State Calculations of Cultural Survival in Environmental Risk Assessment: Consequences for Alaska Natives


In 2007, the Alaska Division of Public Health issued their first-ever fish consumption advisory to reduce exposure to methylmercury. Interestingly, they utilized a toxicity level in their calculations of risk that is four times higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) level, arguing that the EPA’s calculation is “inappropriately restrictive” for Alaskans. This article explores the institutional reasoning and scientific calculations behind the state’s fish consumption advice, with special attention paid to the consequences for Alaska Natives. I argue that a discourse of “Alaskan exceptionalism” is utilized by the health department to justify their assessment of risk. Although this exceptionalist discourse is intended to accommodate the unique lifestyles of Alaskan citizens, it may actually serve to undermine the very lifeways and traditions that it presumes to preserve. This article contributes insights into the ways that states can influence the social and material reproduction of communities through the deployment of “cultural difference” during the risk-assessment process.