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  • Toxic Safety: Flame Retardants, Chemical Controversies, and Environmental Health by Alissa Cordner
  • Janet Ore
Alissa Cordner. Toxic Safety: Flame Retardants, Chemical Controversies, and Environmental Health. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. xii + 322 pp. $60.00 (978-0-231-17146-5).

In this book, sociologist Alissa Cordner examines how competing groups involved in vetting environmental chemicals made decisions that affected public policy. Focusing on widely used additives to consumer and industrial goods, flame retardants, she shows how stakeholders invoked science to support their positions. Because scientific inquiry could not provide total certainty, nonscientific—social, economic, and political—considerations inevitably determined the policy outcome. Though regulatory agencies, academic researchers, and environmental advocates pushed their own scientific interpretations to further their goals, corporate manufacturers wielded inordinate influence. The power struggle determined policy, not the logic of science. Industry domination of the regulatory process and exploitation of scientific uncertainty had real consequences for public health.

One of the most well publicized toxic chemicals, flame retardants make a rich case study for Cordner. Especially the halogenated groups made with chlorine or bromine saturated a wide variety of highly flammable, plastic-based consumer and construction products: mattresses, baby pajamas, automobiles, household insulating foam, electronics, to name just a few. After the 1970s, these compounds caught the public’s attention when researchers found that brominated tris added to children’s polyester sleepware was potentially carcinogenic. Research revealed that halogenated retardants persisted and accumulated in the environment and human bodies. After the 1990s, biomonitoring uncovered exponential increases in polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) from retardants in women’s breast milk. Shocked scientists estimated that 97 percent of U.S. adults carried PBDEs in their blood. Burgeoning studies discovered the chemical’s toxicological effects on lab animals: neurological, reproductive, immunological, hormonal, and behavioral damage. Most alarming was the potential danger to fetuses and children as brominated flame retardants became known as endocrine disrupters. In the early 2000s, scientific concerns and consumer awareness prompted state bans on certain forms of PBDE. Activism compelled the EPA to assess the chemicals’ safety and the appropriateness of regulation. Manufacturers sometimes voluntarily removed the most egregious compounds but often simply substituted untested retardants from the same chemical families. Here the situation currently rests.

Utilizing largely an ethnographic methodology, Cordner delves into how decision making occurred. Along with conventional research, she sought insider perspectives through interviews and participant and nonparticipant observations at five research sites that included industrial and academic research laboratories, the EPA, and environmental health nonprofits. Though each of the stakeholders relied on scientific evidence, their definitions of the chemicals’ risk to human health differed significantly. Health activists followed the precautionary principle; a product with verifiable hazards should instigate regulation even if the amount needed to cause harm was unknown. Chemical industries, on the other hand, demanded proof that a definable level of exposure threatened humans, and if [End Page 824] unavailable, they considered the chemical “safe.” Uncertainty pervaded the science, and this allowed participants to explain the results to their own advantages. Cordner details how both corporate and environmental advocates used these interpretations to defend products or push for regulation. In the struggles to influence public policy, however, the chemical industry had the overwhelming power. Its deep pockets and revolving door of researchers—not scientific evidence—ensured that its interests prevailed.

In her conclusion, Cordner mitigates this discouraging description of environmental policy making with recommendations for change. Rather than expecting scientific certainty, stakeholders should use the precautionary principle and act on the best available science to protect public health. Though her approach is evenhanded, she comes down clearly for the necessity for such regulation. Her dissection of the various premises for decision making gives the tools needed to provide flexibility and clear communication for this.

Cordner’s argument will not surprise historians of medicine as it joins a large historiography on the political uses of scientific uncertainty. In particular, Toxic Safety augments the work of environmental historians such as Sarah Vogel, Nancy Langston, and Michelle Murphy by presenting participant voices and rationales in determining risk and regulation. She includes a chapter on the history of flame retardants that, as far as I know, has yet to have its own monograph...


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