In Daniel Renfrew’s new book Life Without Lead, the statement “we all have a little lead” was deployed in millennial Uruguay to radically different effect. It was used by public health officials to quell parents’ anger and simmering political volatility in the face of widespread childhood lead contamination in many of Montevideo’s poorest neighborhoods. These officials diminished the children’s blood lead levels by saying “We all probably have a little bit of lead in us” (Renfrew 2018, 187). This rhetorical leveling device seems deeply connected to the fact that, until 2012, Uruguay’s definition of high blood lead was double international standards. Officially then, most of these children were fine. Simultaneously, activists and concerned doctors made a counterclaim using a similar statement: “We are all at risk for lead, only some populations experience more elevated risk” (Renfrew 2018, 210). This rhetoric marked difference instead of masking it.
In its first usage, “We all have a little bit of lead,” keeps the status quo intact by making us all the same. This leveling device reminded me of when Mexican officials give speeches about Mexico’s main known lead exposure pathway – lead glazed ceramic dishes (barro vidriado)––and joke about how much smarter they would now be if they had not eaten off these dishes throughout their childhood. These jokes mask difference, while also humble bragging. “Look at me! I ate off those dishes. I, too, had a little bit of lead and I’m still smart enough for this job”. It’s as if these dishes exist in a vacuum and everyone has the same life chances.
My long-term collaborators in Mexico City, both environmental health scientists and working-class people, have taught me though, that marking difference matters (Roberts 2017a; Roberts and Sanz 2017). Different conditions make for different effects. The working-class people I spend time with in Mexico City who use, or used to use, or secretly still use these dishes, note these different conditions. Their grandparents ate off these dishes all the time and were whip-smart and lived forever. But times and places have changed. The world was less contaminated then. Now with pesticides, air pollution, and increased chemical dumping these dishes can harm. This understanding is similar to the move in environmental health and toxicology towards focusing on non-linear exposure assessment where the interaction effects of “metal mixtures” is greater than the sum of each toxic part (Sánchez et al. 2012; Teushchler et al. 2002). It’s similar to our deepening knowledge of how living in poverty exacerbates exposure to toxic chemicals through the cumulative effects of toxic layering (Agard-Jones In Press; Fortun 2001; Goldstein 2017; Roberts 2017b). There is no even playing field.
Mexican state institutions got the lead out of petroleum earlier than Uruguay (1997 vs 2004) but can’t seem to find the will to extirpate lead glazed ceramic dishes. It seems the relations are too complicated, the stakes not high enough. Petroleum permeated everyone with a “little bit of lead,” but the dishes don’t. It’s working-class and poor people who use them the most. I’ve spent the last few years tracing the relations that hold these dishes in place in working-class Mexican worlds. As I try to grasp their importance among the families who use them, I find myself sometimes wondering if maybe, a little bit of lead is not so bad. After all, the lead in these dishes literally makes food sweeter, intensified by the sweetness of family celebrations that include long-lived grandparents. What’s a little lead? But then I remind myself that that kind of leveling is fraught with peril. Even the families most attached to the dishes, as well as the Uruguayan activists described so vividly by Daniel Renfrew, know that the We…. of, “We all have a little bit of lead in us” are not the same. Toxic burdens have never been equally shared.
Agard-Jones, Vanessa. In Press. Body Burdens: Toxic Endurance and Decolonial Desire in the French Atlantic.
Fortun, Kim. 2001. Advocacy After Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Goldstein, Donna. 2017. “Invisible Harm: Science, Subjectivity, and the Things We Cannot See.” Culture Theory and Critique 58(4):321-329.
Renfrew, Daniel. 2018. Life Without Lead: Contamination Crisis and Hope in Uruguay. Oakland: U.C. Press.
Roberts, Elizabeth F.S.2017a. Exposure. Cultural Anthropology.
Roberts, Elizabeth F.S. 2017b. “What Gets Inside: Violent Entanglements and Toxic Boundaries in Mexico City.” Cultural Anthropology 32(4):592-619.
Roberts, Elizabeth F.S., and Camilo Sanz. 2017. Bioethnography: A How To Guide for the Twenty-First Century. In A Handbook of Biology and Society. M. Meloni, ed: Palgrave Macmillan.
Sánchez, B, S Kang, and B. Mukherjee. 2012. “A latent variable approach to study gene-environment interactions in the presence of multiple correlated exposures.” Biometrics. 68(2):466-476.
Teushchler, Linda, James Klaunig, Ed Carney, Janice Chambers, Rory Conolly, Chris Gennings, John Giesy, Richard Hertzberg, Curtis Klaassen, Ralph Kodell, Dennis Paustenbach, and Raymond Yang. 2002. “Support of Science-Based Decision Concerning the Evalutation of the Toxicology of Mixtures; A New Beginning.” Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology 36: 34-39.
Elizabeth F.S. Roberts is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, who investigates scientific and public health knowledge production and its embodied effects in Latin America and the United States. She is the author of God’s Laboratory: Assisted Reproduction in the Andes (U.C. California Press 2012) and is currently finishing a book manuscript on addiction called Vital Dependencies: A Bioethnography of Addiction in Mexico City.
- Elizabeth Roberts' God's Laboratory
- Book Forum: Daniel Renfrew’s Life Without Lead: Contamination, Crisis, and Hope in Uruguay
- Bringing Social Science to Life
- Response to comments on Life without Lead
- Review of Noémi Tousignant's Edges of Exposure: Toxicology and the Problem of Capacity in Postcolonial Senegal