Asking how and why industrial hazards persist

In this blog entry, Dangerous Trade co-editor Christopher Sellers discusses industrial dangers, past and present, and how people have sought to discover and correct these hazards.

Over the past few months, a burst of stories have made headlines in the New York Times and elsewhere about dangers of what we buy and use have posed to those in foreign lands. First came a harrowing report last December about what was happening to car batteries that Americans had used up and discarded.  A growing business has emerged of shipping these batteries to Mexico, where around disassembly plants, lead has been steadily escaping into the air and soil, to poison neighborhood children. Then came the coverage of China’s Foxconn, manufacturer of Apple’s i-pad.  We learned that this latest, dazzling digital wonder, brought to us by one of America’s most respected and successful firms, had come with a cost none of us knew about or had bargained for.  Workers in China had paid, instead, with lengthy work-days, exploitative and sometimes toxic working conditions, and distress that could reportedly turn suicidal. 

Scientists and scholars who have followed these industrial dangers for years have to applaud the media’s new in the distant hazards imposed by our own consumer purchases.  The rising awareness suggests the prospect that, finally, more effective ways of mobilizing and intervening against them may arise.  Those of us who have followed this kind of issue, and sought to dig up its history, have to conclude that these sporadic reports offer only a visible tip of what is likely a global iceberg.  International studies suggest that occupational diseases alone kill more throughout the world than malaria.  These numbers do not include the many additional casualties from contaminants in the air, water, and soil.  With rebounding economic growth throughout the world, this toll is no doubt on the rise once again, especially in the developing world.

A starting point for understanding how and why these dangers continue to recur is to recognize that this problem is far from new.  Dangerous Trade: Histories of industrial hazard across a globalizing world, is the first book to take a genuinely global approach to their history, one that encompasses both the developing and the developed world.  

Dangerous Trade explores the contours of this kind of problem not only in our contemporary world, but historically, through the past century and more of what has been a long-standing trade in industry-derived dangers.  In every period when international trade has picked up, the most hazardous industries have tended to cross national boundaries, to gravitate to where regulation and awareness of the attendant hazards remain less.  Looking at examples from colonial Malaysia’s mining industries to the extraction of oil in Mexico, this book’s essays offer rigorously documented accounts of just why and how these dangerous industries arose where they did, and the ways in which locals strove to cope with them.  As these essays make clear, the ways and means by which dangerous activities travel has nevertheless been shifting over the last century. As technology has changed, nations especially in the developed world have come up with new and more effective ways of recognizing and correcting the worst hazards.  The result, however, is hardly one of unadulterated progress. Instead, these hazards endure, if in changing and ever more wily ways. They get shipped elsewhere, where the companies that rely on them, and the consumers who give these companies their business, can once more put their dangers out of mind.  Hence, the resurgence of poisonings from lead, perhaps the longest known and most studied of industrial hazards, but still sickening workers and children from Uruguay to Mexico in our contemporary world.  

This collection constitutes a first effort to ask how and why these problems have persisted, even decades after new efforts have arisen around the globe successfully to identify and address them. A central concern of the collection, as well, is to generalize cross-nationally, about the evolving repertoire through which people in different times and places have sought to discover and correct these dangers, once they arise.  From the early health departments to worker compensation laws of the early twentieth century, to the environmental legislation starting in the sixties and seventies, to latter day campaigns to ban a dangerous substance like asbestos, the tools and targets of those who would ameliorate these dangers have constituted a work in progress.   Often it is precisely the loopholes in an earlier system of control that make a later one necessary.  But a key theme as well is that amelioration has not been a given even once the hazards became unmistakable to the experts and officials in charge.  Expert activism was often important in calling attention to new hazards, but as if not more important in stirring real change was the mobilization of the inexpert.  From the workers in Mexican oil fields to the environmental agitators in late twentieth century France and Uruguay, those who were themselves the victims of these exposures also had to mobilize, to marshal the available political tools to induce governments as well as scientists to consider their problems. 

If these histories suggest just how persistent industrial hazards like lead or asbestos can be, together they also offer many grounds for hope.  Not just failures but success stories abound here, of mobilizations fighting asbestos and lead battery-burning and pesticides and liquefied natural gas facilities. In addition to elucidating these problems’ persistence, these essays thereby offer an abundance of models that may inspire today’s practitioners, activists, policy-makers, and citizens, and on which they may build.

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