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Reviewed by:
  • Hazardous Chemicals: Agents of Risk and Change, 1800–2000 ed. by Ernst Homburg and Elisabeth Vaupel
  • Adam M. Romero (bio)
Hazardous Chemicals: Agents of Risk and Change, 1800–2000 Edited by Ernst Homburg and Elisabeth Vaupel. New York: Berghahn, 2019. Pp. 407.

Industrial chemicals are a major driver of environmental, economic, and technological change. Their increased production in the nineteenth century contributed to the rapid growth of industrial economies and introduced novel risks and unprecedented harms. In the edited collection Hazardous Chemicals, eleven authors explore this "double-faced interaction between innovation and risk." They take a biographical approach to chemical histories that follow chemicals across a variety of intellectual domains to shed light on how humanity's relationship with hazardous substances is conditioned by a multitude of factors, from their material properties and economic demand to shifting cultural and scientific perceptions of poisons, toxicity, and pollution.

The editorial introduction provides an excellent discussion of the history of poisons and dangerous substances and is helpful for highlighting one of the main methodological claims of the book: that focusing on a single chemical or class of chemicals can be useful for thinking through the complex and evolving "life cycle" of hazardous chemicals. The book is divided into three cumulative sections framed partly chronologically and partly topically around (1) chemical substances and (2) social and scientific questions their production and use generated. In the first section, Joost Mertens, for instance, explores copper arsenite pigments, their use in coloring foodstuffs and textiles, and the earliest history of chemical regulation and social chemical consciousness, while in the third, Amy Hay explores the controversial role of phenoxy herbicides in warfare as well as the contentious legal, health, and environmental implications of their use.

One the most informative aspects of the book is how many chapters offer comparative international histories of chemicals and chemical regulation. For example, Alexander von Schwerin's chapter on cyclamates explores how a chemical substance viewed as harmful and thus regulated in one country can have a completely different life history in another. Chemical companies developed and marketed cyclamate sweeteners in the 1950s, but how those sweeteners were used and regulated differed substantially between the United States and West Germany, due in part to how toxicity was understood, whether an artificial sweetener was considered a foodstuff or a pharmaceutical, and even a consumer's previous relationship with weight-loss and diabetic foods.

Overall, the edited collection offers scholars an excellent set of biographical chemical histories. However, despite this superb scholarship, it is difficult to escape the feeling that even an expansive book like this cannot [End Page 263] do the history of industrial chemicals justice. That is not the fault of the editors or the authors; instead it lies in the profundity of our modern chemical dilemma. This work begs the question of what a collective treatment of biographical chemical histories says about how we got to where we are today: an uneven yet thoroughly contaminated world. On the one hand, the authors argue that power was the most potent ingredient in the history of any hazardous chemical, whether that power was used by chemical companies to shape regulation of toxic substances, by U.S. public health officials to claim that Black people were inherently diseased, or by environmentalist organizations to push for a DDT ban that exposed farmworkers to increased harm. On the other, it says that the laboratory practices and laws used to regulate hazardous chemicals have failed us spectacularly.

But most of all, the book shows that the universal framing of industrial chemicals in terms of innovation and risk continues to be too reductive, not just for this text, but for society as whole. As many stories in the book make clear, framing a company's purposeful poisoning of their workers, the public, and the environment as a need to balance innovation and risk discounts the malice and violence that has informed the past two centuries of industrial chemical production. It vacates power and reduces actual lives impacted to statistics of harm within a chemical cost-benefit analysis. For this reader, that means that the only answer to society's chemical dilemma lies not in the precautionary principle...


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