A Mercurial History

For a little too long now, I’ve been working on the history of knowing and regulating mercury pollution. The project is more or less global in scale and concentrates on the period since World War II, starting with Minamata in the 1950s. When asked what it’s about, I tend to say that it follows the struggle for epistemic clarity among and between scientists and policy makers—how science and politics work at different speeds and how the twentieth-century environmental crisis has pushed knowledge makers and brokers into novel and curious collaborations. It’s also a book about environmental toxicology, but I still have to work that out more clearly. I’ll be writing about this project from time to time on this blog, largely as a means of trying to organize my own thoughts and prod the writing along. Here’s a recent attempt at providing a summary overview of some of the project’s themes:

Twentieth-century mercury pollution is a slippery subject. Mercury’s transition from elemental isolation to unwelcome ecological integration—a physical and an epistemological journey—offers an intriguing blend of human and natural partnerships of the sort that make environmental history an important avenue of inquiry; in effect, the history of the global mercury problem affords scholars with a valuable lens through which to examine interaction with an element that human practices invoke but do not define.

The challenges inherent in understanding and regulating this dangerous and prolific environmental pollutant across boundaries, jurisdictions, and constituencies constitute a vital testing ground for the examination of how environmental knowledge and policy travel in tandem over time and across boundaries; it also comprises one of the most critical chapters of a larger history of the hazardous chemicals regime—a series of independent but functionally related treaties and programs—that emerged after World War II to address the proliferation of new chemicals and pollutants introduced into the environment. In the decades after World War II, mercury was identified as a pollutant deriving from fungicides, mildew-resistant paint, run-off from gold mining, coal-fired power plant emissions, and the construction of hydroelectric reservoirs. Devastating mercury “epidemics” struck local populations in Japan, Guatemala, Ghana, Pakistan, Iraq, and Canada; high concentrations of mercury were discovered in water systems throughout the developed world, most notably in Sweden, Canada, and the United States; and as mercury became universally recognized as a toxic hazard, its disposal posed myriad new problems. In a focused study of this problem, I propose to examine the development of environmental toxicology in light of growing international concerns over mercury pollution after World War II, and put the budding scientific field in conversation with the policies that urgently sought to control mercury’s dangers.

While national and international governing bodies sought to develop legal and commercial mechanisms to reduce the release of mercury into the environment, sustainable resolutions have been elusive, due in no small measure to the apparent disconnect between scientific knowledge and policy decisions. As mercury proliferated throughout the environment, scientists and policymakers around the world scrambled to make sense of and respond to this new hazard. Within the scientific community, environmental toxicology emerged as an important branch of toxicology studies that aimed to illuminate the relationship between environmental pollution and public health. For their part, politicians at both the national and international levels sought to reconcile competing industrial and public health interests.  That these competing interests were frequently incommensurable only magnifies the tension between our exploitation of the physical environment and our understanding of it.

“All history is the history of unintended consequences,” writes historian David Blackbourn, “but that is especially true when we are trying to untangle humanity’s relationship with the natural environment.” In the case of mercury pollution, the proliferation of mercury and the difficulties inherent in regulating it were the direct result of a new science—and the scientific institutions that drove it—being asked to weigh in on the severity of a problem after the ecological hazard had already presented itself.  The unintended consequences that drive the history of knowing and regulating mercury constitute an important lesson in the politics of scientific engagement.

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