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Dangerous Trade: Histories of Industrial Hazard Across a Globalizing World (review)

From: Bulletin of the History of Medicine
Volume 86, Number 4, Winter 2012
pp. 676-677 | 10.1353/bhm.2012.0076

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The papers in this collection were first presented at a December 2007 conference at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. In keeping with one of the stated goals of the volume—to reach out beyond the historian of science and medicine into the wider world—the meeting brought together a wide range of scholars from a variety of disciplines to explore the international dimensions of industrial and environmental disease. Of the fifteen contributors to the volume, five are formally historians or in history departments. The other authors are trained in political science, anthropology, environmental studies, and occupational medicine. One, Timothy Carter, was Britain’s medical director of the Health and Safety Executive and another, Barry Castleman, is an industrial hygienist, a workers’ advocate, and perhaps the world’s leading scholar of the history of asbestos. This breadth of approaches is appropriate, for the editors argue that all of us, “[p]ractitioners, activists, policy makers and citizens who tackle such dangers today . . . must confront the long-standing dynamics that have propelled their spread” (p. 2).

The editors tie the various essays together in an interesting introduction, arguing that unlike earlier studies that focus on stories bounded by the geopolitical boundaries, the history of industrial disease demands an international, perhaps global perspective. The essays are organized chronologically, and the first, by Amarjit Kaur, a professor of business economics and public policy in Australia, takes us back to late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century Malaya to see the terrifying impact of British colonialism on the health of male workers drawn from India, China, and elsewhere to work the rubber plantations. Myrna Santiago follows with an unsettling analysis of the experience of Mexican oil workers before and following the nationalization of the nation’s oil fields. These essays, which firmly root the book as a contribution to the political economy of health, are followed by studies of anthrax as an occupational disease created by international markets in animal parts; the commodification of natural gas as part of the sorry disaster that is modern Nigeria; asbestos, pesticides, plastics manufacturing, and lead poisoning in Uruguay; mercury mining in South America; and asbestos-related diseases in France, South Africa, and the rest of the world.

Some of the essays focus on the political economy of illness, tracing migration, exportation of dangerous trades, and polluting industries. This has led to fabulous wealth for some and devastating disease for others. Other essays compare national attempts to control polluting industries, telling us about the impact of differing legal systems and national cultures that shape responses to industrial malfeasance. Barbara Allen’s essay on the lawsuits over vinyl chloride pollution in “Cancer Alley,” on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana, and Marghera, Italy, a center of plastics production on the Venice lagoon, is especially poignant. In Louisiana, poor communities struggled to have their observations confirmed by state epidemiologists whose exacting methods and manipulation at the beck and call of powerful vested interests served to undermine the community’s legal case. In Italy, however, the less systematic, but very disturbing, observations by workers and their families about the harms caused by exposure to vinyl chloride were accepted as legitimate by the court, leading to the conviction of five executives of the chemical company for manslaughter and their fleeing Italy to escape prosecution.

Individually, the essays reflect sensitivity to the terrible impact of industrial disease on workers, their families, and the communities in which they live. Together, they provide a tough reminder of the legacy of more than a century of unrestrained industrial pollution, imperialism, and the reformulation of the global economy: “blowback” in the form of chronic diseases from angiosarcoma of the liver and other cancers, lead and mercury poisoning, and environmental pollution. Furthermore, new, emerging conditions are being identified associated with exposure to pesticides, PCBs, and other chlorinated hydrocarbons. Bisphenyl a and newer synthetic materials mimic estrogen and are suspected to cause a range of potential problems. One essay traces the uses and misuses of pesticides in South America and what the author calls “the race to the bottom” (p. 168).

The essays are by scholars from both the United States and abroad...

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