A Symposium on Exposure, Entanglement, and Endurance

Toxic: A Symposium on Exposure, Entanglement and Endurance at Yale March 3-4, 2016.


(In response to presentations by Naa Oyo A. Kwate and Elizabeth Hoover; and Jody Roberts in absentia)

Chloe Taft, Yale University

What is TOXIC?

A central claim of this morning’s presentations is that we must understand toxicity not as an objective thing or chemical compound in isolation, but rather as an accretive and compounding process defined in relation to human actors, structural inequalities, and material landscapes and bodies.

It is difficult not to think of Flint in the context of this conference and these papers. This semester I am teaching two undergrad seminars: History of Housing in America, and American Wastelands and Political Ecology. While these two topics may not seem on first blush to be directly linked, the subject of Flint has repeatedly come up in both.

A dominant media narrative of the crisis is that this is a story of government neglect that began two years ago when the water source was switched.

But negligence implies inaction. The story of Flint, like that of so many other toxic spaces we are discussing today, is instead one of long histories of political, social, and spatial transformations, often by design rather than as a result of an absence of intervention.

Thinking in terms of what Naa Oyo Kwate identified as “what puts you at risk for risk,” in Flint we can look:

  • at least back to the toxicity of the Jim Crow South, and the discriminatory labor policies that African-Americans who moved North to work in the auto plants faced;
  • state legitimated practices of redlining and racial covenants that trapped poor and working-class blacks in substandard homes in the urban core;
  • federally funded urban renewal projects that included cutting highways through low-income neighborhoods of color;
  • while white middle-class families used those same federally funded highways to escape to subsidized housing in the suburbs (though we rarely call those single-family homes subsidized).

As Kwate so clearly outlines in conceiving of the street itself as toxic, these are compounding factors. Toxicity is not just chemicals, but state policies and layers of structural inequality. She sees toxicity in peoples’ everyday encounters with law enforcement, liquor ads, low-wage work, and racism. Jody Roberts, in his blog post, finds toxicity in gentrification. And Elizabeth Hoover highlights the toxicity of EPA remediation and containment policies, fish advisories, and the legacies and ongoing impacts of settler colonialism.

The toxic landscape of urban segregation is a fundamental root of the water crisis in Flint. What does it mean then for the governor to call this Flint’s Katrina – as if it were a natural disaster, and not a social one (though we all know Katrina was not “natural” either)? As if there is no deeper legacy of state action and inaction that is recorded in the segregated landscape and in marginalized bodies?

Hoover’s invocation of the Akwesasne Mohawks’ “seven generations philosophy” – that decisions made today should have people in mind seven generations from now – is so resonant here in drawing attention to the longer histories that make up our present and future. And as Roberts highlights, this extends backwards as well. Memory informs present experience.

Others, including those at this conference, have led us to think not of ruins, but of ruination; not of waste, but of wasting.

1. How might we think of the toxic in these active and ongoing terms? And where is the agency located when we do so?

These papers suggest a multiplicity of sources.

Roberts offers us the phrase “narrating toxics.” As he makes clear, the safe/toxic dichotomy is as much an expression of politics as it is of science, just as terms such as “blight” likewise describe less of an objective condition than act as a political weapon. Perceptions of toxicity change based on one’s positionality. Do we best think of toxicity, then, as a social construction, something that must be brought into being? As something that is recounted and performed, as it was in community responses to Superfund cleanup outside Philadelphia that Roberts wrote about? In each of these sites, how is the discourse of toxicity wielded and by whom?

Roberts is particularly interested in the entanglement of chemical and political, material and cultural legacies. We can think of toxicity in terms of the ways in which policies – whether for housing, public health, criminal justice, or environmental protection – are administered and enacted in specific ways. As the panelists have made clear, and I noted in reference to Flint, toxicity in this sense is emplaced and embodied. It has a stickiness to it.

Each of these two frameworks – of narration and of emplacement or embodiment –still depend on human actors. But what happens when the toxic is itself given agency?

Rather than think of toxicity as a proxy for human action (or inaction), how does the toxic take on a life of its own as it infiltrates social, ecological, economic, and political life? Human actors strive to interpret, define, or contain the toxic, but how are they also acted upon? Or as Hoover put it, what happens when “the body becomes part of the Superfund site;” and in the words of her interlocutor, “the dump is in us?”

2. What is the duality of contamination that emerges when we think of toxicity as an ongoing and morphing process?

Toxicity, illness, violence, and despair are made material in the landscape and in bodies; and at the same time the panelists show that these are spaces of resistance, pride, and cultural preservation.

For Kwate, the street itself is a disease agent, but it is also a platform for community engagement. Hoover shows that Mohawk land that is contaminated by industrial run-off as well as settler colonialism is at the same time vital, life giving, and the source of social activism. Roberts finds in Philadelphia simultaneous stories of social networks being torn apart and of community strength.

How is this multiplicity of toxicity perceived by those who live within this contradiction? Is toxicity always a weapon? When can it become a resource? What is the relationship between toxicity and community formation?

3. Finally there is a question of policy.

All three of these panelists are directly engaged with public policy and public health interventions. They transform what are often invisible and hidden toxins into visible action and articulation. Kwate calls this a “politics of sight.”

Yet their approaches come from and draw on very different disciplinary and professional contexts: chemistry, medicine, psychology, anthropology, public health, environmental science...

What is the relationship between the university or foundation and the on-the-ground activism that they negotiate? What are the disciplinary/professional barriers they face, and what are the opportunities? How does one work within funding structures that privilege individual responsibility and intervention when these presentations so clearly show that toxicity is a structural condition? How do you map toxicity if it is an ongoing process? How can we imagine borrowing from each other’s perspectives or disciplinary toolkits?

Narrating a Past for New Futures

Jody Roberts, Chemical Heritage Foundation

The takeaway: How do we narrate stories that help us to understand how our remaking of this world, and ourselves, is not over, but a process; a process open to our efforts of remaking.

Here’s the setup: When I first began narrating toxics I told simple stories. They had simple questions (do you know what’s in that plastic container?). They had simple plots (we’ve only recently started to understand how these chemicals interact with our bodies, but it changes everything). They gave me a simple role (there’s Jody again, telling us how toxic everything is; why’s he such a downer?). They had simple morals (Stay away from plastic! Don’t eat that! Buy this instead!).

These simple stories had an obvious, fatal flaw: their simplicity failed to match the complexity of the world around me.

A few quick examples:

In 2009 and 2010, we took advantage of the possible reform of the U.S.’s framework for chemical management as an opportunity to unpack the construction of a system for regulation that is simultaneously invisible as well as essential across the broadest swath of our nation’s commercial industries. Rather than digging into the debates around the Toxic Substances Control Act that pitted industry lobbies on one side (the ACC, SOCMA, e.g.) and environmental and health advocates on the other (EDF, the Safer Chemicals Healthy Families Coalition, e.g.) we wanted to experiment with how historical methodologies might disrupt an ongoing and entrenched dialogue in ways that might provide a shift in how the problems and solutions are perceived. We wanted to know how the architects of the law and those responsible for its implementation understood their experience with TSCA. What did they learn about its successes and failures? What was it like to be charged with implementing a law that was widely deemed broken before it even became real?

Sarasota Herald Tribune, 30 October 1977, Page 1.

Sarasota Herald Tribune, 30 October 1977, Page 1.

Here’s what we learned along the way: what counts as “safe” or “toxic” is as much a result of science as it is politics. Right: no surprise there. But the shifting nature of those two pillars combined with the concrete, if momentary, inscription that the law produces creates a jarring effect that is far more disruptive than the process by which these two worlds are brought into alignment. The politics of management are different now. The science, too, has changed in remarkable ways (key indicators, endpoints, and tools for understanding risk, exposure, hazard, etc.). But while the science and politics have changed, the law itself has remained remarkably unchanged due to factors not simply attributable to one of these pillars.

A second experiment: how does historical memory and experience frame one’s experience of and approach to superfund cleanups? Working with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, we have been engaged with a community north of Philadelphia in the midst of a second superfund cleanup of asbestos waste. The goal has been to find ways to highlight the different historical frames brought by community members to the issue to better understand how risk is framed, what cleanup means, and what success would look like.  Again, perhaps not surprisingly, differences across the community emerged based on: how long the individual or family has lived in the community; what section of the community the individual lives (or lived) in [the community is cut by three different local municipalities of varying wealth, etc.]; and the proximity of the waste site(s). We then experimented with bringing these stories back to the community: through a small exhibition, newspaper insert, and series of original one act plays based on the interviews. Community members came to hear (simultaneously) stories about the joys of sled riding down white hills in summer; fears of increased gentrification and loss of home; and Mary Ambler, the heroine namesake of the community who saved dozens following a trainwreck in the 19th century in conversation with community activists about their responsibility to their neighbors.

What we’re learning: material and cultural legacy are deeply entangled in this community (and those spanning the rustbelt). What is toxic comes with answers that are multiple and simultaneous, and not easy to prioritize. Endurance is not a passive exercise, but an active pursuit of something else…something after.

Leslie Nevon Holden and Pat Lamborn in The White Mountains; photo credit: Conrad Erb, 2015

Leslie Nevon Holden and Pat Lamborn in The White Mountains; photo credit: Conrad Erb, 2015

Where I’m returning to: I take to heart the provocation provided by my colleague Nick Shapiro who suggests we avoid the low hanging fruit of toxicity to see what else may lie beyond. We are now asking: what is “toxic” a proxy for in these communities, histories, stories?

In my own story, I am returning, quite literally, home.

Photo credit, the author

Photo credit, the author

The experience of life on the brink remarkably reshaped how I thought about “the toxic”: what I knew; what needed to be done; what a post-toxic future might look like. But these experiences have also brought a renewed commitment to moving beyond both the simple narratives that I once used and the overly-simplistic dichotomies that informed them. Our entanglements endure. We are all exposed, but not equally. Escape is not an option, especially for many who are most commonly exposed. Our endurance must be an active one that sees beyond what is to what is becoming. For me, I need new narratives to begin reimagining what still could be. Denied the luxury of disengagement, how do we become more materially entangled in ways that are of this (molecular) world and not an imagined past one? How do we tell stories in which becoming less toxic means becoming with rather than without?

Essentially Late Industrial

Kim Fortun, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Ads from an American Chemistry Council campaign in the mid 2000s called essential2life, a "360(degree) communication effort" to show “how connected we all are and how central chemistry is to the health and growth of our nation.”

Ads from an American Chemistry Council campaign in the mid 2000s called essential2life, a "360(degree) communication effort" to show “how connected we all are and how central chemistry is to the health and growth of our nation.”

With many apologies for posting late…. I’ll wrap my comments here around the concept of “late industrialism,” which I’ve worked to empirically ground and theorize over the last few years – striving to weave environmental problems – particularly problems with toxics – into sociocultural theory. A key premise of this work is that late industrialism harbors a key contradiction: while characterized in notable and sobering ways by environmental degradation, it remains notably difficult to make environmental sense – to recognize, name and address environmental degradation as a defining problem of our times.  One way to explain this is by drawing out how “industrial logic” actively marginalizes and disavows environmental problems by privileging production and products – what goes on inside factory fence lines and our beloved electronics and plastics – while discounting polluting byproducts (what off gasses and leaks – what isn’t essential).  This explanation builds from a common argument in feminist and postcolonial theory: that systems of production (of goods and meaning) both produce and depend on subalterns – which can’t be articulated in dominant forms of representation. Environmental problems, then, are subaltern– systematically produced but disavowed by industrial logic. And these environmental problems (cultural as well as technological) – produce raced bodies: bodies that are different not because of some originary difference but because they live and come to be what they “are” in toxic conditions.  Exposure produces identity.  Context and bodies are entangled.  And context is always historically sedimented.  History endures, often in a nonlinear, hard to capture way akin to the action of toxics in bodies.

This, then, begs an important question: if, in late industrialism, environmental problems have trouble being articulated, how does this implicate articulations of race and inequality more generally? This is one of the question that I want pursue.


Alterlife in the Ongoing Aftermath: Exposure, Entanglement, Survivance

Michelle Murphy, University of Toronto

Global biomonitoring studies have failed to find a single living person without PCBs in their blood.  In a project that I am just beginning, I am researching the history and future of PCBs as a manifestation of transgenerational environmental violence in the Lower Great Lakes (composed of the region around Lake Ontario and Lake Erie), which is also the place that I have made home (Toronto) since 2001.  PCBs are a ubiquitous presence in human and nonhuman life in the Great Lakes, and at the same time their localized concentrations are the enfleshments of settler colonialism, environmental racism, capitalism and war.   PCBs are one of the rare chemicals that has had its manufacture banned not only in Canada and US, but globally. Yet they are still present as a “legacy chemical”; they remain built into the infrastructures of electrification, in mid-century buildings, and in sites of industrialization (particularly those that built engines or recycled paper), as well as industrial dumping.  PCBs are persistent organic pollutants, and as such they linger in lake sediments and soils, circulate in the atmosphere, and have spread past their localized emissions to become a globalized entity of capital extending across jurisdiction and into transgenerational time.    Epigenetic research on PCBs (like BPA, mercury and lead) suggests that exposures to these chemicals at low doses can create heritable changes to the metabolics of gene expression, changes to methylation patterns and histone arrangement that can then be passed intergenerationally to children, grandchildren and beyond.  Moreover, prebirth exposures to PCBs are associated with cognitive debilities across the life span.  Thus, PCBs manifest transgenerational chemical violence both through their persistence and their epigenetic and reproductive effects.

While I have been working as a historian of science and feminist STS scholar on the politics of chemical exposure science for some twenty years, in this project rooted in the region and relations in which I live, I am thinking through the decolonial and methodological stakes of my research in new ways that I am still trying to figure out.   Epigenetic and toxicological ways of investigating exposures render legible (and erase) the violence of industrial chemicals by tracking damage in bodies. Focused on collecting the data of damage, much hegemonic environmental biomedical research is entangled in the surveillance and pathologization of dispossessed communities, of black and indigenous youth, and of poor women, while state environmental monitoring is caught in permission to pollute regimes that purposively turn away from chemical violence.  What are other ways of researching exposure that refuse to reproduce damage narratives that pathologize?  Is it possible to create modes of attention for environmental science that reorient tothe histories and presences of chemical itineraries and their production in the infrastructures of settler colonialism, racism, and capitalism?     Might the study of exposure be oriented towards of the tracing of chemical relations that have already been built into the world, and that are enfleshing and unevenly entangling life forms in each others accumulations and miseries?  How might feminist STS offer alternative objects of concern to environmental science and politics? In committing to this question, I find inspiration in the work of Indigenous feminist scholar Eve Tuck who has called for “suspending damage” as a refusal to participation in “damage based research” that concentrates the scope of attention in the examination and dissection of bodies and biologies that are then reductively constituted as pathological and devalued, perpetuating the burdens of settler colonialand racist violence.  This refusal to re-enact damage based research is a challenge to the habits of environmental science, and at the same time generative to creating new kinds of research relations and questions.  Damage based logics run through the environmental epigenetic research that is being mobilized by researchers and communities to support understandings of transgenerational trauma caused by colonial and racist conditions. Studies of environmental epigenetic inheritance risk reinscribing race as inherited pathology, describing communities as perpetually diminished.  The refusal of damage based research is not a call to ignore pain, death, grief or politics, but an invitation to shine critical light on the infernal entanglements of the chemical relations of violence and accumulation, and at the same time to direct creative energy towards the alter-relations of continuing to live in landscapes that are also generative of other kinds of decolonial futurities. I call this project “Alterlife in the Ongoing Aftermath,” as a way to emphasize the particular histories of life already and continuingly altered, by the enfleshments of racist colonial capitalism on the Great Lakes, but also to orient towards the continued capacities to recompose relations to land and sociality, to survive and resist, to destroy some relations and support others, to become alter-wise in the aftermath of hostile conditions.  


The Past of Future Risks: Toxic Legacy and Waste Recycling

Soraya Boudia, University Paris Descartes

A recycling facility in China e-waste city of Guiyu. Photo: Chien-ming Chung

La Rochelle is a charming coastal town in the southwest of France, turned towards the Atlantic Ocean, rather far from the Bordeaux vineyards, which recently have become the theatre of several demonstrations against the massive use of pesticides. Its commitment to sustainable development policies has given the town a “green” image, a place where it is good to live in. However, moving of the tourist marina located in the city center to the commercial and industrial port area, the image of La Rochelle as experimental model of “sustainable city” in the future becomes clouded. There, in the town’s industrial west and working class neighborhoods, are concentrated its so-called Seveso sites, high risk facilities according to EU regulation: storage tanks for nitrate fertilizers and hydrocarbons as well as chemical company Rhodia’s “historic” factory, which has been taken over by the multinational corporation Solvay a few years ago. Environment activists supporting local communities protest against the high risk of explosion and oil pollution. At first glance, it seems to be the usual story: a classical situation of entangled environmental and social inequalities, local communities defending themselves against global corporations. Yet this case is illustrative on another level. Indeed, it showcases, in an exemplary manner, different forms of entanglement: first, between old pollution problems and new solutions addressing them, secondly, between a toxic industrial legacy and the promise of a sustainable future.

In October 2011, the giant company Solvay announced with great fanfare the opening of two recycling facilities for rare earths. One of which was on the La Rochelle site. Used in computers, mobile phones, electric vehicles, wind turbines, etc., rare earths elements are essential for strategic industry branches. With China being the world’s leading producer since the 1990s, supply in 17 different rare earths has become a critical political issue. Several western states feared the ever-raising prices and supplies interruption, particularly since the Chinese government has announced that it will limit its production and exportation. The United States and Australia announced the reopening of their old mines of rare earth minerals, while others, such as Solvay announced their commitment to a green economy with the development of recycling facilities. Solvay has issued many statements and highlighted research results supporting its innovative recycling policy. By this means, the company has strengthened its image as a leading “green” and responsible innovator keen to develop the industry of the future. However, four years later, on 16 January 2016, Solvay announced the upcoming closure of its two facilities that were just brought into service due to the collapse of rare earths prices on the international market. Farewell responsibility, innovation and “urban mines” of the future.

This case is just one of the many examples of companies publicly promising to exploit the new "urban mines" of used devices, particularly electronic waste. Such a commitment to recycling not only should have been a further step towards the new green economy markets but it should have also bring into being corporate promises of environmental and social responsibility. Yet, it was largely concealed that these new markets should not only treat present and future toxic waste but were sought to eliminate old toxic legacy from the industrial age. On the La Rochelle site, Rhodia, then Solvay, have stocked thousands of tons of toxic waste from its rare earths production for decades. Among other resources, rare earth production requires a particular ore, monazite, which also contains thorium. Consequently, in addition to their chemical toxicity, these wastes are low-level radioactive. Although these problems have been identified years ago, they are still not solved.

The failure of launching a new green recycling industry and the promise of the new urban mines, which would help eliminating both past and future waste, has faded away for the moment due to the lack of market profitability. And once again, tons of toxic waste continue to contaminate environment and bodies.

The case of the rare earth waste from old industries foreshadows what we can imagine for the future colossal masses of toxic waste containing rare earths, primarily used devices from electronic industry and from the renewable energy industry, such as photovoltaic panels and wind turbines. The amount of waste containing toxic substances such as heavy metals and plastics increases strongly. And since the failure of the urban mining of toxic waste and of the new markets of a “green” recycling industry, well-known strategies for dealing with problem have been chosen by industries with the complicity or incapacity of public authorities.

The first one consists of rendering damages to body and environment invisible. The many affairs about toxic substances have perfectly shown the mechanisms at work when institutional, social and political invisibility is produced. In cases of toxic industrial waste, however, this invisibility is accompanied – and aggravated – with the construction of collective amnesia in longue durée. In Europe, producing oblivion includes physically erasing the traces of industrial activities in the past from the landscape: storing toxic waste in abandoned mines and pits or burying it just some meters under the surface renders it invisible. These solutions are chosen with the perfect awareness that it does not stop continuous contamination of the soil and the people living on it. Erasing the traces also means transferring toxic waste, by legal or illegal means, to poorer areas, usually in Southern countries. So in fact, and for the moment, the development of waste recycling industry far from solving the problems perpetuates old risk practices with entangled temporalities of causes and effects.

Leaded Entanglements

Catherine Fennell, Columbia University

Catherine Fennell. Summer 2014, House Demolition, Detroit. Water is sprayed to suppress the potential spread of leaded dusts.

Catherine Fennell. Summer 2014, House Demolition, Detroit. Water is sprayed to suppress the potential spread of leaded dusts.

As the material turn turns along, it has also turned out concept metaphors through which scholars interrogate humans' relationship to a world pulsating with non-human entities. One of them -- entanglement -- underscores just how much any discrete thing's properties expand beyond the surfaces that house them and become caught up in those trailing off other things. These vibrant things then gather persons and other matter into meshworks or assemblages. Here, humans do not so much inhabit the world as they emerge as the effects of their entanglements with dense and interlocking entities whose unpredictable resonances have force and efficacy in that world (1). For scholars preoccupied with obsolete built environments, entanglement seems to be especially good to think with. It highlights human contact with a host of substances that make up these environments, even as it nudges us to consider how these substances will unfurl within places defined by neglect and decay.

Take lead, a metal that humans have long prized in building projects. For centuries, people have been drinking from leaded pipes, sleeping under leaded roofs, and moving across leaded floors. In the United States, house paints have thrown children directly into this potent neurotoxin's path. Consumer appetites for bright domestic interiors grew during the 1920s, and leaded paints satisfied them by making everything they covered cheerful, durable, and easy to clean (2). And over the next several decades, physicians grappled with a childhood lead poisoning epidemic associated with everything from convulsions, weight loss, and death, to, more recently, cognitive, developmental, and behavioral impairments (3). During the 1970s federal regulations emerged that restricted leaded paints in residential contexts. Yet with respect to our already leaded world, containment has prevailed as the primary management strategy. Leaded paints, experts have told homeowners and renters, pose little risk when covered neatly by another layer of paint, paper, or tile. And leaded pipes, experts have also told municipalities, pose little risk if they will guard against their corrosion by pumping phosphate into them. This advice, for containment rather than an outright ban on lead and its total removal from built environments, points to just how much Americans' entanglement with this metal has become a normalized and ubiquitous part of their lives.

In recent weeks, that normalization and ubiquity has sent sentiments like "We are all Flint" careening through national and regional media outlets. Varied invocations of this phrase underscore the presence of leaded pipes within many municipalities, even as they would summon the moral resolve to address the threats that those pipes pose to the health of citizens in and beyond Flint. Yet sentiments born of shared entanglements with this neurotoxin should give pause, for the simple reason that when it comes to built environments and the bodies they raise in and through place, we are not all Flint. It's not any children who are endangered by their entanglements with lead, but those who live in marginal rural and urban places. And it's not any children whose bodies are understood to become inflexibly different through these entanglements, but those belonging to the very groups that yesteryear's eugenicists singled out as inflexibly inferior -- black and impoverished white people. For these reasons, it is worth thinking through what other investments entanglements with lead might now be reviving, besides those bound up in calls for collective protection. My recent work on house demolition and efforts at lead containment in the urban Midwest concerns itself with those investments born of racialist thought.

Works Cited

(1) Ingold, Tim. 2011. Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. New York:      Routledge.

Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press.

(2) Warren, Christopher. 2000. Brush with Death: A Social History of Lead Poisoning,         Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Markowitz Gerald and Rosner, David. 2002. "Cater to the Children: The Promotion of White Lead,” in Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution. Berkeley: University of California Press.

(3) Markowitz Gerald and Rosner, David. 2013. Lead Wars: The politics of Science and the Fate of America's Children. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Nevin, Rick 2007. "Understanding International Crime Trends: The Legacy of Preschool Lead Exposure." Environmental Research 104: 315-336.

Lead Exposure and the Entanglements of State Protection and Neglect

Sara Smith, Yale University

In the 1970s, the United States introduced a series of federal and state regulations to reduce lead exposure. Health officials were concerned by the widespread distribution of lead in the environment and the toxic threat that it posed to the public. Lead was used extensively in a variety of industrial applications throughout the twentieth century. As a result, lead, a neurotoxin and probable carcinogen, became widely dispersed in natural and built environments, embedding itself into the air and soil, municipal water systems, and American homes.

Legislation banning the use of lead in gasoline and in residential paints sought to protect Americans from everyday, low-level lead exposure. Screening programs were developed to identify communities at high risk for lead poisoning by monitoring blood lead levels (BLLs) in children. Lead-contaminated paint, dust and soil were determined to be the most commonplace sources of lead exposure. The Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act of 1992 spurred national prevention efforts to eliminate these health hazards from homes built before 1978.[1] By 1999, these protections had contributed to the significant decline of average blood lead levels in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regards this feat as “one of the most significant health successes of the last half of the 20th century.”[2]

However, vast disparities still persist along racial and class lines. Between 2007 and 2010, black children had, on average, blood lead levels that were 38.5% higher than white children.[3] Moreover, children from low-income families living in older and dilapidated housing are more likely to have elevated BLLs than children from families who can afford the steep costs of lead paint abatement. Thus while the state has decreased the overall amount of lead in Americans’ blood over the past 40 years, it has done far less to actually alter the distribution of lead exposure. As the residents of Flint, Michigan, St. Joseph, Louisiana and other black-majority cities experiencing lead poisoning disasters know all too well, the history of lead exposure protections is entangled in the ongoing violence of state racism and neglect.

This abiding tension between state protection and neglect is a hallmark of American technocracy. State protections localize biology by safeguarding the blood and bodies of some citizens, while leaving politically and economically disenfranchised communities overexposed.[4] When a child in Flint drinks tap water, the lead entering her body binds itself to molecules, transporting the toxic byproducts of environmental racism and institutional violence into her brain, kidneys, liver and other vital organs. Seen in light of state efforts to protect Americans from lead, the very possibility of lead poisoning itself raises important questions about how the entanglement of molecules, chemical economies, bodies, juridical systems and infrastructure sustain the disproportionate exposure of vulnerable populations to toxins. This has led me to wonder about the different conceptualizations of “protection” (as distinct from “rights”). What are the types of relationships that notions of protection contain, inhibit, or foster? And how might ideas about protection augment theories of justice and modes of caring for human and non-human life?

[1] See TITLE X of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1992 (Public Law 102-550). Lead-based paints were banned for residential use in 1978. Most homes built before 1978 are assumed to have some amount of lead-based paint.

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2005. Preventing Lead Poisoning in Young Children. Atlanta: CDC.

[3] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2013.“Blood Lead Levels in Children Aged 1–5 Years, United States, 1999–2010.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 62 (13): 245-248.

[4] Here I refer to Margaret Lock’s notion of “local biology” and Adriana Petryna’s concept of “biological citizenship.”

Excerpt from Videoteca Fin del Mundo, a short story

Ava Tomasula y Garcia

H. Moon // Flickr, Creative Commons

H. Moon // Flickr, Creative Commons

…What I’m trying to say is that yo estaba viviendo bien until I realized I wasn’t. My hot water, my clean air, my right of free movement, my microwave, my strawberry jam on bread this morning. This is how I am alive, or, better, how I am not. —I don’t mean anything supernatural, but just that it is possible to die in an everyday kind of way. Life transfigured into something else just as an ordinary course of events. I feel smudged out, not really dead but some state that makes you ask if this is life, after all. Like a title that stays on the screen for so long that when you close your eyes you can still see it, vibrating on the underside of your lids. I walk around earth, taking in the end that won’t end. Just watch:

Here is the Pájaro Valley, home to three million acres of strawberry fields and fourteen million pounds of pesticides a year. People who are sin papeles spray the crops with chloropicrin, a gas used to kill people during World War I. There is Ajena Verdeja, too, emerging out of a poisonous cloud with a bandana over her mouth and nose, like in the movies when the aliens touch down and the UFO opens up with a tsssssssssssssssssss and a high-powered fog machine. Euro settlers hundreds of years ago, moving in clouds of smoke, burning down the crops already there and replacing them so they could eat their own bread and see their own animals. Their own little paraíso. When I go to the grocery store I see rows and rows of stacked berries in bright plastic packages printed with a picture of a red barn and a rising sun and maybe even photos of the blonde Evan Family—Strawberry Farmers for Three Generations—with grins ear to ear. All the particulars are stripped away, replaced by the same great big smile. This is how meaning is made; this is how you abstract value into existence. Rattle it off like a drug ad: may cause neurological deterioration, reproductive health problems, developmental disabilities, cancer, metabolic disorders, sexual assault on job site, wage theft, deportation. Money and markets scrape away most of it. Now you can say things like “product” and “equivalent.” Pronounced universality and occluded relationality that allows “fair labor” to suddenly emerge out of nowhere and strawberries to taste so good. Ajena goes back inside her cloud, invisible.

These are facts you live with and learn to fade to background, if you can….

Three “E”s - Exposure/Environment/Entanglement

Elizabeth F.S. Roberts, University of Michigan

In 1993, environmental health scientists from the United Sates and Mexico began a longitudinal, birth-cohort study in Mexico City, that came to be called ELEMENT (Early Life Exposure in Mexico to Environmental Toxicants). ELEMENT’s original purpose was to examine the neuro-developmental effects of in utero lead exposure over the life course. Since then, the research has expanded to include the study of toxins like mercury, BPA and fluoride, more conditions like obesity and diabetes, through new methods, like epigenetic analysis. For the last three years I have studied how ELEMENT produces globalizing, environmental health knowledge.  Last year I lived in Mexico City, conducting ethnographic, household research with six ELEMENT participant families in two working-class neighborhoods.  Currently, I am in the process of trying to collaborate with ELEMENT scientists, working to entangle my ethnographic data from Mexico City, with their biological data collected over the last 23 years. 

When I began to develop this project 1) I imagined that I would critically expand the term exposure, 2) I took the term environment for granted, and, 3) I imagined my project as engaged in tracing the entanglement of how health is made.  I had a lot to learn about all three terms, and still do.

The recent exposure science text defines exposure as: “A person’s contact with the concentration of a material before and after it crosses a boundary (nose, skin or mouth) between the human and the environment over an interval of time leading to a potential biological effective dose” (Lioy, et al. 2014, 17). My original plan was to expand this model of exposure to include open-ended set of environmental processes that include historical and political-economic dimensions.

It seems though, that earlier uses of exposure were in fact key in the development of “the environment” itself.  While the word exposure was common before the late eighteenth century – environment was not.   In this period, the production of new middle class domestic interiors brought with them a host of problems involving multiple anxieties about being “exposed” to external influences (coming from outside the house) (Janković 2010).  At this point, environment became a new way to describe these new physical locations, by making medicalized distinctions between the pathology ascribed to ambient change and the middle class achievement of healthy ambient uniformity. Another means to achieve the distinction of uniformity was through worrying about the ‘chaotic and unhealthy environments’ of the poor.  From the beginning then, environment, has always involved a classed and medicalized relationship to space.

The STS call for fluidity and uncertainty inherent to entanglement was going to serve as a template for my expanded environmental version of exposure.  But after a year spent in Mexico City, where life is uncertain and entangled with a vengeance, the scholarly the embrace of entangled uncertainty, emanating from within the luxury of relatively object-stable worlds, gives me pause.

It seems to me that exposure, environment and entanglement are historically embedded within related, dualistic, preoccupations about the relationship of “things” to other “things.” Do things stand on their own or are they made through each other?  I look forward to exploring these terms in our workshop together.

References Cited

Janković, Vladimir, 2010 Confronting the climate : British airs and the making of environmental medicine. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lioy, Paul, Clifford Weisel, and ScienceDirect (Online service).

2014Exposure science basic principles and applications. Amsterdam ; Boston: Elsevier/AP, Academic Press is an imprint of Elsevier.


Moon Suits In My Yard: Settler Colonialism, Industrial Contamination, and an Indigenous Community’s Fight for Environmental Justice

Elizabeth Hoover, Brown University

“This is God’s country here,” an Akwesasne Mohawk woman explained to me as we sat at her kitchen table over cups of coffee.  She stared past me out her kitchen window that overlooks the St. Lawrence River, and the General Motors plant.  She had just been describing how she stood in her front yard and watched men in “moon suits” work to clean up the industrial site a few years prior.  “They’d come in here in their space suits and take your water, a sample of it.  If that’s not alarming, then I don’t know what is.” She described how “we used to play in that dump.  We used to go play in it.  We would just scavenge in the junk and go sort through it, pick aluminum and stuff like that, play with paint.” When the Tribe issued fish advisories, recommending that women of childbearing years limit or avoid consuming local fish, her family quickly changed their diet. But she’s not sure these changes came in time to protect their health; she had always wanted a big family, but several miscarriages made that impossible. But when I asked her if she ever considered moving, she said no, echoing the answer of one of her neighbors further down river who had exclaimed, “Are you kidding me, I live in heaven!” As a resident of the Raquette Point region of the St. Regis Mohawk reservation, she has the dubious honor of both beautiful waterfront property, and a front row seat to observe a Superfund cleanup.

These conversations are emblematic of the complicated feelings that many Akwesasnero:non, "people of Akwesasne," expressed about their homeland, a place that has sustained indigenous people for eons but which has been impinged on by environmental contamination as well as state and federal governments. As people reputed to be fighters and activists, Mohawks have fought to preserve who they are, confronting state and federal governments and the scientific industrial complex to maintain their homeland. Despite a number of political and social challenges, when it was discovered in the early 1980’s that the General Motors industrial plant directly adjacent to the Raquette Point portion of Akwesasne had been leaching PCBs into the St. Lawrence River, the community came together and sprang into action. A midwife, Mohawk scientists, and community members, concerned about the potential health impacts of this contamination, worked to revolutionize how environmental health research is done in Indigenous communities, and pushed to influence how the cleanup would be conducted. Despite the ways in which environmental contamination has contributed to the goals of settler colonialism—displacing Indigenous people from the land both physically and culturally, communities like Akwesasne are fighting back by developing their own environmental governance structures and forging the necessary partnerships to carry out important environmental health research.

Fabled Endurance: Black Women and/in Speculative Fictions

Phoenix Alexander, Yale University

HeLa cell

HeLa cell

Harriet Washington’s recent and exhaustive book, Medical Apartheid, chronicles the history of medical experimentation on African Americans from the antebellum period to the present. The work is particularly startling in its bringing to light the multiple and shifting scripts assigned to Black women in the service of racial science and political theory – scripts that center on the concept of endurance. From the gynaecological experiments of J. Marion Sims – who conducted painful and invasive procedures on un-anaesthetized enslaved women, believing them to be more inured to pain than whites – to the ‘social science’ studies denigrating the figure of the Black matriarch in the infamous Moyhnihan report, to the extraction of cancerous cells from Henrietta Lacks, Black women’s bodies have been cast and recast as sites of potent, hardy, and exploitable scientific resources.

It is this latter case that resonates eerily in the science fiction of Octavia Butler: a towering figure in African American letters. Her imprisoned protagonist, Lilith, of Wild Seed (1980) – the first in Butler’s Seed to Harvest trilogy – wakes in an alien holding chamber with a mysterious scar on her stomach. She comes to learn that cancerous cells have been removed from her by her captors: self-titled ‘gene-traders,’ the Oankali. Paralleling yet another historical figure (Fannie Lou Hamer, whose unwitting hysterectomy in 1961 galvanized her to become a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement), Lilith’s cells are taken as a ‘gift’: a remarkably mutable – and durable – biological resource that allow the Oankali to somewhat parasitically draw from other life forms to improve and develop their own genetic line.

It is a hallmark of Butler’s writing to blur the lines between complicity and coercion through the various degrees of power and powerlessness with which her protagonists struggle. But it is significant that the genre of science fiction becomes the paradigm for writing new fables of endurance: ones that place Black women at the center of imagined resistance, and expose the speculative fantasy of racial and social sciences that, for decades, have oriented themselves around spurious, white supremacist logic. By fictionalizing an alien ‘immortal cell line’ – a description applied to HeLa cells, the cells taken unwittingly from Henrietta Lacks in 1951 – Butler renders the violences involved in such a process even more visible. The myth of ‘immortality’ is exposed to involve a removal of agency and identity; the truncation of Henrietta’s name, HeLa, to name the cells perpetuates in turn a erasure of the woman at the same time as it insists upon the endurance of her essence, here disembodied to the most abstract level: that of genetic material. Black feminist writers and intellectuals have written, and continue to write, new fables of resistance; in a world in which ‘we were never meant to survive’, endurance is reclaimed through the challenge to reimagine and rebuild – and through the remembrance that, in the words of June Jordan, ‘some of us did not die.’

The Street: Social Space or Social Stressor?

Naa Oyo A. Kwate, Rutgers University

Courtesy of Naa Oyo A. Kwate

Courtesy of Naa Oyo A. Kwate

Jamila K. saw the police car in her rearview.  It was approaching with some speed, so she pulled to the side of the road to allow the vehicle passage.  When it failed to overtake her, she looked in the mirror again, and was surprised to find the sedan had come to a stop behind her.  And the officer was getting out.  Soon, a rap on the glass:  ‘Open up.’ She lowered her window. ‘What’s the problem?’ ‘You’re obstructing traffic.  Let me see your license.’ Jamila K. complied, unbelieving.  ‘How am I obstructing traffic when I’m on the shoulder? I only pulled over to let you by.’ The cop was writing.  Soon he handed her a small sheaf of papers.  ‘You need to go to court and take care of these,’ he said, and was gone.  Jamila K. looked through the citations, three altogether:  obstructing traffic, failing to signal, not wearing a seatbelt. 

Jamila K. called in sick in order to go to court, where the clerk brusquely dismissed her protestations, and told her she would receive a trial date by post.  Weeks later, an envelope bearing the state’s seal arrived.  Jamila K. assumed this was her court date, and though she could ill afford missing more work, she was eager to resolve the dispute.  But the envelope was from the state’s Department of Revenue: her driver’s license had been suspended for Failure to Appear.   Jamila K. returned to court—by car, risking further criminal penalties—to contest this new development.  She pressed her case to the clerk.  ‘I never received a trial date.  Why was my license suspended?’ ‘Your trial was two weeks ago.  Now there’s a warrant out for your arrest.’  ‘But that’s impossible!  Can I talk to the judge?’ The clerk was implacable.  ‘No, the judge does not receive just anyone, and in any case, that’s only allowed after a new court date is set.' 'I'm here now, can't we do it today?' 'No.  For a new date, sign here in triplicate, and pay a $200 bond.’  Jamila K. turned from the clerk’s window and strode to the door, anticipating at any moment a hand on her collar, a clash of handcuffs, and a jail cell.  But she reached the outdoors.  There she sat on a bench and thought about what she was going to do.

I have taken some liberty to dramatize one Black woman’s actual encounter with the Ferguson, Missouri police and Municipal Court (1). Ferguson is not unique.  The incident is emblematic of the toxic exposures Black people encounter on a day-to-day basis in public space, calling into question how we should conceive of environmental health hazards.  Racial subordination in urban space produces stress and a cascade of material disadvantage, making the street a disease agent.  At the same time, because the street is central to life lived in Black communities, it is a setting ripe for in situ intervention.  I will present a public health campaign designed to invert the health destabilizing effects of racism by fostering a politics of sight. 


(1) U.S. Department of Justice, Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department

Soil Remediation and Sea Level Rise in San Francisco

Lindsey Dillon, University of California, Davis


In my research on industrial ecologies in southeast San Francisco, I’ve become fascinated with the logic of risk-based soil remediation (which is the technical term for cleanup; in practice the two terms are used interchangeably). A risk-based framework has guided the remediation of toxic waste sites in the US since the 1990s, and this includes a current military base-reuse project at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in southeast San Francisco, which I have followed closely for several years.

The goal of risk-based remediation is not the complete removal of subsurface contaminants (although soil remediation to “background” pollution levels had been the original goal of the Superfund Act in the US, passed in 1980). Rather, risk-based remediation leaves contaminants in the subsoil, and seeks manage their potential exposure pathways (with humans). This proper arrangement of people and things is achieved through a combination of engineering controls (walls, liners, or asphalt parking lots) and institutional controls (such land use restrictions and continued monitoring). In other words, industrial cleanup is always a partial, ongoing, and fragile project, requiring continuous monitoring, maintenance, and repair.

The Hunters Point Shipyard in southeast San Francisco is surrounded by the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, a place where over a century of industrial land use has left a stew of the 19th and 20th century’s most toxic materials. Industrial soil remediation at shipyard produces the grounds for a large urban redevelopment project, with over 10,000 housing units, offices, and waterfront parks. To sell its homes, the development company relies heavily on ideas of sustainability and urban greening – for example, advertising the project as “sustainable living in the 21st century” and landscaping with native plants.

Although soil remediation and green redevelopment might appear as victories for environmental justice activism in Bayview-Hunters Point, many residents find themselves in opposition to the shipyard project, and situate it within history of racism in the city. This is not only for reasons of gentrification and economic displacement, but because of new toxic encounters produced through industrial cleanup. For example, residents in public housing units near the Hunters Point Shipyard have lived with and protested against the demolition and construction dusts of multiple remediation and redevelopment projects for almost a decade. This is another example of how remediation is not really an ecologically restorative project (as it is often understood), but a productive project – in this case, producing new geographies of industrial waste, or new toxic entanglements.

The Navy’s risk-based remediation project at the Hunters Point Shipyard will leave a 22-acre landfill in place, attempting to manage potential exposure pathways through several synthetic liners and soil layers, and through land use restrictions, such as prohibitions on planting fruits or vegetables for consumption and the reuse of this particular area of the shipyard for anything other than a park. Chemical analyses of the landfill and the surrounding area have found the presence of heavy metals, volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds, pesticides, PCBs, petroleum, cesium-137, radium-226, and cobalt-60 in the ground.

I’ve followed this project for years, and the hubris of it has never ceased to amaze me. Risk-based remediation strategies are threatened by so many factors, including the material decay of landfill covers, earthquakes, and human memory (will people in one hundred years remember that they should not plant a garden?). What I’d like to focus on here is how the already-vulnerable remediation project is threatened by sea level rise. I’ve provided an image from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Sea Level Rise Viewer (, showing an estimated 3 feet (36 inches) of sea level rise in southeast San Francisco (the big paw extending into the San Francisco Bay is the shipyard). Areas of inundation in the southern part of the base are close to the landfill site. Current science estimates sea level in the San Francisco Bay Area to rise 11-19 inches by 2050, and 20-55 inches by 2100. Rising tides threaten to release subterranean contaminants, even after the shipyard is officially designated “clean” by state environmental agencies. I am thinking about the relationship between weather events, weathering and chemical toxicity as a kind of “double exposure” (see keyword, “exposure”).

Three feet of sea level rise in Bayview-Hunters Point (NOAA 2014) The shipyard is only one place in Bayview-Hunters Point threatened by sea level rise. Nearby is the Southeast Sewage Treatment Plant (which processes 80% of the city’s waste), a large waste transfer station, numerous hazardous waste industries, and hundreds of underground hazardous waste sites (such as leaking underground fuel tanks, sites of recorded industrial spills and illegal dumping).


Exposure: a vulnerability to weather, as in, “she was exposed to the elements”, or “he suffered from exposure” (1).

Through this keyword I want to explore the ways climate changes will affect the distribution and toxicity of chemicals, or how weather and weathering in the Anthropocene is related to new forms of toxic exposure. According to recent scientific studies, higher global temperatures will alter the chemical structure of some contaminants, influencing the ways they travel through ecological systems (Schiedek et al 2007). Increased ocean salinity may release metals currently bound within in ocean sediments, likewise increasing bioavailability (Roberts et al 2012). Drier seasons in some regions may lead to a greater volatility of pesticides and persistent organic pollutants in the atmosphere (Noyes et al 2009). Wang et al 2010 posit a turning point at which “biogeochemical processes emerge as the major driver for bioaccumulation”. What these studies describe is something I am calling “double exposure”, in which “exposure to the elements” is also a form of toxic exposure. Double exposure describes a specific material relationship, or a toxic entanglement, that takes place through weather and geological processes.

What interests me most at the moment are the effects of sea level rise and storm-related events (such as floods, high tides, erosion) on industrial chemicals buried underground in landfills and other hazardous waste sites in coastal cities and small islands. The impact of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 in the US northeast is instructive. Sandy’s storms dislodged 378,00 gallons of fuel from the Motiva oil tank facility in Woodbridge Township, New Jersey, most of which spilled into a nearby waterway. Lead, arsenic, and copper were also released from the Raritan Bay Slag Superfund site (leading to an EPA warning against people using a public playground and a beach in the area) (Navarro 2012). In this sense, Hurricane Sandy had the effect of producing new toxic encounters between living beings and industrial contaminants. While I don’t think engineers can completely safeguard against these kinds of toxic disasters, I also think it’s important to point out that the specific weather events (and weathering processes) related to climate change are not considered in the design of most landfills or industrial remediation projects (Kuh 2012).

Public policy and reduced industrial emissions would remain important ethical responses to this situation, but human policies cannot regulate earth processes (see Wang et al 2010). As an unavoidable materiality of climate change, the time of toxic weathering may be in the centuries. Addressing these environmental health effects of climate change should (I think) include a theory of intergenerational and multi-species justice (I have unfortunately only focused on human-contaminant exposures). I also wonder whether thinking about the relationship between geology, weather events and chemical toxicities might engage with some notion of shelter, as in Bob Dylan’s song, “shelter from the storm”.


Kuh, Katrina Fischer. "Climate Change and CERCLA Remedies: Adaptation Strategies for Contaminated Sediment Sites." Seattle Journal of Environmental Law 2 (2012): 61.

Navarro, Mireya. “As Floods Recede, Superfund Neighborhoods Fear Contamination”.  New York Times, November 13, 2012. (Also see <>

Noyes, Pamela D., Matthew K. McElwee, Hilary D. Miller, Bryan W. Clark, Lindsey A. Van Tiem, Kia C. Walcott, Kyle N. Erwin, and Edward D. Levin. "The toxicology of climate change: environmental contaminants in a warming world." Environment international 35, no. 6 (2009): 971-986.

Roberts, David A., Silvana NR Birchenough, Ceri Lewis, Matthew B. Sanders, Thi Bolam, and Dave Sheahan. "Ocean acidification increases the toxicity of contaminated sediments." Global change biology 19, no. 2 (2013): 340-351.

Schiedek, Doris, Brita Sundelin, James W. Readman, and Robie W. Macdonald. "Interactions between climate change and contaminants." Marine pollution bulletin 54, no. 12 (2007): 1845-1856

Wang, Feiyue, Robie W. Macdonald, Gary A. Stern, and Peter M. Outridge. "When noise becomes the signal: Chemical contamination of aquatic ecosystems under a changing climate." Marine pollution bulletin 60, no. 10 (2010): 1633-1635.

(1) Exposure, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, definition 3b: “the position (as of a house) with respect to weather influences or compass points; Oxford English Dictionary, definition 3: “The manner or degree in which anything is exposed; esp. situation with respect to sun as wind; ‘aspect’ with regard to the quarter of the heavens”.

Making War in Secret for the Future (A Toxic Tale from the African Anthropocene)

Gabrielle Hecht, University of Michigan

Massive dumping of carbon dioxide, radiation, plastics, sediment, and aerosols is changing our planet and our bodies. Monitoring those discards offers a key mechanism for generating knowledge about planetary change. Some name this epoch “the Anthropocene,” marking the apotheosis of waste as both material process and epistemological tool. 

The Anthropocene’s remarkable resonance has made it a “charismatic mega-category” across the humanities, arts, and natural and social sciences.  Yet interdisciplinary conversations easily falter, especially when critics observe that the notion can obscure massive inequalities by attributing the unfolding catastrophes to an undifferentiated humanity. Debates rage about origins and nomenclature (Capitalocene? Chthulucene?). The Anthropocene thus poses significant challenges for qualitative analysis. How can we hold the planetary and the particular in the same frame? How can we gain purchase on the entanglement of waste, toxicity, and violence that drives this epoch? Rather than rename, I propose we qualify the term in ways that attend to its paradoxes. Here: the African Anthropocene.

Consider mining in South Africa. This massive rearrangement of earthly materials has long defined Johannesburg’s topography, beginning with the 19th century gold boom. In the 1950s, the first 10,000 tons of South African uranium was extracted from gold tailings piles. Pursuing this uranium down one path takes you to enrichment plants, missile silos, atomic explosions, the atmosphere itself… where radioactive tracers endure, providing evidence of our warming planet. Another path leads you through power plants, on to factories that fashion munitions from spent nuclear fuel, and finally to postwar Iraq, where civilians inhale the debris of depleted uranium munitions. Or you can stay in Johannesburg, where corporations and individual miner-entrepreneurs continually revisit these piles of waste, hoping to extract further value.

Ontological instability generates violence. Particles from tailings piles seep into water supplies, where people bathe themselves and their things, absorbing heavy metals, solvents, and radioactive particles. Toxicity emerges from these entanglements: encounters between chemicals and pipes brings molecules trapped in metallic structures up to metallic surfaces, leaching out new materials…which become toxic when, carried by water, they trickle down throats and attack cells. Toxicity endures through temporal frictions—the uncomfortable rubbing between human time, corporate time, geological time, the time of metallic integrity, the time of radioactive decay.

If the sacrificial topography of waste around Johannesburg rises above the horizon, in the Northern Cape, the waste of national dreams goes in the opposite direction. There, the site of Vaalputs is the burial ground for radioactive waste from South Africa’s apartheid-era nuclear program. But Vaalputs doesn’t merely index apartheid waste. Two decades into democracy, the ANC-led government kindles dreams of national nuclear expansion. In these dreams, Vaalputs indexes mastery: it becomes a sign that South Africa can manage modernity’s future waste. Or it indexes nightmares: for one community activist, “this dumping is making war in secret for the future.”