A Symposium on Exposure, Entanglement, and Endurance

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

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.