Attending to the Senses in Toxic Exposure

By Amelia Fiske, Christian-Albrechts-Universität

In his Quito office, Camilo was showing me slides from a presentation he delivered at Brown University a few years before to explain how people in Amazon come in contact with the industrial chemicals used in oil production. A trained biologist, he lived in the Amazon in the 1990s and has since worked on environmental issues associated with oil production, as well as the Aguinda lawsuit. As we spoke, he stopped, hovering over a slide in which he had juxtaposed two images.

The first image reads “EPA’s polluted Guy.” It is a graphic of the different means by which an average individual could be exposed to toxicants in a generically contaminated site. The second, a photograph of a young child sitting on a dirt road with oil residue in a non-specific location in the Amazon, he has titled “Ecuador’s polluted kid.” These two images, he says, are essential for understanding the nature of toxic exposure in Ecuador.

“This for me is important. Because this is how the EPA sees people who are exposed to contamination. And this is how it is here. He has no shoes and no shirt … If you’re in the United States on a contaminated site, normally you’re like this [“EPA’s polluted Guy”], and not like this [“Ecuador’s polluted kid”]. Thus, the contact that our people have with contamination is much closer … Whatever scientific study you might do on contamination, or whatever you might know from the US, well it’s different here because we live differently. People here are much more naked in the face of contamination [His words in Spanish were: la gente aquí está mucho más desnuda frente a la contaminación].

Naked in the face of contamination” makes bare the vulnerability of residents of the Amazon who live alongside oil. Naked refers to the ways that unprotected bodies – such as the extended crude-stained foot of the boy, or his hands and uncovered upper body – come in contact with chemicals. Naked refers beyond the skin to the proximity of people’s homes to waste pits; to the unfiltered water in their wells that, for lack of better option, they drink despite the smell of oil; or to the lack of resources to protect themselves from those exposures within an industrial-natural landscape. Sensory experience is necessary not only for understanding what it means to live in a place of environmental hazard, but also for thinking about politics of knowledge in science and law when assessing toxicity.

Over 27 months between 2011 and 2013, I conducted field research on harm and oil production in Ecuador. Throughout this time, I lived in the northeastern corner of the Amazon, the origin of the commercial oil exploitation in the country in the mid-1960s. Oil and settlement have grown together in this place, such that daily life today is thoroughly intertwined with the industry. The stories I was told during my research tell of quotidian exposures within a landscape of contamination. The squish of oily dirt between the fingers, the telltale glint of hydrocarbons on the water’s surface, the tightness of the lungs in the presence of gas flares: ordinary experiences accrete over decades of life, making it impossible to distinguish singular moments of hazard. Everyday accounts of life in this region can demonstrate how sensorial practices of knowing have material consequences for how exposure is made real, specifically through their ability to raise questions about what standard means of assessing toxic exposures may exclude, overlook, or blur in sites of ongoing legal and scientific controversy.

The toxicants used and produced in oil production cross boundaries, from the plastic industrial membranes installed to contain the contents of wastepits, to the fleshy ones covering bodies. The movement of toxicants throughout environments – in soil, water, and air – and in bodies of organisms – across skin, or the blood-brain barrier – is one of their distinguishing features. Toxicants effect changes that are unanticipated and forceful. However, identifying, measuring, and demonstrating exposures to toxicants outside of the laboratory is a problem. Combinations of chemicals, changes in industry practices, the dispersion of chemicals throughout air or water over time, the movements of people between jobs and daily activities all make tracking exposure exceedingly difficult. As Camilo illustrated through his contrast between the “EPA’s polluted guy” and “Ecuador’s polluted kid,” the nature of exposure in the Ecuadorian Amazon is different from generic models of exposure.

In places of environmental hazard, the scientific and legal endeavors generally called upon to understand contamination seek to parse precise distinctions between chemicals and their effects, between one oil company and another, between bodies and environments, between the synthetic and the organic. Given that it is enormously difficult to determine the effects of a toxicant within a landscape of potential, repeated exposures, or the relationship between multiple toxicants and adverse health effects, it is often necessary to reduce the variables of study at the expense of attending to differential particularity. For instance, the question of why, and through what processes, some bodies become subject to industrial waste, while others do not, tends to be divorced from the question of how exposure occurs in toxicological studies. As scholars working in environmental justice, ecocriticsm, and political ecology have repeatedly demonstrated, the distribution of poor health and industrial waste traverse pre-existing contours of position and power, including race, class, gender, and political economic position.[1] Toxic exposure is, of course, no exception.

Let’s return to the image of “Ecuador’s polluted kid.” Sitting on the side of the road, his bare feet give us important clues about how individuals are exposed to petrochemicals in the Amazon. In contrast to traditional models of risk assessment that involve ‘pathways’ of exposure, attention to sensory experience tells us that toxic exposure cannot be isolated from the place and history in which it occurs – such as backyards that include waste pits, or where walks to school are along oil pipelines. This is not only a matter of differentiating chronic, long-term exposures from acute chemical intoxications, nor of asserting that there are multiple variables at play. Rather, it is an argument that in order to understand the nature of exposure in the Amazon, we must also consider things such as: how settlement and oil extraction unfolded together such that homes were built in close proximity to wells and flares; habitual movements such as walking along roads barefoot or washing clothes in rivers that put toxicants in contact with skin; or how poverty means that some families continue to drink unsafe well water today. By including relations such as these between people and the places that they live – signaled through the sensory experiences recounted by those who are exposed to toxicants – perhaps we can work to reconfigure toxicity such that the inequality which shapes our world is also reflected in the methods and models we use for understanding and preventing exposures.

Understanding exposure requires appreciating how history and inequality are woven into the very fabric of toxicity, yet often ignored or rationalized in official determinations. Given the tangled relations of toxic exposures, we must be more attentive to the epistemic limits of tools for calculating the harm from oil. Attending to the senses can point us to those places where our assumptions cause us to miss vital elements, such as: How is exposure minimized if we assume that exposed subjects all have shoes on? What are the cumulative effects of consuming plant and animal products that were grown and fed with contaminated water sources? Or where washing the laundry means one’s body – and not only the hands and forearms – is completely submerged in chemicals? How do we measure exposures over lifetimes?

Like the numerous pits of toxic waste hidden beneath the deceptive green of re-sown grasses throughout the Amazon, exposure draws us to think more deeply about what techniques for understanding harm render visible and what they hide. Existing medical, epidemiological, and scientific research on the health consequences of exposure to the toxic components used in oil operations leaves much to be desired. All our means of assessment – legal, scientific, or anthropological – must attend to the ways that poverty, history, and profit are woven into the relations of who is exposed to toxicants, and how certain relations are rationalized through distinctions between what is natural, cultural, technological, or material (Tuana 2008, 204). Toxicity needs to be refigured – not a property of chemicals alone – but as emerging within particular relations between people and places that hinge on bodily experience.


Works Cited

Chen, Mel. 2012. Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books.

Tuana, Nancy. 2008. “Viscous Porosity: Witnessing Katrina.” In Material Feminisms, edited by Stacy Alaimo, Susan Hekman, and Michael Hames-Garcia, 188–213. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

[1] Such as, but not limited to: Pulido 2000; Bullard 2001; Bullard and Wright 2009; Bullard and Wright 1986; Mitman, Murphy, and Sellers 2004; Brown 2007; Lerner 2010; Pellow 2007; Pezzullo 2009; Edelstein 2003; Sze 2006; Harrison 2011; Brulle and Pellow 2006; Checker 2005; Checker 2007


This essay is part of Sensorial Engagements with a Toxic World, a special series curated by Chisato Fukuda.

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