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Powerless Science?

Powerless Science?: Science and Politics in a Toxic World

Soraya Boudia
Nathalie Jas
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 290
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  • Book Info
    Powerless Science?
    Book Description:

    In spite of decades of research on toxicants, along with the growing role of scientific expertise in public policy and the unprecedented rise in the number of national and international institutions dealing with environmental health issues, problems surrounding contaminants and their effects on health have never appeared so important, sometimes to the point of appearing insurmountable. This calls for a reconsideration of the roles of scientific knowledge and expertise in the definition and management of toxic issues, which this book seeks to do. It looks at complex historical, social, and political dynamics, made up of public controversies, environmental and health crises, economic interests, and political responses, and demonstrates how and to what extent scientific knowledge about toxicants has been caught between scientific, economic, and political imperatives.

    eISBN: 978-1-78238-237-9
    Subjects: Political Science, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Figures and Tables
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction. The Greatness and Misery of Science in a Toxic World
    (pp. 1-26)
    Soraya Boudia and Nathalie Jas

    Twenty-five years after the Chernobyl disaster, the Fukushima catastrophe once again brings into sharp focus the risks imposed on all of humanity by certain technologies. An earthquake, followed by a tsunami, triggered a major international crisis, arousing fears of an unprecedented technological disaster. The nuclear explosion ultimately did not take place, and the worst seems to have been avoided. But significant quantities of radioactive material, iodine 131 and caesium 137 in particular, were released into the atmosphere by three of the six reactors that partially melted. Moreover, large quantities of seawater that had served to cool down the reactors were...


    • CHAPTER 1 Precaution and the History of Endocrine Disruptors
      (pp. 29-45)
      Nancy Langston

      On 6 May 2010 the American President’s Cancer Panel released a bombshell in its annual report, stating that 41 percent of Americans will get cancer in their lifetimes. While efforts to fight cancer have focused on genetics, the report noted, “the true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated.” Carcinogens and other toxic chemicals “needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our nation’s productivity, and devastate American lives.”¹ The report recommended a precautionary approach to environmental carcinogens that would shift the burden of proof to industry. Rather than requiring the government or consumer to prove harm after a chemical...

    • CHAPTER 2 The Political Life of Mutagens: A History of the Ames Test
      (pp. 46-64)
      Angela N.H. Creager

      In 1973, Bruce N. Ames, a professor of biochemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, introduced a new assay for use in evaluating carcinogenicity. The test relied on four mutant strains ofSalmonellathat Ames’s group had developed, drawing on years of experience using such bacteria in studies of metabolism and mutagenesis. These strains were deficient in their ability to synthesize a particular amino acid, histidine, so they required this supplement in the growth media. Each of the four strains could be used to genetically screen compounds inducing a specific kind of mutation in the DNA sequence. These registered as...

    • CHAPTER 3 DES, Cancer, and Endocrine Disruptors: Ways of Regulating, Chemical Risks, and Public Expertise in the United States
      (pp. 65-94)
      Jean-Paul Gaudillière

      On 17 July 1979The New York Timesannounced that the New York State Supreme Court found the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly responsible for the vaginal cancer affecting Joyce Bichler and awarded the young woman $500,000 in compensation.¹ The New York state ruling was the first legal decision recognizing that pharmaceutical firms, rather than physicians or regulatory authorities, were liable for the adverse consequences of the medical uses of diethylstilbestrol (DES). This analog of estrogen had been prescribed to millions of pregnant women in the United States as a safety measure against the risk of miscarriage for thirty years, until...

    • CHAPTER 4 Managing Scientific and Political Uncertainty: Environmental Risk Assessment in a Historical Perspective
      (pp. 95-112)
      Soraya Boudia

      On the evening of Monday, 28 February 1983, a sumptuous and meticulously organized dinner took place in Washington, D.C., on the initiative of the National Research Council (NRC). The list of 129 handpicked guests was drawn up with the collaboration of Edwin Behrens of the American Industrial Health Council. This list included twenty-seven key figures from the U.S. Congress, including several senators, and twenty-four industrial personalities, including Richard Leet, chairman of Amoco Chemicals Corporation; Barclay Morlay, chairman and executive director of Stauffer Chemical Company; and Hunter Henry, chairman of Dow Chemical Company.¹ With this event, the NRC inaugurated a new...


    • CHAPTER 5 Work, Bodies, Militancy: The “Class Ecology” Debate in 1970s Italy
      (pp. 115-133)
      Stefania Barca

      During the two and a half centuries since the industrial revolution, health risks in the factory have not been eliminated, or even radically reduced, compared to the nineteenth century: they have simply changed.¹ Older pathologies have been replaced by newer ones mostly derived from the large-scale spread of organic chemistry, especially in the petrochemical sector, and the marketing of an impressive quantity of products with high content of CMR substances. Workers’ bodies have thus become sites of social struggles that have, on occasion, led to legislative reform in the broader field of environmental policy (Elling 1986; Rosner and Markowitz 1986;...

    • CHAPTER 6 What Kind of Knowledge is Needed about Toxicant-Related Health Issues? Some Lessons Drawn from the Seveso Dioxin Case
      (pp. 134-151)
      Laura Centemeri

      Dioxins, a class of chemical contaminants produced in both natural and industrial processes, were discovered in the late 1950s and have been extensively studied since the early 1970s. The majority of studies have focused on the most toxic congener, 2,3,7,8-TCDD, simply called dioxin,¹ with much toxicology, biochemistry, and epidemiology research having been aimed at determining its effects on humans, in particular its carcinogenic effects. Nevertheless, despite thirty years of intensive research, exactly how dangerous dioxin is remains a controversial issue. In 1997 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified TCDD as a group 1 carcinogen based on limited...

    • CHAPTER 7 From Suspicious Illness to Policy Change in Petrochemical Regions: Popular Epidemiology, Science, and the Law in the United States and Italy
      (pp. 152-169)
      Barbara L. Allen

      Louisiana’s chemical corridor (United States) and northern Italy’s Porto Marghera chemical region are both sites of long-term, highly visible citizen struggles. In both locations the debates about, and the shaping of, environmental health knowledge related to toxicants was key to the emergence of the controversy as well as its outcome. This chapter examines these dynamics, particularly those of citizen-expert alliances, to develop an understanding of the construction of policy-relevant or “actionable” science.

      Specifically, my research focuses on the intersection of citizen activism, environmental health science, the public use of science, industrial regulation, and policy change related to toxicants in petrochemical...

    • CHAPTER 8 Guinea Pigs Go to Court: Epidemiology and Class Actions in Taiwan
      (pp. 170-192)
      Paul Jobin and Yu-Hwei Tseng

      This chapter describes the first two major cases of industrial diseases brought to justice in Taiwan, with the support of an original citizen mobilization and a network of lawyers. The first case was brought in the north of the island near Taipei. The 450 plaintiffs had been exposed to a wide range of organic solvents like trichloroethylene and other toxins while they were working for the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), a U.S. manufacturer of television sets. More than a thousand people identified with this case have developed various sorts of cancer. The second case was brought near Tainan, in...


    • CHAPTER 9 Reckless Laws, Contaminated People: Science Reveals Legal Shortcomings in Public Health Protections
      (pp. 195-214)
      Carl F. Cranor

      Based on the analysis of the U.S. law, this chapter argues that a much more systemic approach with appropriate premarket testing is needed to reduce exposures to toxicants. I describe the contamination of citizens, sketching some findings from developmental toxicology. I review failures of reckless postmarket laws and diagnose some of these failures. Learning from the ethics of medical experimentation and premarket laws, I suggest more prudent legal structures.

      The chapter first highlights that the adverse health effects of toxicants are much wider than cancer. People are at risk for reproductive effects, immune system dysfunction, and neurological problems, among others....

    • CHAPTER 10 Untangling Ignorance in Environmental Risk Assessment
      (pp. 215-233)
      Scott Frickel and Michelle Edwards

      This chapter examines the regulatory response to suspected chemical hazards in New Orleans, Louisiana, following the city’s catastrophic flooding from Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. For the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the year-long response represented an unprecedented mobilization of regulatory science, generating over 400,000 laboratory analyses of soil and flood sediment. Analysis of the resulting data, the policy frameworks that guided the collection and organization of that data, and the agency’s subsequent claims about the relative absence of risk to returning city residents reveal some of the ways in which risk assessment in the U.S. environmental regulatory system is deeply...

    • CHAPTER 11 Low-Dose Toxicology: Narratives from the Science-Transcience Interface
      (pp. 234-253)
      Sheldon Krimsky

      Uncertainties associated with low-dose exposures to chemicals that are known to be hazardous at high doses were probably being raised at the dawn of human civilization when Homo sapiens began distinguishing among edible, near edible, and poisonous plants. The study of toxicology began around the sixteenth century with the writings of an Austrian physician and contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci, named Philip von Hohenheim, who practiced “chemical medicine.” Hohenheim is more popularly known as Paracelsus, a name he adopted to elevate him above a prominent Roman physician named Celsus. Paracelsus is known to have said: “All things are poison and...

    • CHAPTER 12 Unruly Technologies and Fractured Oversight: Toward a Model for Chemical Control for the Twenty-First Century
      (pp. 254-268)
      Jody A. Roberts

      The story of chemical control in the twentieth century boils down to a single paradox: the more “innovative” chemists have proven to be in manufacturing and manipulating matter, the more unpredictable their chemistries became. Standard histories of chemistry recount the evolution of tools—physical and conceptual—that allowed chemists (broadly speaking) to continue an uninterrupted progression in their abilities to control matter at the molecular level leading from early efforts to mix, combine, and purify the elements of nature and leading to the eventual synthesis of wholly new materials previously unknown or seemingly impossible.¹ Our world is now largely a...

  9. Notes on Contributors
    (pp. 269-273)
  10. Index
    (pp. 274-280)