Commentary: Toxic Bodies, Part I

Oil infrastructure, Poza Rica, Veracruz, Mexico. Image by author.

By Mónica Salas Landa, Lafayette College §

Oil infrastructure, Poza Rica, Veracruz, Mexico. Image by author.

‘‘How do you feel living right across from the oil and gas complex?’’ I asked Ms. Dora, a few days after I settled into her home in Poza Rica, Veracruz, a city transformed by the industrial apparatus of oil. ‘‘We have gotten used to smelling the gas and seeing all this,’’ she replied in an apparently relaxed manner. This indifference, however, was soon disrupted as Ms. Dora suggested I keep a bottle of water, a ripe lime, and a towel next to my bed to cover my mouth and nose in case a gas leak occurs in the middle of the night. She first moved to this colonia (neighborhood) in the late 1990s and has been living in the same house ever since. She still remembers how terrible the smell was when she first moved in—“It was such a pungent smell,” she recalled, “I remember waking up in the middle of the night coughing and throwing up.” By the time I met Ms. Dora in 2012, she had been diagnosed with cancer for several years. Monthly trips to the hospital were part of her medical routine. Upon her return to home Ms. Dora often sat on her porch. From there, she could see the gas complex and one of the many Pemex posters with the typical black skull-and-crossbones figure imprinted on it. The whistle of the gas complex reverberates.[1]

For scholars attentive to the legacies of failing industrial infrastructures (Fortun 2001; Petryna 2002; Auyero and Swistun 2009; Chari 2013; Salas Landa 2016) the story of Ms. Dora and the unwanted toxic substances that have invaded her body is depressingly familiar. From the heavy hydrogen sulfide fumes she breaths at her home to the cancer medications she needs today to survive, stories like hers illustrate how a vast array of industrial operations have altered the chemical composition of our bodies—imposing on them a burden of toxicity that has compromised our health, even as some act as vital cures for carcinogenic exposure. But, as Nancy Langston’s (2010) work on the drug diethylstilbestrol suggests, traces of synthetic chemicals are not solely found in their areas of production, extraction, or seepage. By tracing the history and impact of diethylstilbestrol in the United States—from its synthesis in the 1920s and 1930s as a means of improving human fertility to its use as a growth hormone in cattle—Langston demonstrates how, wittingly or unwittingly, toxic chemicals have become distributed, with devastating effects, throughout the ecosystem and human bodies (Langston 2010, 136). Accordingly, her work draws attention to the porosity of boundaries between “the natural” and “the synthetic.”

The diverse collection of posts assembled in Part I of the series further explore Langston’s unsettling point about the co-constitution of human bodies and toxins. Sophia Jaworski (“Tracing Chemical Intimacies“), Rachel Wakefield-Rann (“Chemical Showers,”), and Abigail Dumes (“Ticks, Pesticides, and Biome Subjectivity”) for instance, remind us that industrial chemicals provide many of the product qualities that we, as consumers, desire, demand, and even enjoy. In “Spirit, Monster, Table and Tongue,” Caroline Merrifield, in contrast, looks at various cases of adulterated food products in China such as the addition of melamine to diluted fluid milk by major milk companies in 2008. For Merrifield, the adulterated milk, like other “black-hearted products,” carried not only a chemical toxicity but also “the poison of bad faith” as manufactures breached a moral baseline. In her contribution, Whitney Larratt-Smith (“On Tricking Ducks“) considers an event of mass waterfowl death on Syncrude’s Aurara tailing ponds and the legal case (R. v. Syncrude Canada Ltd) that followed. By examining the legal reasoning mobilized by Syncrude’s defense, Larrat-Smith reveals how, far from emboldening corporate notions of a manageable and contained environment, legal argumentation categorized ducks, “unrecovered” bitumen, and ice storms as uncontrollable features of the “natural” environment, and therefore not the responsibility of Syncrude. In her piece, Janelle Marie Baker also grapples with the environments produced by extractive industries and the need for moral accountability. By sharing her memories of looking for toxic berries across an oil and gas site, Baker reminds us that toxic landscapes are not landscapes that can simply be avoided. Indeed, landscapes of exposure are landscapes that both enable and constrain life (Roberts and Langston 2008).

While the topics of these posts differ, I believe there is a certain degree of cohesion among them insofar as they all problematize a modern ontology, in Latour’s (1993) sense of the term, which separates Nature form Culture, Subject from Object, Inside from Outside and which has helped produce our toxic present. Lagston’s (2010) work, in fact, illustrates this precise ontology when she discusses, for example, how risk frameworks prior to World War II were based on the assumption of impermeable bodies; or when she shows us how the technical understating of industrial chemicals, as discrete and isolated entities, has facilitated the production of uncertainty regarding toxic exposures and effects—an uncertainty that, in turn, has been used to delay regulation (Langston 2010; see also Murphy 2017). Given that our industrial order seems to be founded on a modern ontology that works by maintaining boundaries between Nature and Culture, collapsing those distinctions and drawing our attention toward entanglement has become an important analytical project carried out by scholars interested in critiquing our modern mode of existence and the concrete mess it has created (Fortun 2014; Roberts 2017).

Echoing this trend, the authors in this series, on the one hand, acknowledge and trace the entangled relations, which produce the toxic landscapes and bodies that we inhabit: “black-hearted products,” “chemical queerness,” “biome-subjectivity,” “the enactment of nature” are just some of the analytical categories mobilized to accomplish this. But this series also attends to the boundaries, which are nevertheless made, managed, sought, and deployed in order to cover over or obscure these entanglements: charcoal masks promise to prevent asthma spurred by breathing in cleaning chemicals (Jaworski); non-toxic products claim to remove or substitute offensive chemicals (Wakefield-Rann); rumors, practical guidelines, and public signs aim to help consumers and residents avoid toxic food products (Merrifield; Baker); detox regimens are thought to cleanse or remove chemicals that we sprayed on our bodies in the first place (Dumes); extractive industries still rely on the idea of a predictable, controllable “out-there” nature even if the notion is challenged in practice (Larratt-Smith).

Working on a region transformed by oil extraction and production, I too have noted the significance of boundary-work for those living amid toxic infrastructures (Salas Landa 2016). In Poza Rica, for example, corporate safety rituals and campaigns involving slogans and dress codes constitute an integral part of the process of modularity (Appel 2012), or practices intended to enable a corporation to remove itself, however tenuously, from the local context in which it operates. The constant work done in the name of disentanglement, however, is not exclusive of corporate actors. Several residents, like Ms. Dora, are also deeply invested in maintaining clear boundaries between themselves and toxic gases that surround them by either disregarding their immediate surroundings or by developing practical ways for dealing with them. No doubt, these practices are geared toward survival and to navigating through the structural violence of her world, but the complex entanglements become conceptual problems as well, for example when reckoning with the toxic drugs needed to combat her cancer—itself a product of toxins in her most intimate daily life. The point, as Elizabeth Roberts (2017, 615) argues, is that “boundaries constitute a necessary response in places where life must always be lived as ceaselessly entangled.” By looking at how a sewage-filled dam, cement dust, and freeway exhaust work to keep residents in working-class Mexico City neighborhood out of state surveillance, Roberts invites us to be cautious “as we shift our efforts to look and entangled phenomena” mainly because those living amid toxicity often seek boundaries and the stability that such disentanglement may offer (Roberts 2017, 615).

Works Cited:

Appel, H. 2012. Offshore work: Oil, modularity, and the how of capitalism in Equatorial Guinea. American Ethnologist 39(4): 692–709.

Auyero J and Swistun D (2009) Flammable: Environmental suffering in an Argentine shantytown. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chari S (2013) Detritus in Durban: Polluted environs and the biopolitics of refusal. In: Stoler A (ed.) Imperial Debris. Durham NC: Duke University Press, pp. 131–161.

Fortun K (2014) From Latour to Late Industrialism. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4(1): 309–329.

Langston R (2019) Toxic Bodies: Hormone Disruptors and the Legacy of DES. New Heaven CT: Yale University Press

Latour B (1993) We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Murphy M (2017) Afterlife and Decolonial Chemical Relations. Cultural Anthropology 32(4): 494-503.

Petryna A (2013) Life Exposed Biological Citizens After Chernobyl. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Roberts E (2017) What Gets Inside: Violent entanglements and Toxic Boundaries in Mexico. Cultural Anthropology 32(4): 592-619.

Roberts J and Langston N 2008 “Toxic Bodies/Toxic Environments Forum Environmental History 13: 629-635.

Salas Landa M (2016) Crude Residues: The Working of Failing Oil Infrastructures. Environment and Planning A 48(4): 718-735.


[1] Elsewhere, I have provided an analysis of this ethnographic vignette (see Salas Landa 2016).

Mónica Salas Landa is assistant professor of anthropology at Lafayette College. She earned a PhD in anthropology, with a concentration in Latin American studies, from Cornell University in 2015 and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University the following year. She specializes in twentieth- and twenty-first-century Mexico with a focus on state formation, nation building, agrarian and environmental studies, and social memory. She is currently working on her first book, a historical ethnography of the lowlands of northern Veracruz, which examines the ongoing effects of the Mexican Revolution. More specifically, the book focuses on the ordinary and ubiquitous forms of violence that resulted from implementing and abandoning the revolution’s main social and economic programs: agrarian reform, oil extraction, archaeological intervention, and indigenismo.

This post is part of our thematic series: Toxic Bodies.