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  • Inevitably Toxic: Historical Perspectives on Contamination, Exposure, and Expertise ed. by Brinda Sarathy, Vivien Hamilton, and Janet Farrell Brodie
  • Ellen Griffith Spears
Brinda Sarathy, Vivien Hamilton, and Janet Farrell Brodie, eds. Inevitably Toxic: Historical Perspectives on Contamination, Exposure, and Expertise. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018. 329 pp. Ill. $34.95 (9780822945314).

Authorities estimate that it will take four hundred years to remediate the barren landscape that obscures millions of gallons of chemical wastes in the Stringfellow Acid Pits in Southern California. Fuming nitric acid from the pits can cause pulmonary edema and nephritis, health hazards only belatedly made known to people who live nearby. The Stringfellow site is just one example of the hazardous sites that harbor serious health threats described in Inevitably Toxic: Historical Perspectives on Contamination, Exposure, and Expertise, edited by Brinda Sarathy, Vivien Hamilton, and Janet Farrell Brodie. This interdisciplinary collection examines landscapes of environmental toxicity in three fields: nuclear, industrial chemicals, and pesticides. Addressing toxic exposures as "a matter of health and justice" (p. 288), these authors set about making contamination visible and challenging complacency surrounding how we assess, regulate, and communicate risk.

Extensively documenting a series of place-based case studies, from Southern California to San Francisco Bay, the Trinity test site in New Mexico, the West Texas oilfields, Northern Canada, and Japan, the contributors evaluate the array of factors that have privileged nuclear and other industry prerogatives over public and environmental health. Many of these cases illustrate "the willingness of those in positions of power and authority to take enormous risks with people's health and safety" (p. 11).

Inevitably Toxic explores how the politics of scientific expertise has served "to facilitate dominant economic and military interests, often at the expense of environment and human health" (p. 7). A national narrative that held that technology invariably improves upon nature, writes contributor Sarah Stanford-McIntyre, helped to fuel the Cold War–era expansion of American empire. As the editors note, several chapters reveal "ecologically unsustainable, socially exploitative, and violent processes through which capitalist relations operate" (p. 5). Many of these environmental hazards were "born secret" or "born opaque" (p. 97), contributor William Palmer writes. Nuclear technologies, especially, were "uniquely hidden by a culture of Cold War secrecy" (p. 7). Experts involved in nuclear research were all too aware that speaking out would hinder their careers or endanger future research funding. In exploring the history of the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory and radioactive waste in San Francisco Bay, Lindsey Dillon points to the U.S. government's belated acknowledgment in 1994 "to having secretly used thousands of people as radiation test subjects" (p. 81).

War also birthed DDT. James G. Lewis and Char Miller point out that the U.S. Forest Service used a national emergency declaration to spray tussock moths with the pesticide over vast Washington, Oregon, and Idaho forests in 1974, two years after the EPA had banned the toxic pesticide. The agency also played a paradoxical role in Vietnam, aiding in the defoliation of forests with toxic Agent Orange and in rebuilding forests once the dire shortage of lumber caused by U.S. operations became clear. [End Page 476]

Despite its title, the collection in fact "disrupts the sense that our current predicament is inevitable" (p. 5). The editors submit that the toxic exposures examined here rarely involved deliberate deception. In "Contested Knowledge: The Trinity Test Radiation Studies," Janet Farrell Brodie examines early radiation research in which experts themselves had limited understanding of the hazards involved. However, environmental degradation has often resulted from decisions by those who either stood to gain financially or who defined the national interest in narrow terms. Analyzing the evolution of standards in "X-ray Protection in American Hospitals," Vivien Hamilton notes the extent to which industry advocates and regulators alike promoted a false sense of safety by attempting to set tolerance doses. Various industries have exploited the uncertainties inherent in scientific research to discourage or prevent regulation.

Though purposely aimed at a nonexpert audience, this well-researched book nevertheless will be of interest to scholars and practitioners in public health and other fields who confront the consequences of toxic contamination. Expertise, these writers demonstrate, can...


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pp. 476-478
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