CFP--In the Shadow of the Petrochemical Smokestack. Chemical Corridors and Environmental Health

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Call for Papers
Subject Fields: 
Environmental History / Studies, Urban History / Studies, World History / Studies

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

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

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 and
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

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

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)


Contact Info: 

Renaud Bécot, Stéphane Frioux, Gwenola Le Naour, Vincent Porhel

Contact Email: