Tracing Chemical Intimacies

By Sophia Jaworski, University of Toronto §

A middle-aged woman in the Greater Toronto Area wears a charcoal mask in her bedroom to prevent asthma spurred by breathing in the circulation of floor varnish, cigarette smoke, and cleaning chemicals in an apartment building air vent. Needing to wear the mask is intimately tied to shortness of breath experienced from the off-gassing plastics in office swivel chairs from many years before. Substances made of volatile organic compounds such as foam, adhesives and plastics off-gas when the instability of the molecules cause them to escape the form of the object they were fused to, often releasing an odor (Kostiainen, 1995). A different woman in small-town Ontario spends a career working in clients’ homes full of air fresheners and scented candles named things like Midnight Storm, Vanilla Indulgence, and First Bloom. These experiences of fragrance continue to resonate when the wind picks up in one of the cardinal directions and the drift of golf course pesticides enters into the house’s windows and back door. For a third woman nearby, mold bombs burst and create a hazy fog around a chair with too many memories to be thrown out, aimed at the spores unfurled by moisture delicately rooted in the fabric. It is hard to tell if it is the mold or the mold bombs that are tied to her recent sensitivity to scents. It is hard to tell if any exposures are tied together more than any others, but all three women share chronic experiences of vague, debilitating symptoms which completely transform their lives. Gastrointestinal discomfort, pain in eyes, ears, throat, joints, swelling, breathing problems, numbness, cognitive difficulty, muscle spasms, irregular heartbeat, dizziness, and fatigue are traces of chemical intimacies (Park and Gilmore 2017).

BioCide’s Youtube Promotional Video, illustrating two mold columns colliding and releasing spores.

In a world infused with over 85 000 industrial chemicals, all life is altered by chemicals and permeated by their movements. Latently and expressively, industrial chemicals are cumulatively enfleshed. The above scenarios are interlocutors’ real stories of chemical sensitivities, when ordinary sensorial-material spaces become volatile to subsistence, residence, and fulfillment of human life. Chemicals are sensed in fleeting registers of relation like specters that are enfleshments of the past and future. The irritating chemical background noise of everyday life (Shapiro, 2015) is punctuated by intimate experiences which perturb notions of materiality and linear time. Radically complicating notions of the “banality of toxicity,” (Goldstein, 2015), tracing stories of chemical intimacies leads to the questions of what chemically sensitive bodies are, and how the concept of exposure figures into the politics of intimate chemical experiences.

Kim and Michael Fortun (2005) discuss that while toxicology focuses on the detection of substances’ adverse effects, a difficulty arises in how the discipline depends on narrowly defined ideas of causation. Dose response paradigms limit what counts as evidence, as linear assessments of risk only detect the pathways of toxic and chemical substances with stable object identities. Monitoring thresholds creates a binary of hazardous/nonhazardous, and excludes the complex realities and permutations of chemicals and toxins. Currently the concept of “exposure” is a core part of how chemical sensitivities are understood and legitimized in biomedicine, toxicology, and popular culture (Alaimo, 2016). Despite this, what exposure is remains an opaque notion. In this post, I consider the frame of exposure in order to argue that taken as a category that describes a delineated event between a single chemical and single human, it only shallowly begins to reckon with the constellations of sensation and intimacy provoked in chemical encounters in homes and workspaces. I argue that as such, it may even work to obscure and oppress a politics of enunciation, the ways in which sensations can function as alternative archives that trouble histories and discourses of chemicals, as well as understandings of bodies as either toxic or not. From here I ask, what other kind of theory allows us to think of chemical sensitivities as an enunciation of both harm and intimacy? What do chemical sensitivities enunciate about chemical and toxic lives, (used to refer to both the lives of those with sensitivities and the lives of chemicals and toxins themselves) and about the sensory material politics of the everyday?

Febreeze New Car
The Febreeze “New Car Scent” car air freshener.

Returning to the initial scenes, one point of the constellation involves exposure to outgassing plastics in office furniture. Kath Weston writes of political ecologies of the precarious with her attention to outgassing plastics, arguing the enjoyment of an automobile’s “good new car smell” (Weston, 2012:441), a highly concentrated haze of volatile organic compounds, enacts an affective and visceral form of intimacy. This affective attachment to its intimacy is palpable— for example, I myself am a cyclist, but admit to lingering excessively long from time to time in rental cars or car shares just to breathe deeply that slightly sweet, enigmatic powdery scent. There is also, somewhat ironically, a Febreeze air freshener called “New Car Scent,” presumably for cars which have lost their luster, available for $3.50 online. Following Weston, this sense of co-constituted physicality can be extended to the office chairs which form almost a folded shell around our hunched backs. These chairs also leach chemicals like polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), otherwise known as flame-retardants, and perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) used to repel oil and water. Anthropologically thinking about exposure to office chairs reveals chemical sensory-material palimpsests of intimacies between body and commodity.

Yet, it is hard to keep the tenuousness of plastic-derived substances in mind, and much easier to isolate plastic objects. For myself, what comes to mind are objects that come from my youth, like Baby G watches and sand buckets. Roland Barthes, in a brief prose reflection on plastic, describes the difficulty of plastic as follows: “In the hierarchy of the major poetic substances, it figures as a disgraced material, lost between the effusiveness of rubber and the flat hardness of metal; it embodies none of the genuine produce of the mineral world: foam, fibers, strata. It is a ‘shaped’ substance: whatever its final state, plastic keeps a flocculent appearance. Something opaque, creamy and curdled” (Barthes, 1972:98). What ties together office chairs from years before with the air vents in a current apartment building is the challenging problem of sensitization, when sensitivities to chemicals rapidly worsen over time in an accelerated fashion (Bell et al., 1999). Sensitization reveals exposure and toxin to be overdetermined categories, as it erases the boundaries of what can be known, all the while demanding an explanation. As such, rethinking chemical harm necessitates continuing to explore and undo assumptions about the substances of what and how matter is intimately vital.

Baby G watches
An advertisement for the new generation of Baby-G plastic watches.

 I am interested in ethnographically articulating traces of chemicals as their own nonhuman interlocutors. This approach can elaborate an anthropological orientation which redefines understandings of exposure and toxin by disrupting the “established relations between seeing, doing and speaking…the distribution of the sensible” (Ranciere, 2014: 60). While the initial insights of actor-network theory about agency (Latour, 2005), namely that the social and the natural are not predetermined or necessarily distinct in actants, remain relevant to frame alternative approaches to the study of chemicals, they have been productively built upon and complicated. Several important critiques of the study of nonhumans point out how new materialism risks inscribing a form of humanism that replicates existing epistemic violence against indigenous and black radical thought, thus undermining calls for sovereignty and antiracist politics (Todd, 2016; Tallbear, 2015). Queer ecological and queer inhumanist approaches, such as those put forth by Mel Chen and Dana Luciano (2015) (extending Lyotard’s idea of the inhuman), echo concerns over the politics of sexed and gendered difference when they ask if the queer has ever been human. I extend these views also to mean an attention to how chemical queerness traverses certain conceptions of what it means to be human and what it means to be “object” (Kim, 2015). By theorizing chemical intimacies, additional material registers of nonhuman chemical lives can be articulated, across the clouds of dust that form from skin and particles of commodity decay.

Trying to picture the person who described mold-bombing their favorite furniture, I realized I had no idea exactly how that process worked. Watching ToolGirl Mag Ruffman’s YouTube video, she pulls out what appears to be a small canon or telescope in a demonstration of Mold Fogging. Clouds of dusty steam emerge in a staged room full of a few artfully placed pieces of lumber, and exposed pink cotton-candy-like insulation under stripped wallpaper. In another YouTube video by a company forthrightly named BioCide, the viewer is shrunk and swept into what appears to be an animated forest of giant mold spores. Two tall columns of beige, off-putting, mold resembling palm trees then collide into one another like in a hurricane. As they release a thick cloud of small spores which drifts off screen, the video abruptly transitions, zooming out into a nicely decorated, apparently benign, living room. It remains unclear what happens to the fog after it latches onto and renders lifeless mold spores, but I felt uneasy picturing living in a fine layer of chemical dust full of inert mold particles. Mold foggers and bombs are made up of biocides such as ortho-Phenylphenol (OPP) which have unknown effects at low doses. Thinking beyond exposure, how could the intimacy with mold, and a mold bomb contribute to what this person began to experience soon afterwards, a new and suddenly severe increased sensitivity to fragrance? In this situation, it is uncertain if it is the mold or the mold eradicator that are more harmful.

Mold Fogging
ToolGirl Mag Ruffman demonstrates how to use a Mold Fogger in a YouTube video.

An anthropology which traces chemical intimacies can begin to piece together how sensitization beckons a different kind of politics of sensation. This involves ethnographically following stories from individuals who experience chemical sensitivities, like the ones at the beginning of this piece, in order to identify patterns in the registers of representation that can point to alternative archives. At stake is being able to articulate an embodied and distributed knowledge of history and social violence. The question remains if this method’s evidence can disrupt pathways of colonization, empire, political violence, and fallout as “cumulative effects that only become visible in the destabilized organism or ecological system” (Masco, 2015:142).

Works Cited

Alaimo, Stacey. (2016). Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times. University of Minnesota Press.

Barthes, Roland. (1972). Plastic. In Mythologies. Trans. Annette Layers. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Pp 97-100.

Bell, I., Baldwin, C., Fernandex, M., Schwartz, G. (1999). Neural sensitization model for mulitiple chemical sensitivity: overview of theory and empirical evidence. Toxicology and Industrial Health, 15(3-4), 295-304.

Fortun, K., & Fortun, M. (2005). Scientific Imaginaries and Ethical Plateaus in Contemporary U.S. Toxicology. American Anthropologist, 107(1), 43-54.

Goldstein, Donna, and Kira Hall. (2015). Mass Hysteria in Le Roy, New York: How Brain Experts Materialized Truth and Outscienced Environmental Inquiry. American Ethnologist, 4(24): 640-657.

Kim, Eunjung. (2015). Unbecoming Human: An Ethics of Objects. GLQ: A journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, (21)2-3: 295-320.

Kostiainen, R. (1995). Volatile organic compounds in the indoor air of normal and sick houses. Atmospheric Environment, 29(6), 693-702.

Latour, Bruno. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor–Network Theory. Oxford University Press.

Luciano, Dana and Mel Chen Eds. (2015). Queer Inhumanisms, Special issue.GLQ: The Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies, 22(2-3).

Masco, Joseph. (2015). The Age of Fallout. History of the Present 5(2): 137-168.

Park, Jungwee and Heather Gilmore. (2017). Medically unexplained physical symptoms (MUPS) among adults in Canada: Comorbidity, health care use and employment. Retrieved from: http://

Shapiro, Nicholas (2015). Attuning to the Chemosphere: Domestic Formaldehyde, Bodily Reasoning and the Chemical Sublime. Cultural Anthropology, 30(3):368–393.

Rancière, J. (2014). The Emancipated Spectator. Verso Books.

TallBear, K. (2015). An indigenous reflection on working beyond the human/not human. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 21(2):230-235.

Todd, Z. (2016). An indigenous feminist’s take on the ontological turn: ‘ontology’ is just another word for colonialism.”Journal of Historical Sociology, 29(1): 4-22.

Weston, K. (2012). Political ecologies of the precarious. Anthropological Quarterly, 85(2): 429-455.

Sophia Jaworski is a PhD student in Anthropology and the Women and Gender Studies collaborative program at the University of Toronto. Her research problematizes medically unexplained chronic illness through investigating the politics and lived experiences of chemicals in everyday life, examining how symptoms are treated as environment-linked. It focuses on the theoretical intersections between inhumanisms and figures of the ‘environment,’ and the tensions in power between medicalization, environmental activist understandings of toxicity, and social welfare. She asks: “how can the integration of feminist understandings of knowledges and affects contribute to an interrogation of the current politics of life and capitalism in Canada?”

This post is part of our series: Toxic Bodies.