The Relativity of Toxicity

The Relativity of Toxicity

Chemical storage tanks in Houston, TXI’ve been thinking a lot about toxicity lately. I live in Houston, one of the nation’s most toxic cities and the terminal point of the Houston shipping channel, which  (depending on how you count) is home to the largest concentration of petrochemicals in the world. I know this because I live here, which is also why I know a little bit about the virtual absence of zoning laws that invites heavy industry into the city, the questionable quality of the drinking water, and the geography of oil and gas capitalism that is reflected in the patchy distributions of both wealth and hazards throughout the city.

This summer, Hurricane Harvey transformed this situation into a toxic spectacle. At the time, you might have heard about the “dirty burns” of petrochemicals in the city as plants quickly burned off reserves to accelerate shut down protocols, producing levels of pollutants above what is usually allowed. This happened, not incidentally, at the same time, the Texas Council on Environmental Quality shut down its monitoring stations to protect them from the weather and the EPA created a state of exception to the Clean Air Act to protect oil and gas production.

You might also have heard about the fire at the Arkema chemical plant in nearby Crosby that combusted when its coolant system failed after being flooded with six feet of water. Or about the dozen or so superfund sites in and around the city–from oil sludge dumps to an old paper mill–that flooded, producing untold contamination and leading to the removal of over 500 barrels of toxic waste.Sierra Club map of toxic sites in Houston

In the long aftermath of Harvey, toxicity has begun again to appear in more mundane ways, and, like the abundance of superfund sites, many of these point not to sudden disaster, but to the way our lives are already toxified, to what Michelle Murphy calls the “chemical regime of living” characteristic of contemporary modes of production and consumption that “tie us to transnational economies” generating, off gassing, and absorbing the stuff of the “chemical recomposition” of life itself. We are all differentialy positioned within this regime, and sometimes in surprising ways. Murphy, for example, notes the Canadian organization Environmental Defense found elevated levels of toxicity in family members of an Aamjiwnaang environmental activist (outrageous, but not surprising), but also in a number of high-ranking politicians (not the usual story of toxic politicians).

In a presentation a couple of weeks after the hurricane, Marianela Acuña Arreaza, executive director of the Fe Y Justicia Worker Center (the only worker center in this city of 2.3 million) described her urgent focus was on protecting day laborers and other low-wage workers from the hazards of the cleanup effort. In the aftermath of a destructive storm or flood, such workers– many of whom are undocumented and all of whom are precarious–are essential to ‘mucking out’ and ‘cleaning up’, two terms that are profoundly euphemistic in their erasure of the materialities and multiple directionalities involved: what, or who, is in that muck? What, or who, does it go into after it goes out? With apologies to Mary Douglass, if cleaning up means putting dirt back in its place, what kinds of pollution does cleaning up entail? And what is the place in which such detritus “belongs” (a pragmatic question when you’re talking about roughly 8 million cubic yards of the stuff)? Arreaza, from the Fe y Justicia Worker Center talked about systematic efforts to get gloves and properly rated masks to day laborers, and a train the trainer program to inform workers about occupational health and safety in a context where they will be pressured to work too much and too fast in toxic and otherwise dangerous conditions, with little or no protective gear or information about hazardous materials. She noted that in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, they saw a major spike in job-related worker deaths. Last year, 30 workers were killed on the job in Houston. Her organization is doing all they can to prevent that number from spiking post-Harvey.

The everydayness of Harvey’s toxicity also appeared in a conversation I had with Nick Mrzlak, a coordinator for Team Rubicon, a veteran’s organization that does volunteer disaster response and recovery that was founded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Catching him in his office in the impressive makeshift command center for Team Rubicon’s Houston area rescue and recovery operation, I asked Mrzlak if there any of their crews were encountering problems with toxicity. He said the crews are not equipped or trained to deal with hazardous materials, and only work on residential projects, so they wouldn’t be involved in cleaning up chemical spills or the like. But, he said, there is black mold in every house, so in that sense, every cleanup site is toxic. It is important to note that Team Rubicon can prioritize safety in a way that is exceedingly difficult and likely far more consequential for day laborers. But even so, Mrzlak’s initial evocation of residential areas as non-toxic doesn’t quite hold.

Houston metal recycling facility
A metal sorting location on one of Houston’s bayous. This was a stop on a TEJAS Toxic Tour I went on in spring 2017.

This is not only because of the mold—black or otherwise–that is ubiquitous in Houston (including, I recently learned, in the HVAC system in my own house). Houston’s lack of zoning laws means residential areas are not reliably removed from industrial ones and, beyond the household toxicants found in nearly every north American home, work on houses in Houston can mean work in the effluvia of immediately proximate heavy industry, from fertilizer plants to oil refineries to metal recycling operations. A number of neighborhoods in Houston are literal fence line communities, and the spread of industrial chemicals is part of the city’s everyday ecosystem. I remember an email I got from Rice University the week I moved to Houston, which coincided with the 2015 Memorial Day flood. The email warned us not to walk through or play in puddles because of the possible presence of snakes, fire ants, and chemicals.

A similar email after the first day of Harvey also warned of bacteria, another of Harvey’s lingering ecological gifts. The husband of a friend of mine had been out in a canoe with some neighbors working as lay rescuers after the army corps of engineers flooded their neighborhood as part of the “controlled release” of water from one of the two reservoirs that were close to overflowing. He had gotten a small cut on his leg that became infected from the contaminated water and festered for weeks. Not long after, news came out about a 77-year-old woman who fell in her flooded house and broke her arm. Her arm became infected with the so-called flesh-eating bacteria that causes necrotizing fasciitis and she died. She was followed weeks later by a young carpenter, Josue Zurita, who contracted the same bacteria while working in flooded homes in Galveston. His obituary said he’d moved to the U.S. from Oaxaca, MX to help his family.

These encounters reiterate the way toxicity (like cancer or diabetes) is prone to travel along paths mapped out by existing inequalities: day laborers vs veteran volunteers; the story of Josue Zurita. But these encounters have also left me thinking about how it also literally flows with the water, every-which-way: the everyday chemical ecology of Houston; its endemic mold; the middle class white home owner who died of the same flood-contracted bacterial infection that killed Mr. Zurita, the working class immigrant from Mexico. The Aamjiwnaang environmental activist and the high-ranking politicians. Like Hurricane Harvey itself (though not its recovery), which flooded both rich and poor neighborhoods, toxicity is an equal opportunity menace.

Given the way that toxicity (perhaps unlike pollution) tends to wreak havoc with causal chains that lead from production to consumption, undermining the politics of revelation and the forms of accountability that come from them, it seems more productive to probe the relativity of toxicity, that is, the way that varying thresholds of toxicity are produced through complex interaction between the molecular and the biopolitical as a given toxin or toxicant travels. To think less in terms of causal chains, and more in terms of the regulatory, affective, and epistemic regimes through which one’s “attunement to the chemosphere,” in Nick Shapiro’s words, becomes a matter of toxicity at all, a bit like Latour’s distinction between matters of fact and matters of concern.

Burn pit in BaladThe relativity of toxicity is one way I’ve been approaching a

Google satellite tour of Balad burn pit.
A veteran formerly stationed at Balad gives me a virtual tour of the burn pit on a cell phone using google satellite images.

project I’m working on with my colleague (and erstwhile guest blogger) Ken MacLeish about burn pit related illnesses among Iraq War veterans. Burn pits are massive open pits into which the U.S. military and the contractor KBR dumped nearly every bit of waste produced on bases in Iraq–from plastic water bottles and toner cartridges to shit and piss to spent weapons to medical waste. The pits are then doused in jet fuel, set on fire, and kept burning round the clock. At its peak in the mid-aughts, the 500-foot-long burn pit at the joint army-air force base in Balad, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, was burning between 100-200 tons of waste per day, and producing clouds of toxic ashy smoke that blanketed the base–essentially a city of 30,000 people–for days on end. Advocates for veterans sickened by burn pits call their ailments “the toxic wounds of war.” In doing this research, I have been struck, among other things, by the fact that when the military carried out environmental testing on the burn pits at Balad, it did not test for a number of “criteria pollutants” that would be part of standard environmental testing in the US, including ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide. Some things that are toxicants here in the US are, in Iraq, made to vanish into thick ashy smoke, never to rematerialize as objects of knowledge even as they may have left their chemical marks in the bodies of veterans, Iraqis, and ‘third country nationals’ alike.

Maven of toxicity Vanesssa Agard-Jones traces the way regulatory regimes produced a post-colonial chemical landscape in which a particular pesticide, Chlordécone, was prohibited from use in the U.S. and continental Europe, but made essential to the agricultural economy of (European) Martinique, an arrangement whose legacy is now consumed in every morsel of food grown on the island and registers in endochrine systems, among other places, giving rise to new forms of decolonial sexual politics. I have been thinking of her work as I learn more about burn pits, and the way environmental testing attempts to reinscribe a chemical geography that conceptually purifies the U.S. and Iraq as separate kinds of places (subject to different environmental criteria) while simultaneously probing the way the U.S. has materially polluted Iraq (though only through an attention to the bodies of U.S. soldiers).

These are both cases where the regulation of chemicals produces an uneven landscape of toxicity by relativizing toxicity itself. What is toxic here in the U.S. is not toxic in Martinique or Iraq (I read Alex Nading’s work on the public health management of mosquitos in Nicaragua to suggest something similar about bleach). If we take this seriously, if we think through the relativity of toxicity that presents toxicity as an assemblage, I wonder what politics might emerge.

Here in Houston, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS) has over the years produced abundant evidence about the presence of carcinogens and other toxicants in the air, soil, water, and homes in fence line communities afflicted with cancer clusters, elevated rates of asthma, and other correlated health problems. But, given the way cause and effect and production and consumption are molecularly and environmentally and socially diffused in contexts of toxicity–given the way toxicity travels both along familiar routes of structural inequality, and also every-which-way like surging floodwaters–this evidence has proved to be of little forensic value. Perhaps the relativity of toxicity might usher in a different knowledge project? One that might find different places of friction in these flows that seep into our very pores.

Zoë Wool is assistant professor in the department of anthropology at Rice university. Zoë works at the intersection of (medical) anthropology, critical disability studies, STS, and queer theory. Most of her ethnographic work explores the intimacies, socialities, and materialities of life making among injured US soldiers and veterans. She’s also been thinking about new feminist, queer, and cripistemological histories of neurology…among other things.

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