Infertile Environments book cover

Book Review: Janelle Lamoreaux’s Infertile Environments


Infertile Environments: Epigenetic Toxicology and the Reproductive Health of Chinese Men, by Janelle Lamoreaux (Duke University Press, 2023).

The World Health Organization recently called to center women, pregnant people, and children in addressing climate change (WHO 2023). The report emphasizes potential long-term and intergenerational effects of climate related exposures, such as extreme temperatures, displacement, and disparate access to basic needs (2023). This linkage between reproduction, and environmental concerns has an extensive history (Sasser 2018), reflecting the environmental politics of reproduction (Lappé et al. 2019). Such concerns are useful for eliciting policy and research responses, but can also obfuscate the ways larger structures harm environments and health (cf. Liboiron 2021). Anthropologists and activists at the intersection of health and the environment have shown how violence renders life itself as toxic (Rubaii 2020), compounded by exposures within everyday life and disasters (Nading 2020). The relationships between such environmental exposures, gene expression, and health became central to the life sciences after the sequencing of the genome. Science studies scholars remained attentive in this postgenomic turn to the “environment” for documenting complex social realities.

Cultural anthropologist Janelle Lamoreaux’s timely ethnography greatly contributes to this scholarship and our understanding of the intersections between postgenomic sciences, environmental toxicities, and health. Infertile Environments draws on rich scholarship from medical anthropology, feminist STS, and environmental humanities to analyze how environments are constructed, measured, and enacted through epigenetic toxicology. Her main ethnographic site, the DeTox Lab in Nanjing, China, primarily studies the intergenerational health effects of environmental toxins through analyses of men’s reproductive health. The lab is an ideal fieldsite to understand the political, scientific, and embodied realities of environmental health in China and the postgenomic scientific attention to the environment. She problematizes the construction and utility of “the environment” as it is applied in various contexts across environmental and intergenerational health. To do this, she innovatively weaves together ethnography, participant observation, and media analyses across field sites in Nanjing with autoethnographic reflections. Her analysis tracks how epigenetic toxicological knowledge flows through media, nongovernmental organizations, laboratory settings, healthcare settings, patient interactions, and her personal life.

Lamoreaux organizes her book around five distinct environments, each as their own chapter (national, hormonal, dietary, maternal, and laboratory), that intersect along the way. The central argument and structure of her ethnography draws on seminal theories in science studies and medical anthropology, like local biologies (Lock 1993) and exposed biologies (Walhberg 2018). Lamoreaux articulates that the DeTox Lab considers how “biology has always been a part of the world that stands outside it” (32). So when scientists study the effects of environmental exposures, such as Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDC’s), on fertility, they engage with individual biologies and environmental impacts at the same time. A key contribution from this book is her finding that epigenetic toxicology simultaneously “reduces and proliferates environments in and through the laboratory environment” (78). Lamoreaux’s expansion of individualized notions of the environment contributes to social scientists’ successful critique of the postgenomic tendency to reduce complex social experiences to individual biological, reproductive, and birth outcomes (cf. Valdez 2021). Lamoreaux’s work is therefore critical about how and to what extent scientists are attentive to the complexities of environmental epigenetics both within and outside methodological tools.

Throughout the book, Lamoreaux analyzes thematic framings of individual environments to show how exposures are researched, health is contextualized, and environments are materialized. Lamoreaux’s first chapter, “The National Environment,” presents a detailed review of reproductive politics in China. Against the backdrop of government-sponsored birth planning initiatives, historical interest in population “quality,” “a global sperm crisis,” and growing environmental concerns, the Detox Lab began studying the effect of occupational exposures to pesticides on men’s in/fertility. The lab found that chronic pesticide exposures could result in decreased sperm count, lower “DNA integrity,” and the transmission of “‘damaged’ genes” (26). The lab also contributed to new methodological approaches in epigenetic toxicology through studying urinary metabolites and identified a link between EDCs and sperm decline (31). She builds on this national and international importance in the second chapter, “The Hormonal Environment,” by analyzing the impactful 2010 Greenpeace report “Swimming in Poison,” that identified hazardous amounts of EDCs within the fish of the Yangtze “Mother” River (40). Here, she brings in several other media and ethnographic examples to illustrate scientific, public, and individual concerns for “environmental hormones” (37). She draws on queer critiques of the politics of EDCs to argue for a movement away from individualized panic to concern for disparities in exposures. In the third chapter, “The Dietary Environment,” Lamoreaux transitions to studies of soy that can reinscribe racialized and gendered understandings of health. Finally, in the “The Maternal Environment” she draws on observations of patient visits with children, who primarily have congenital disorders such as Hirschsprung’s Disease. Detox Lab uses birth-cohort studies at hospitals in Nanjing, to understand the role of environmental factors in disease. As often associated with birth-cohort studies, this model of research can construct the “environment as a person,” which can place blame and responsibility for toxic exposures on mothers (74). However, Lamoreaux shows that “the scientists pursue research to capture a much more complex picture of exposure, a more varied and elaborate toxicity linked to industrial development, one that they fear has been and will continue to be inherited” (76).

Infertile Environments provides lasting contributions to medical and environmental anthropology, as well as feminist science studies. The politics that Lamoreaux describes in-depth throughout the book are demonstrated by her vulnerable reflections of her experience with pregnancy, caregiving, and coordinating fertility care. In “Coda,” she considers the broader impacts of her work through engaging with current debates in the field on kinship, toxicity, and justice. Therefore, this ethnography provides a crucial contribution to the landscapes of reproductive and environmental futures. Infertile Environments shows how researchers both “capture and produce anxieties about the un/making of future kin in a world increasingly saturated with toxins,” and prompts us to disrupt structures of violence and toxicity in our environments (94).


References

Lappé, Martine, Robbin Jeffries Hein, and Hannah Landecker. 2019. ‘Environmental Politics of Reproduction’. Annual Review of Anthropology 48 (1): 133–50. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-anthro-102218-011346.

Liboiron, Max. 2021. Pollution Is Colonialism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Lock, Margaret. 1993. Encounters with Aging Mythologies of Menopause in Japan and North America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Nading, Alex M. 2020. ‘Living in a Toxic World.’ Annual Review of Anthropology 49: 209–24.

Rubaii, Kali. 2020. ‘Birth Defects and the Toxic Legacy of War in Iraq’. MERIP. 22 September 2020. https://merip.org/2020/09/birth-defects-and-the-toxic-legacy-of-war-in-iraq/.

Sasser, Jade. 2018. On Infertile Ground: Population Control and Women’s Rights in the Era of Climate Change. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Wahlberg, Ayo. 2018. “Exposed Biologies and the Banking of Reproductive Vitality in

China.” Science, Technology and Society 23, no. 2: 307–23.

WHO. 2023. “Protecting Maternal, Newborn and Child Health from the Impacts of Climate Change: Call for Action.” World Health Organization, November 21, 2023. https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240085350.

Valdez, Natali. 2021. Weighing the Future: Race, Science, and Pregnancy Trials in the Postgenomic Era. University of California Press.

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