the EPA’s first large-scale national projects had been the Community Health and Environmental Surveillance System, or CHESS, which attempted to combine epidemiological research and air quality monitoring. CHESS was an ambitious project, covering eight different geographic regions of the country and...

  9. 8 A HEIGHTENED CONTROVERSY: Nuclear Weapons Testing, Radioactive Tracers, and the Dynamic Stratosphere
    (pp. 152-180)
    E. Jerry Jessee

    On February 2, 1951, Merril Eisenbud, an industrial hygienist at the Atomic Energy Commission’s (AEC) Health and Safety Laboratory (HASL) in New York State, received an urgent phone call from his colleague Henry Blair of the University of Rochester. The Eastman-Kodak Company in upstate New York had just notified Blair that the company’s film manufacturing plant had detected an abnormal rise in radiation in their air intake filters following a thunderstorm. The levels of radiation were apparently not elevated enough to warrant health concerns, but they did threaten the films being produced at the plant. Eisenbud immediately suspected the source...

  10. 9 BURNING RAIN: The Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution Project
    (pp. 181-207)
    Rachel Rothschild

    When fossil fuels are burned, certain pollutants released into the atmosphere can increase the acidity of precipitation and cause severe damage to ecosystems.¹ These pollutants can travel great distances until they are eventually deposited in rain, snow, fog, or dust. Collectively known as “acid rain,” these phenomena have been observed throughout the world, but have particularly affected Scandinavia. In this chapter, I assess the development of the first international study to examine the atmospheric transport of pollutants that cause acid precipitation: the long-range transboundary air pollution project. A group of meteorologists conceived the idea for such a project in May...

    (pp. 208-229)
    Matthias Dörries

    During the early 1970s, public perceptions of ozone underwent a profound transformation. Previously regarded primarily as an annoying result of urban pollution, ozone became a molecule that protected the earth from harmful radiation. This new awareness of the role of the atmosphere in supporting life on Earth was part of a more general trend in which atmospheric scientists transformed disconnected studies of city pollution into a national and international network of work on global atmospheric pollution. Ozone was central to this transformation, as it initiated political and public debates about the use of technologies and substances that apparently affected the...

  12. 11 WHO OWNS THE AIR? Contemporary Art Addresses the Climate Crisis
    (pp. 230-250)
    Andrea Polli

    The accelerating crisis in climate change and the realization that humans are the primary cause of this change has raised questions about ownership and responsibility. Who “owns” the climate change crisis, and who is responsible for mitigating and reversing it if possible? The overwhelming response to these questions by governments internationally has been to propose a market solution, in essence, to sell the atmosphere. This chapter explores the idea of air for sale from economic, political, and cultural arts perspectives, and asks, “Can art impact the science and policy of climate change?”

    In 1644 Evangelista Torricelli, the Italian physicist, mathematician,...

  13. 12 CARBON “DIE”-OXIDE: The Personal and the Planetary
    (pp. 251-270)
    James Rodger Fleming

    Carbon dioxide is currently one of the most feared molecules on the planet. In trace amounts it is increasingly being linked to climate change. In much more concentrated amounts it is a narcotic or asphyxiating gas, known in antiquity asspiritus letalisand as “mephitic air” by early chemists; it has been employed, monitored, and controlled in modern times by anesthetists, brewers, butchers, divers, submariners, and astronauts, to mention but a few. Inhaled and exhaled in every breath, generated by human activity, and emitted in geologic fissures, carbon “die”-oxide has filled the dark crevasses and death valleys of the world,...