Book review: Toxic Town (Peter Little, 2014. New York Univerity Press, New Yo)

Peter Little provides an anthropologist’s view of how the International Business Machines Corporation (better known to most of us as IBM or even Big Blue and perhaps associated with HAL – the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey) managed its withdrawal from Endicott – home of IBM’s first plant.

The (anti) hero of the story is trichloroethene – a solvent widely used in industry to degrease surfaces. TCE is a very volatile liquid and a carcinogen. TCE comprises a single hydrogen, 2 carbon and 3 chlorine atoms. Although only sparingly soluble in (ground)water, TCE’s toxicity is high enough that even the small amounts able to dissolve in water are able to pose risks to human health that merit concern.  In fact it only needs about 3 teaspoons of TCE for the water in an Olympic size swimming pool to exceed  drinking water standards.

When a natural scientist leaves his comfort zone he expects to be challenged. Little certainly managed that for this reader. He quotes Geertz on ethnographic fieldwork but the comment applies as much to reading anthropological takes on a familiar scenario. Reading Toxic Town “is an educational experience all around. What is difficult is to decide what has been learned”. Language such as “the enduring ambiguities of the TCE plume lurk and the plume’s extralinguistic material reality persists” (p181) takes some getting used to. But persistence pays off.

Little refers to literature that my own constituency will be familiar with – including publications by the Interstate Technology & Regulatory Council (ITRC). What we would call risk management or risk control measures Little refers to as mitigation – and broadens it, to include its spatial dimension, to “mitigation landscape”. “Venting systems with white plastic tubing running from basements to roofs are visible on nearly 500 houses and businesses in Endicott’s downtown area” (p 16).  He observes that this visible mitigation, that has “made risk ‘public'”, is in stark contrast to the “elusive plume lurking beneath”.

Ultimately this is a story that will be familiar with many in the contaminated land, hazardous waste, brownfield and risk based land management communities in the USA, Europe, China, Australia and beyond.  Those of us who seek to ensure our work is of value to, and valued by, our communities would do well to read this book and reflect on what we need to do to maintain (or perhaps obtain) a social licence to operate our various mitigation technologies.

Paul Nathanail



DISCLOSURE I was sent a review copy of the book, at my request, but have received no payment nor has my review been subject to any third party review, including by the author or his publishers.