- Life Without Lead: Contamination, Crisis, and Hope in Uruguay by Daniel Renfrew
In Life Without Lead: Contamination, Crisis, and Hope in Uruguay, anthropologist Daniel Renfrew makes a significant contribution to environmental justice ethnographic literature, describing through numerous tensions between key social and political actors Uruguay's coming to terms with a lead poisoning epidemic. The book is largely set in Montevideo's La Teja barrio, where, for decades, residents endured cumulative exposure through multiple pathways in the soil, water, and air—from sources including abandoned factories, clandestine smelting and battery-recycling plants, toxic dumps, lead pipes, and an oil refinery.
The book's six chapters approach this epidemic through an expansive political ecology of health perspective that explores multiple social, political, and environmental facets. Chapter 1 provides the history of lead contamination in La Teja, describes the efforts of activists to build an environmental justice movement there, and examines how subsequent state interventions sought to both address and control the extent of the epidemic. Chapter 2 details how activists in the early 2000s evoked social memory of working-class resistance when confronting the present economic and environmental crises and rallying support for a "post-crisis future." Chapter 3 analyzes the murga, a male chorus performance genre at Carnival in which popular sentiments on social issues are often expressed. Chapter 4 looks at how opposition to neoliberal efforts to privatize the state oil company were incorporated into the lead poisoning environmental justice movement. Chapter 5 highlights the struggles of two squatter settlements—one built on the remains of an abandoned steel mill and the [End Page 1619] other over a contaminated landfill. Chapter 6 frames the production of contested knowledge about lead poisoning in Uruguay in terms of power struggles between various actors, agents, and authorities. These include scientists, state and public health officials, and members of citizen-science alliances and networks.
Based on 26 months of fieldwork between 2002 and 2017, the book draws upon interviews with people at the center of the issue, including members of an environmental justice collective called the "Live Without Lead" commission and medical providers and patients at the Lead Clinic. Renfrew worked closely with these groups organizing social forums on lead poisoning in the mid-2000s. These voices along with those of health ministry authorities, hospital directors, scientists, journalists, NGOs, barrio residents, and squatters form the basis of the book's many ethnographic and analytical strengths.
One of these strengths is the way that Renfrew skillfully weaves in personal stories of extraordinary people—most of whom are introduced in Chapter 1,"To Live, Not Only Survive"—whose lives were effected in unexpected ways by lead poisoning. A six-year-old boy named "Joaquin" becomes the "index case" for the country's raised consciousness in what Renfrew calls "Uruguay's first mass communication event" and the first environmental justice issue to reach a national audience. Embodying the risks of living in La Teja, the boy and his family come to symbolize a number of societal issues in the public discourse during the economic crisis of the early 2000s. Specifically, they represent the families of poisoned school children whose cognitive and behavioral issues stigmatize them as "los apagados," or "the tuned out." More generally, they convey public concerns over affordable healthcare and poverty. Meanwhile, the government actively works to control the public discourse by spatially limiting the scope of the threat and the official count of the poisoned.
Throughout the book, there are accounts and testimonies from all walks of life that powerfully challenge this circumscription of contamination and risk. A nurse and mother of two poisoned children carries out the activist science of geographically mapping "risk zones." A former housing minister becomes committed to the cause after his wife, an audiologist, discovers through her own personal research, not her university training, the effects of lead on hearing impairment. An investigative reporter, returned from exile in France after fleeing military rule in Argentina, writes influential newspaper articles on lead poisoning in Montevideo. Although he lives in [End Page 1620] a "safe" area...