Getting Value or Poison? Benefit – Harm Dilemmas in Efforts to Improve Life

Iris Borowy's picture

From: Iris Borowy

Shanghai University



On 28 and 29 April, 2018, Shanghai University hosted a workshop on Getting Value or Poison?  Benefit – Harm Dilemmas in Efforts to Improve Life. Co-organized by the Center for the History of Global Development at Shanghai University, the international Deadly Dreams Network ( , and the Hazardous Travels research group of the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, it was the third international workshop held as part of the Deadly Dream project, dedicated to studying the cultural history of environmental poisons.

This meeting was specifically dedicated to the ambivalent nature of many toxins, whose release into the environment have increased dramatically over the last two centuries. While the impact of this development has often been serious and the long-term consequences are, as yet, unclear, the historical evaluation is complicated by the fact that it is part of larger developments of increasing production, income, living standards and wellbeing. This distinction between helpful and harmful substances has often been blurred, and materials that have ended up as toxins in one context have provided real benefit in another. Thus, the workshop sought to explore some case studies as well as overriding themes that addressed this contradictory nature of toxins.

Kicking off the workshop, drug historian Ved Baruah, (Strathclyde University / Shanghai University). explored some of the internal discrepancies of the concept of poisons. Historically, the concept has been fluid. opium could be perceived as a valuable medicine or an addictive drug, and the difference depended less on scientific-medical advancements than on social, poitical and economic factors. Similarly, as there was no binary distinction between between man and nature or the individual and the group: what was good for the individual might be bad for the group or the environment or both or vice versa. The following paper by Bettine Wahrig (Braunschweig University) on arsenic provided a powerful demonstration of such impressive fluidity. Arsenic, a metalloid abundantly present in the Earth crust, has been credited with a bewildering variety of effects including curing malaria, increasing mountain-climbing and sexual potency (among village people), or killing people (among city people). While consumed without apparent detrimental effects in some areas, it constituted a short or long-term poison in others. The reasons these differences were and have remained unclear. Arsenic flatly defied the discipline of toxicology, emerging in the 19th century, along with its reliance on precision, unequivocal quantification and threshold definition.

Also pertaining to the health field, Iris Borowy reported on medical waste. In the 1980s tightening hygienic regulations and an effective medical reaction to the HIV/Aids epidemic led to an increase in the use of disposable equipment, clearly saving lives. However, the resulting waste problem created new health risks: including infections from infected blood, human tissues or body parts, injuries from discarded syringes or poisonings from chemical products.  Rising hospital care in low-income countries, in itself a positive development, had exacerbated the problem since appropriate methods of waste disposal were often unavailable, and waste pickers working in and around dump sites among the people most at risk. Limited problem awareness further contributed to the problem.

Other cases identified wealth differences as determining factor. Ayushi Dhawan (RCC Munich) presented findings from field studies on shipbreaking in India, whereby poor and lower cast people manually dismantle ships from high income countries. Ill-informed and untrained shipyard workers are routinely exposed to toxic substances including asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), lead, chromates, mercury. Two case studies involving French ships that had attracted extensive media attention due to the intensive lobbying by international NGOs against the demolition showed how  shipping companies, environmentalists, villagers, shipbreakers the Indian Supreme Court and local authorities confronted each other with contrary interpretations of what constituted “toxins,” “waste”, “recycle raw material” and international law. While the economic asymmetry was clear enough with regard to ship breaking, the dynamic seemed more complicated in the case of the export of often toxic waste from West to East Germany in the 1970s and 1980s, presented by Jonas Stuck (RCC Munich). Interpreted as a manifestation of the “risk society,” framed by Ulrich Beck in the 1980s, this transfer seemed an externalization of risk on a national scale. The political reunification after 1989 could thus be regarded as a reunification of toxins and risks. In practical terms, it resulted in immense costs necessary for the modernization of the landfill after the formerly externalized toxins became re-internalized after 1989.

While these cases involved people living with toxic risks because of poverty and/or the inability to mount effective protests, other papers addressed  episodes in which people at the time were not aware or did not care about environmental or health risks. Anne Jorunn Froeyen (Jaer Museum, Nærbø, Norway) analyzed how pesticides were marketed in the region of Rogaland, the origin of approximately 20% of food in Norway. Though pesticides had been used since the 19th century, the practice reached a new level in the 1960s when the Ministry of Agriculture provided financial aid to programs acquainting farmers with new products and their usage. In the process, agronomists tied their professional authority and reputation as representatives of farmers’ interests to recommendations for pesticides. Information regarding possible risks for people or for the environment was initially non-existent and only gradually supplied and accepted. Similarly, the microstudy on tanneries on the island of Osterøy by Tora Karoline Mjelde Rundhovde (Agder University, Kristiansand) involved a situation in which chemicals were perceived as help rather than risk. In a small, tight-knit community comprised mainly of tanners, virtually the entirely village participated in revolutionary changes in the industrialization of the tanning industry. Replacing organic substances like bark with synthetic chemicals, notably metal chromium, shortened the tanning process from well above six months to mere hours. The fact that the chemicals entailed health risks was impossible to overlook, since occasionally tanners would faint or even die from inhaling the emissions. However, as these chemicals tangibly reduced heavy manual labor and kept the tanneries in business until alternative job opportunities arrived, they were widely perceived as a positive influence for the community.  Different – yet similar – questions of risk construction informed the discussion by James Webb  (Colby College/Shanghai University) of the ambivalent status of human excreta. His focus was on India as the country with the highest percentage of its population defecating out-of-doors of any national population in Eurasia and, consequently, experiencing a series of diseases transmitted by fecal-oral pathogens. Policies designed to give the poor access to toilets, urinals, baths, and laundry facilities while also using human waste to produce bio-gas and fertilizer have worked well in cities but were largely unsuccessful in rural areas, where many people not unhappy with their excretory practices, and few believed that open defecation was linked to diseases.

Other papers turned from how toxins had been experienced to efforts to regulate them. demonstrating the inherent difficulties of finding rules for something as volatile as substances suspected to have toxic qualities. Both Dafne Lemus (Bergen University) and  Christopher Neumaier (ZZF Potsdam) presented case studies highlighting the importance of political context when dealing with incomplete information. Christopher Neumaier explained how the US Environmental Protection Agency categorized diesel as cancer causing in the 1980s and German authorities did the same but then relabeled it as clean some years later. Diesel gained a bad reputation when the introduction of unleaded gasoline dramatically reduced the emission of particle of gas-powered cars, while the particle emissions of diesel remained high. The stage was set when US President Nixon focused public health concerns on cancer with a declared “war on cancer” in the 1970s. Though scientific research regarding the connection between diesel emissions and cancer remained inconclusive, suspected carcinogenic substances faced broad consumer rejection. In Germany, meanwhile, more stringent air regulations was tied to new technologies involving better fuel combustion which reduced the size of particles. Though this change effectively increased their carcinogenic properties, public and political interest in this topic faded as the focus of emission concerns shifted from cancer to climate change, so that diesel could be constructed as less harmful. No such shift occurred in the United States, where climate change remained a controversial issue, so that diesel retained its negative image.  Dafne Lemus’ analysis of the different approaches taken to Bisphenol A (BPA) regulation in Denmark and neighboring Norway confirmed the importance of political frameworks for the perception of scientific questions.  BPA has long been considered an endocrine disruptor, and animal studies have reported adverse health effects at current exposure estimates. In Denmark, the BPA problem was framed as a public health problem leading to political engagement. In Norway the issue was constructed mainly as an environmental problem to be solved at the administrative level. Consequently, in the Danish case, scientific uncertainties were addressed decisively on the basis of the precautionary principle. In Norway, uncertainties were dealt with as a technical problem, leading to contradictory information and compromising citizens’ trust in public institutions. But even when in place, the effects of legislation is difficult to measure. Olwenn Martin (Brunel University London) reported on a retrospective analysis commissioned by the European Commission of the cumulative benefits of European chemical regulation. This was attempted quantitatively for a limited number of human health cases studies; particularly, the carcinogenic effects of benzene industrial emissions, the neurodevelopmental and cardiovascular effects of lead, and the reproductive health effects of phthalates. The studies met numerous practical and conceptual difficulties, and the attribution of decreases in monitored chemical levels to a specific piece of legislation has inevitably remained circumstantial as counterfactuals has necessarily remained speculative. Nevertheless, efforts to understand the effects of legislation seem essential for informed policy decisions, and studies on the cumulative benefits over extended time horizons suggest large benefits likely to far outweigh the initial costs of investment in safer chemical innovation.

 Perhaps the most eye-opening contribution to the workshop was the presentation by Justine Philip, (University of New England/Museum Victoria Associate) regarding the widespread use of strychnine and 1080 poison to eliminate unwanted vertebrate species in Australia and New Zealand. She revealed the little known history of the massive use of toxins to reshape the fauna of a whole continent. Targeting unwanted animals formed an essential component of the colonial project since the beginning, enabling the expansion of agricultural production and livestock holdings across Australia and New Zealand. What set this case apart from the other papers was not only the immense quantities of toxins employed over a very large territory for a very long time. It was also troubling for the way in which, instead of being reduced, the use of these toxins  has recently been increased, now ironically directed towards environmental conservation programs and widely endorsed by environmentalists. Paradoxically, the use of poison now aims at eliminating introduced species from National Parks and conservation zones where these species would not be without the large-scale transformation of Australian life in whose service those same toxins had earlier been employed.

Finally, May-Brith Ohman Nielsen (Agder University, Kristiansand, and founding member of the Deadly Dreams network) used some exemplary case studies to consider the large questions of dilemmas of toxins. Thus, scrap rubber was used in children’s playgrounds, forming pedagogically flawless but potentially toxic play environments. Ironically, environmental legislation regulating the exposure of sea birds to discarded rubber was more likely to apply than health regulation regarding children. Meanwhile, the fishing sector, which provided food and employment to communities, was also responsible for the majority of plastic waste on shores. Many toxins encompass products generally connected with modern quality of life and identities, and thereby determine “what we do, how we live and what we look like.” Nielsen pointed out the scale of the challenge: the average human body today contains 400 different foreign chemicals, up from 60 in the 1970s, wondering whether “we are at war with ourselves.”

Discussions connected these presentation and issues to those of earlier meetings of the network. Once again, one major finding was the scale of the issue and the extent to which toxins formed an inseparable part of development at the heart not only of economic growth but also improving living standards and life expectancies. Thus, the increase of toxins as part of human environments and bodies has clearly not been a side show or aberration but an integral component of a development widely considered beneficial and desirable. However, while true in the aggregate, the benefits and harm seemed unevenly distributed. Workshop participants remained divided over whether there was generally a simple distribution of the global poor bearing the burden of the emission of toxins with the benefits going to the better off parts of society, or whether more complex dynamics, working across time and space were at play. Similarly, discussions addressed the question but acknowledged that there were no easy answers regarding the definition of toxins and the allocation of responsibilities or blame between different stakeholders. Particularly challenging, there was no ready answer to the question of how to evaluate the poisoning of the environment when the people involved saw nothing problematic or objectionable about their practices. While several such cases had been presented and seemed easily identifiable as misguided perceptions today, similar dynamics clearly involve present-day populations in myriad ways. Cases in point include micro plastics shedding clothes or climate change inducing fuels, which all workshop participants have made use of.

On a positive note, all participants agreed that the topic was of undoubted importance and current relevance, and welcomed further opportunities to continue discussions in future meetings of the Deadly Dreams network.


Saturday, 28 April

9.00 – 9.15         


Yong-an Zhang, Iris Borowy



9.15 – 10.30



Ved Baruah, Strathclyde University / Shanghai University

Shifting constructions of toxins – some thoughts and questions


Discussant: Bettina Wahrig



10.45 – 12.15



Bettina Wahrig, University of Braunschweig

Between industrial waste and everyday use: Arsenic in the long 19th century


Iris Borowy, Shanghai University

Medical waste: Blessing turned threat



13.30 – 15.00


Ayushi Dhawan, RCC, Munich

India’s Shipbreaking Business, Emerging Economies, and the “Right to Pollute”


Jonas Stuck, RCC Munich

From Toxic Division to Shared Burdens

Transnational Toxic Waste Trade and the Two Germanys, 1970-2000



15.15 – 16.45



Anne Jorunn Froeyen, Jaer Museum

When good becomes bad and ugly. Pesticide texting in Norway


Olwenn Martiin, Brunel University London

The cumulative benefits of European chemical regulation



Sunday, 29 April


9.00 – 10.30



Christopher Neumaier, ZZF Potsdam

Shifting Evaluations from “Clean” to “Cancer-Causing”

Risk Assessment of Diesel Emissions in the USA and in West Germany


Tora Karoline Mjelde Rundhovde, Agder University

Industrial tanneries on Osterøy


10.45 – 12.15


Dafne Lemus, Bergen University

The regulation of bisphenol A in Denmark and Norway: How the problem of chemical safety is framed and addressed amidst scientific uncertainty


Justine Philip, Museum Victoria Associate

From ecosystem architects to endangered species: exploring the use of strychnine and 1080 poison to eliminate unwanted vertebrate species in Australia and New Zealand




13.30 – 15.00


May-Brith Ohman Nielsen, Agder University

Real Dilemmas, Fake Dilemmas and Everything in Between. Exploring Deadly Dreams in Benefit – Harm logics



James Webb, Colby College

Organic waste between fertilizer and health risk


15.15 – 16.30


Final Discussion

What next for the world and for the Deadly Dreams project?