The Embodied Ecologies Project

#embodied_ecologies #anthropology #cartography #sensorial_mapping #environment #toxicity

8 February 2024


The Embodied Ecologies project is a collaborative inquiry into how people sense, know, and act to reduce chemical exposures, how human bodies interact with a multiplicity of chemicals in everyday urban life, beginning from the understanding that we live in an unevenly polluted world.

To introduce you to the project, let us first lay out the pressing social, ecological, and health issue of cumulative toxicities and chemical exposures. Then we can explain the project’s scope, key objectives, methodologies, and sites.

by Tait Mandler

Anthropologist, researcher and lecturer at Wageningen University (Netherlands)

Cumulative Toxicities and Exposures

The chemical industry is among the most innovative in the world. More than 100 million substances are listed in the Chemical Abstract Service; 350,000 have been registered for production and use while around 4,000 new compounds are added each day (Wang et al. 2020; Dulio et al. 2018). Environmental scientists and regulators have been overwhelmed by this pace of change; the result is that we only know the safety profiles of a fraction of these chemicals. The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health (Landrigan et al. 2018: 462) reports that we are regularly exposed to some 5,000 chemicals in our daily lives. While these mass-produced chemicals dispersed in the environment have led to “near universal human exposure,” only half have been tested for safety and toxicity.

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Référencer et évaluer la dangerosité des produits chimiques : états des lieux en 2021
Source des données : Helene Wiesinger, Zhanyun Wang, and Stefanie Hellweg, «Deep Dive into Plastic Monomers, Additives, and Processing Aids», Environmental Science & Technology, 2021 55 (13), 9339-9351
Graphic by Philippe Rekacewicz

The pre-market evaluation of safety has only recently become mandatory in a few affluent regions, including the European Union, which in 2007 set up a program for the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH). The EU has adopted the precautionary principle, meaning that companies must prove safety before chemicals can be registered for use. But for many toxic chemicals in Europe and elsewhere, regulation has come too late. Human health has already suffered from exposure to hazardous chemicals such as lead, asbestos, mercury, DDT, and PFAS which have been used uncontrolled for decades. Efforts to control pollution furthermore remain under-developed in countries of the Global South, which are increasingly bearing the burdens of polluting production processes and unsafe consumer products, resulting in environmental injustices on a global scale (Holifield et al. 2018; Suk et al. 2016; Wang et al 2020).

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Cumulative Exposures in Everyday Life
Gamar Markarian

Regulatory action is further undermined by changing paradigms of what counts as toxic. While regulatory action has long relied on setting threshold levels for exposure after lengthy reviews, expert consultations, and toxic tort cases (Homburg and Vaupel 2019; Jasanoff 1995), toxicologists warn that even low levels of chemical exposure can cause harm, upending the fundamental rule that “the dose makes the poison.” In a recent special issue of PLOS Biology, environmental scientists criticized outdated regulatory logics that assume toxic effects emerge at threshold levels while failing “to account for the fact that individuals are exposed to multiple chemicals every day, from the point of conception to the end of life” (Gross and Birnbaum 2017: 2).

Efforts to confront chemical pollution are furthermore fraught with conflicts of interest, skewing what we know about the potential toxicity of manufactured chemicals (Proctor and Schiebinger 2008; Honkela et al. 2014; Gross and McGoey 2018). Murphy (2008) points to how “regimes of invisibility” suppress information on the toxic effects of synthetic chemicals while exaggerating epistemic uncertainty—agnotological corporate strategies that contribute to the suboptimal regulation of toxic chemicals (Proctor and Schiebinger 2008; Boudia and Jas 2014).

Activists, scientists, and policymakers realize that current chemical toxicities are outpacing our ability to understand and to regulate (Liboiron and Tironi 2018; Gross and Birnbaum 2017; Boullier 2019). There is a grim, emerging consensus that the problem is beyond our control—the most prominent reason being the cumulative effects of pollutants, which complicates establishing causal relationships between exposure to specific chemicals and their health effects. More of the same science cannot provide the evidence that regulators need to fix the problem (Boudia and Jas 2014).

The Embodied Ecologies Project

The Embodied Ecologies project explores the mundane but persistent chemical exposures that accumulate in everyday life, threatening both human and environmental health. The project is multi-sites, with fieldwork being conducted in the Philippines, France, and the Netherlands and considers the issue of cumulative toxicities across multiple scales, from the individual to the planetary.

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Field sites and disciplinary approaches brought together by the Embodied Ecologies project
Gamar Markarian and Tait Mandler

The Embodied Ecologies project has four key objectives:

  1. Study through multi-modal ethnography how people living and working in cities sense, know, and act upon chemical exposures in their everyday lives.
  2. Visualize through multi-layered cartography the accumulation of toxic chemicals in human bodies and how political, economic, social, and regulatory forces shape uneven exposure.
  3. Co-create novel harm reduction tools and strategies based on in-depth learning from existing efforts to mitigate chemical toxicities.
  4. Develop novel ecological approaches for studying how people experience, understand and act on potentially toxic chemical exposures, and how political, economic, social, and regulatory forces enable/constrain action.

Our approach to cumulative chemical exposure is embodied in that we study: (1) how exposures are sensed and experienced by our (semi-)permeable bodies; and (2) the myriad ways in which people act to mitigate chemical harm. By studying embodied harm reduction practices such as avoiding contact with chemicals or drinking bottled water, we gain insight into how people understand (or fail to understand) how chemicals enter into their bodies and flow back into their environments. Our approach is ecological in that it holistically examines multiple routes of chemical exposure across the places where people live and work, which in turn are shaped by social, political, and economic forces and by regulatory structures and priorities (Lock 2018).

Bringing Together Ethnography and Cartography

A growing body of toxicological and epidemiological research is seeking to determine the health effects of chemical cocktails. This is done with increasingly sophisticated models in a variety of research approaches including human biomonitoring studies and exposome research. These studies are nevertheless constrained by lack of baseline knowledge on the safety of the chemicals people encounter in their everyday lives, and have limited attention for the political, social and economic factors that put people at risk and constrain their harm reduction efforts.

The Embodied Ecologies project fills these gaps by focusing on uneven chemical exposures in everyday life and the social, political, and economic factors that constrain and/or enable people’s efforts to protect themselves from harm. To do this we bring together ethnographic and cartographic methodologies to engage in collaborative studies that seek to make the complex webs of human-chemical interactions visible and actionable.

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Unpacking the chemical and social toxicities of tear gas, noise grenades, and police violence
Mathieu Vigour and Alexis Grussi

Ethnography is a methodology for getting at the nitty-gritty of everyday life that involves qualitative research documenting what people do, what they feel, what they say, what they know, and what matters to them. The ethnographic practice of both researching and writing explores people in their various contexts (from the local to the planetary), or we might say explores bodies in their multi-scalar ecologies.

Our multi-modal ethnographic approach examines how people living and working in cities sense, know, and act upon chemical exposures in their everyday lives. Our methods of participatory, meaning we work with our interlocutors to co-produce representations of cumulative exposures in their own lives and communities.

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Sensing, knowing, and acting on toxicities in the Netherlands
Martine Wijnstra

 Which chemical exposures do they experience as safe or unsafe, and why?
  Which sensory experiences trigger concerns about toxicity—e.g. smell, taste, irritated skin or eyes, health problems such as asthma, dying plants?
 How are valuations of safety and risk shaped by past experiences and by scientific knowledge?
 How are lived experiences with chemicals shared within families, and among friends, peers, local authorities, and health workers?
 What are the effects of grassroots activism, corporate advertising, (mis)trust in science and government, and (social) media information and misinformation on people’s awareness of cumulative toxicity?
 How do problems identified by citizens and scientists compare?

Cartography: Among other instruments, we implement specific cartographic practices that make it possible to visualize — in other words to draw — the way in which the inhabitants, the members of the communities perceive and experience their various living environments, whether domestic (their homes and their neighbourhoods) or professional (their workplaces, offices, workshops, factories).

Embodied Ecologies maps may combine qualitative (experiential and sensorial) and quantitative data (on socio-economic variables, occupations, chemical exposures across diverse routes) from available open-source data to represent multiple scales of analysis.

These qualitative mapping methods are essentially based on people’s experience and perception of their daily environment. It is the reason why we call it sensitive or emotional cartography, which are one of the various practices in “experimental cartography” whose aim is to make visible what never appears on maps.

In a later stage, we shall return to these areas and carry out scientific analyses to mesure contamination levels, so that we can compare them with the danger estimated by human perception.

The participatory process of making the maps will deepen our understanding of what chemical exposure means to people working in high-risk occupations and living in exposed communities. Comparison of the maps within cities will provide insights on uneven exposure, how exposures are experienced, understood and acted upon, and the political, economic, social and regulatory forces that shape uneven exposure.

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Sensory experiences of noise and air pollution in Grenoble
Afroditi Avgerou

Our participants, interlocutors, and collaborators include:

  • High-risk occupations, including nail salon workers, cleaners, workers in factories, recycling, and electronic appliance refurbishing shops, motorcycle taxi drivers, waste pickers and agricultural workers. The sources of chemical exposure are in the objects, substances, and infrastructures workers interact with.
  • Exposed communities. Due to where they live, cumulative inequalities, or bodily vulnerabilities, certain communities are more exposed to accumulating toxicity. They include people (often migrants, and in Baguio, indigenous people) living in neighborhoods exposed to industrial pollution as well as people traversing developmental stages such as pregnant women and small children.
  • Toxicity menders: People dedicated to researching, countering, mitigating, or mending chemical harm. This group includes environmental scientists, local authorities, environmental health activists, artists, community organizers, organic food farmers, alternative health specialists, advocates of sustainability, and concerned citizens who inform themselves and their peers about the toxic potential of chemicals and actively engage in harm reduction practices.

Focusing on Everyday Practices of Harm Reduction

In mapping how people sense, know and act in the face of persistent pollution, we will pay special attention to how city dwellers—people living in polluted communities, workers in high-risk occupations, city planners, and activists—assert agency to reduce harm in their everyday lives. Harm reduction techniques may be routines learnt from childhood or experimentally (or professionally) developed in response to new environmental challenges such as wearing masks to counter smog during commutes or filtering water when floods hit during typhoons (now more frequent due to climate change).

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Reducing the Harms of Cumulative Exposures
Gamar Markarian

Manuel Tironi (2018) refers to everyday acts of domestic caring for people, plants, and animals in contexts of pervasive toxicity as forms of “intimate activism”—acts that are far from spectacular but nonetheless life-enabling and both ethically and politically significant. Still, the ability of people to protect themselves from chemical harm is grossly uneven. They may be aware of the health risks of pesticides that contaminate their food, but may be unable to afford organically grown produce, which may or may not be sold in their communities. They may be aware of the endocrine disrupting effects of BPA that seeps from plastic water bottles, the immune-system distorting effects of PFAS, and the neurological damage caused by lead, but their access to safe tap water may be limited.

Acknowledging this unevenness yet refusing to be paralyzed by it, the Embodied Ecologies project seeks to identify what Jane Bennett and colleagues refer to as “seeds of a good Anthropocene”—a novel approach to governing ecological crises that invites us to rethink the future building on “experiences drawn from a diversity of practices, worldviews, values, and regions that could accelerate the adoption of pathways to transformative change” (Bennett et al. 2016: 441).


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