In the Shadow of the Petrochemical Smokestack: Chemical Corridors and Environmental Health 

International Conference – Lyon (France), 28th and 29th November 2019

This conference endeavours to study chemical industries that use fossil fuel derivatives. It will focus on these industrial activities’ environmental and health effects on surrounding areas and local populations. In the 20th century, petrochemical activities shaped their surrounding areas. Not just because such facilities required massive ancillary infrastructure networks to be built, but also because they enabled the production of new substances requiring coal and oil derivatives. As soon as petrochemical facilities were brought on stream, their harmful effects on local communities were perceptible. These industrial activities were rapidly accused of causing health problems for workers and neighbouring populations alike. Conflictuality was generally latent but sometimes broke out in overt violence, especially when highly visible “industrial spillovers” occurred, abruptly putting the spotlight on previously-unnoticed chronic pollution. Up to the present day, this conflictuality can also be vehemently expressed when deindustrialisation breaks the unspoken agreement that may have existed between workers and the companies that paid their wages. When an industrial activity ends, its ecological and health effects may become apparent, fuelling the resentment of the affected local populations and giving rise to activist movements that sometimes draw on revived memories of past disasters.

Therefore, surveys of the petrochemical industry’s health consequences help to reshape social ties in industrial areas. These health surveys respond to strong social demand from workers and neighbouring populations exposed to chronic pollution. Production of this knowledge can be aimed at filling the gaps of scientific knowledge that was not produced or sounding an alert about the potential pathogenic risk of a factory when neighbouring populations carry out a public epidemiological survey, or even instilling doubts about the effects of certain substances in order to prevent regulations from being adopted that would restrict companies’ operations. This process is part of a conflictual context: knowledge is debated, disputed and subject to controversy.

Public authorities play an ambiguous role, sometimes regulating industrial firms, sometimes supporting them. This role is determined by the level of involvement of various interest groups, along with the involvement of economic agents in these cases or the existence of political opportunities (when medical controversies gain sway in the public debate, when conflicts arise between municipal and national authorities, etc.). Thus, the government can facilitate knowledge production in order to make certain cases of pollution visible and to fight against them. The various scales of analysis by public authorities may concur or they may disagree. For example, national public health institutions may issue conclusions that contradict the findings of surveys commissioned by municipal authorities. Despite periods of heated controversy, the attention given to public health issues shows sharp discontinuities in these industrial areas: conclusions of surveys are sometimes forgotten for several decades, leading to identical surveys being repeated. These processes of “active forgetting” contribute to both ignorance about the industry’s health effects, and a furthering of local arrangements to ensure that industrial activity continues despite its harmful effects.

A growing number of monographs on “chemical corridors” are being published around the world, investigating what these areas are called locally. Examples include research on “Cancer Alley” or “Toxic Corridors” in the US, or on the “Triangolo della morte” on the Sicilian coast. These terms refer to districts whose industrial purpose began or was strengthened in the 20th century during the massive wave of infrastructure investments that enabled the expansion of the chemicals industry based on fossil fuel-derived synthesis. Not only did these facilities have an environmental and health impact; they also created a phenomenon of dependence that these districts are struggling to break free from.

However, comparisons between chemical corridors in Europe, North America and others regions are few in number. By bringing together studies carried out on various industrial lands, this conference aims to lay the groundwork for a comparative history of such areas. By breaking with historical scholarship that considers increased fossil energy consumption and local prosperity to be a foregone conclusion, this conference calls for participants to focus their narratives of the petrochemicals industry on the health impact of its activities. As a result, this conference will give special emphasis to papers that take a fresh look at the history of health surveys in industrial areas, and to projects that foster in-depth discussions between researchers in the social sciences and public health. Three main themes are open for debate:

  • The first theme calls for studying how the petrochemical industry shapes a region’s development, factoring in the conflicts about health-related issues. Due to the scale of necessary ancillary infrastructure, the presence of a refinery in a given area contributes to a reshaping of social ties in the surrounding cities or urban areas. Chemical activities transform their host areas by eroding existing arrangements between social groups: agreements on natural resource management (water, air and soil) are altered by the industrial presence. Although industrial players undertake an array of efforts to make their activities acceptable to the local population despite their risks (with emphasis on job creations, the contribution to local tax revenue, or financial compensation for claimants following instances of pollution), the land use and health issues are grounds for opposition from a portion of neighbouring populations and workers. This opposition probably became the recurring obstacle preventing local stakeholders from consenting unanimously to the industrial presence. Conference papers should provide a clearer description of the social characteristics of the groups involved, and should help define the boundaries of health issues at the regional level. The aim will be to understand the resources of the workers (both men and women) who successfully protested the harmful effects of the industry that provided their income, and to shed light on the process through which neighbouring populations grew concerned when they noted health problems. Special attention is warranted for the role of these workers’ relatives in bringing visibility to industrial illnesses. In this regard, it is important to investigate how gender relationships gave structure to the formulation of environmental health issues in chemical corridors.
  • The second theme endeavours to specify the timelines of the process whereby the petrochemical industry’s health and ecological effects become visible and are managed. This conference, by breaking with a history of energy techniques (which tracks the evolution of the corporate strategies of the market leaders), favours the re-emergence of less linear timelines. Thus, industrial illnesses and the industry’s ecological consequences often become visible only with a certain time lag. Light should be cast on the way that workers and their organisations think about and handle these deferred effects. How do healthcare professionals deal with these time lags in carrying out health surveys? To what extent do these time lags change industrial strategies? In addition, long-run studies of a chemical corridor will help build a timeline in order to better grasp successive “industrial risk regimes”, in other words, the predominant social ties and health risk regulation systems for a given time and a given place.
  • The third theme aims to better describe the health knowledge produced, the way that this knowledge serves as a warning about one or more substances, and how this knowledge is used to transform industrial risk regulation practices. The aim will be, on the one hand, to analyse the fields used to produce knowledge about the health effects of industry. Thus, while industrial hygiene endeavours to study the effects of substances on the health of a company’s workers, health surveys carried out at the local level challenge this separation between occupational health and general public health. On the other hand, the aim will be to pick out the differing viewpoints between academic and popular epidemiology approaches. While the popular epidemiology approach may seem less robust in terms of the rules of evidence, it helps to identify epidemic phenomena and to alert researchers who would otherwise not be aware of these health situations. These two kinds of epidemiology also question how regulations are made insofar as academic epidemiology is frequently used by public authorities to detect clusters of illnesses related to industry, whereas public epidemiology has the goal of determining precautionary measures to prevent exposure to substances suspected of being pathogenic.

Thus, there is an undeniable diversity of approaches amidst the various stakeholders: neighbouring populations, academics, local elected representatives or government agency representatives. The conference will endeavour to study and compare these approaches in order to gain a clearer understanding of the slow, winding history of the health impact of the petrochemical infrastructures that form a cornerstone for our contemporary lifestyles and consumption patterns. 

Working languages will be English and French.

Paper proposals will include the name of the applicant, a short CV and an abstract of no more than 400 words. The deadline for the submission of paper proposals is 15th May 2019.

Paper proposals have to be sent simultaneously to [email protected] and [email protected]

Applicants will be informed shortly after 15th June 2019. The organizing committee will cover their accommodation during the conference, and applicants could ask for a cover of reasonable travel costs if required.

Successful applicants will be asked to send a working papers of about 30,000 characters before the 31st October 2019. 

Conference supported by the Fondation de France

 Organizing Committee

Renaud Bécot (Post-doctoral researcher, History, LARHRA, Lyon)

Stéphane Frioux (Maître de conférences, History, University Lyon 2 and IUF, LARHRA)

Gwenola Le Naour (Maître de conférences, Political Science, Sciences Po Lyon and Triangle, Lyon)

Vincent Porhel (Maître de conférences, History, University Lyon 1 and LARHRA)

Scientific Committee

– Laura Centemeri (Research Fellow, Sociology, CNRS – CEMS-EHESS Paris)

– Emilie Counil (Research Fellow, Epidemiology, INED – Paris)

– Anne Dalmasso (Professor, History, Université Grenoble Alpes – LARHRA)

– Xavier Daumalin (Professor, History, Université Aix-Marseille – Director of the UMR TELEMME)

– Philippe Davezies (Professor of medicine and occupational health, University Lyon 1)

– Pierre Fournier (Professor, Sociology, Université d’Aix-Marseille – Director of the Laboratoire méditerranéen de sociologie, LAMES)

– Julie Henry (Maître de conférences, Philosophy, Ecole Normale Supérieure Lyon – Triangle)

– Anne Marchand (Post-doctoral researcher, Sociology, Université Paris 13)

– Pascal Marichalar (Research Fellow, CNRS – IRIS – Paris)

– Emmanuel Martinais (Research Fellow, ENTPE and EVS-Rives – Lyon)

– Geneviève Massard-Guilbaud (Professor, Environmental History, EHESS – CIRED – Paris)

– Judith Rainhorn (Professor, History, Université Paris 1 – Centre d’Histoire Sociale – Paris)

– Christopher Sellers (Professor, History, Stony Brook University – New York)

– Kayo Togawa (Scientist, Section of Environment, International Agency for Research on Cancer / World Health Organization)

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Barbara Allen, Uneasy alchemy: citizens and experts in Louisiana’s chemical corridor disputes, Cambridge (Ma.), MIT Press, 2003.

Barbara Allen, “From Suspicious Illness to Policy Change in Petrochemical Regions: Popular Epidemiology, Science, and the Law in the U.S. and Italy”, Soraya Boudia and Nathalie Jas (dir.), Powerless Science? Science and Politics in a Toxic World, Oxford, Berghahn Books, 2014, p.152–169.

Barbara Allen, Yolaine Ferrier, Alison Cohen, “Through a Maze of Studies: ‘Health Questions and Undone Science’ in a French Industrial Region”, Environmental Sociology, 3(2), 2016, p. 134–144.

Barbara Allen, “Strongly Participatory Science and Knowledge Justice in an Environmentally Contested Region”, Science, Technology, & Human Values, 43(6), 2018, p. 947–971.

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Brian Black, Crude Reality. Petroleum in World History, New York, Rowman & Littlefield, 2012.

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Emilie Counil, Emmanuel Henry, « Frontières disciplinaires et tensions entre savoirs académiques et connaissances issues du terrain dans la production de savoir et d’ignorance en santé et travail », Perspectives interdisciplinaires sur le travail et la santé, 20-1, 2018 [En ligne, consulté le 8 mai 2018]

Nathalie Jas et Soraya Boudia (dir.), Powerless Science ? Science and politics in a toxic world, New York, Bergahn, 2014.

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Cécile Ferrieux, Les couloirs du risque : les milieux industriels et le gouvernement local des risques dans la vallée de la chimie, Thèse de sciences politiques, Université Lyon 2, 2015.

Séverine Frère, Hervé Flanquart (dir.), La ville et ses risques : habiter Dunkerque, Lille, Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2017.

Scott Frickel, Sahra Gibbon, Jeff Howard, Joanna Kempner, Gwen Ottinger, David J. Hess, “Undone science : Charting social movement and civil society challenges to research agenda setting”, Science, Technology & Human Values, 35/4, 2010, p. 444-473.

Anne-Marie Granet-Abisset et Stéphane Gal (dir.), Les territoires du risque, Grenoble, PUG, 2015.

Emmanuel Henry, Ignorance scientifique et inaction publique. Les politiques de santé au travail, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2017.

David J. Hess, Alternative Pathways in Science and Industry : Activism, Innovation and the Environment in the Era of Globalization, Cambridge, MIT Press, 2007.

François Jarrige et Thomas Le Roux, La contamination du monde. Une histoire des pollutions à l’âge industriel, Paris, Le Seuil, 2017 (Forthcoming translation, The MIT Press).

Nathalie Jas, Soraya Boudia (dir.), Toxicants, Health and Regulation since 1945, Londres, Pickering & Chatto, 2013.

Paul Jobin, Maladies industrielles et renouveau syndical au Japon, Paris, éditions de l’EHESS, 2005.

Gwenola Le Naour, Aux marges de l’action publique, Mémoire pour l’habilitation à diriger des recherches en science politique, Université de Strasbourg, 2017

Thomas Le Roux (dir.), Risques industriels. Savoirs, régulations, politiques d’assistance, fin XVIIe-début XXe siècle, Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2016.

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Anne Marchand, Reconnaissance et occultation des cancers professionnels : le droit à la réparation à l’épreuve de la pratique (Seine-Saint-Denis), Thèse d’histoire, Université Paris Saclay, 2018.

Gerald Markowitz et David Rosner, Deceit and Denial. The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2002.

Emmanuel Martinais, « L’emprise du risque sur les espaces industriels », Valérie November, Marion Penelas, Pascal Viot (dir.), Habiter les territoires à risques, Lausanne, Presses polytechniques et universitaires Romandes, 2011, p. 101-119.

Geneviève Massard-Guilbaud et Richard Rodger (dir.), “Reconsidering Justice In Past Cities : When Environmental and Social Dimensions Meet”, Environmental and Social Justice in the City : Historical Perspectives, Isle of Harris, White Horse Press, 2011.

Geneviève Massard-Guilbaud et Charles-François Mathis (dir.), Sous le soleil. Systèmes et transitions énergétiques du Moyen Âge à nos jours, Paris, éditions de la Sorbonne, 2019.

Naomi Oreskes et Erik Conway, Les Marchands de doute, Paris, Le Pommier, 2012 ;

Gwen Ottinger, Refining Expertise: How Responsible Engineers Subvert Environmental Justice Challenges, New York, New York University Press, 2013.

Joseph Pratt, Martin Melosi, Kathleen Brosnan (dir.), Energy Capitals: Local Impact, Global Influence, Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014.

Tyler Priest et Michael Botson, « Bucking the Odds: Organized Labor in Gulf Coast Oil Refining », Journal of American History, vol. 99, nᵒ 1, 2012, p. 100-110.

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Myrna Santiago, The ecology of oil: environment, labor, and the Mexican Revolution, 1900-1938, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Christopher Sellers et Joseph Melling (dir.), Dangerous Trade. Histories of Industrial hazards across a globalized world, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2012.

Annie Thébaud-Mony, Philippe Davezies, Laurent Vogel, Serge Volkoff (dir.), Les risques du travail. Pour ne plus perdre sa vie à la gagner, Paris, La Découverte, 2015.

Frank Uekötter and Uwe Lübken (dir.), Managing the Unknown. Essays on Environmental Ignorance, New York, Berghahn, 2014.

Richard White, « ”Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work For a Living ?” : Work and Nature », William Cronon (dir.), Uncommon Ground. Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, New York, Norton, 1996.

Image: Dean Hochman. Smokestack. Flickr. License: CC BY 2.0

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