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Making Visible What Was Invisible: a Task for Historians? Arsenic and Farm Workers Health in France 1890s - 1960s

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Since the mid 1980’s, the so-called new historiography of occupational health has highlighted the numerous ways through which the deleterious health effects of occupational exposures to hazardous chemicals have been denied and occulted. In order to carry out their investigations, historians have often relied on information provided by workers activism and/or court cases: that is when some visibilisation of what had been made invisible was taken place. What if, however, no –even partial- visibilisation of occupational exposures and their noxious effects on workers health ever occurred? How does the historian get access to these exposures and effects? How does he/she deal with the traces of these exposures and their related sanitary effects that he/she might eventually collect? What kind of history may then be written? What purposes may such a history have? Is making visible that was at the time invisible a task for historians?

The lecture will discuss these questions by investigating how the occupational exposures of farm workers to arsenic compounds used in agriculture as insecticides had been dealt with in France between the 1890s and the early 1960s. These exposures and their likely effects on farm workers’ health never resulted in any kind of process of visibilization - and one may ask whether the use of arsenic compounds in French agriculture ever produced any kind of occupational health problems. Careful enquiry allows however both to obtain traces of these problems and analyze how they were made socially invisible. Shedding light on the processes through which the existence of occupational exposures to arsenic was denied and occulted in French agriculture between 1890s and the 1980s proves to be of great interest for many reasons. It is especially crucial to understand how and why farm workers’ occupational exposures to synthetic pesticides - which have been widely used since the 1950’s- have in France, up to very recently, never given rise to any of sanitarization.

Nathalie Jas is a permanent research fellow at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA). Historian and a STS scholar, her work analyses the intensification of agriculture and its social, environmental and health effects. She is the coordinator of the research project “SocioAgriPest: Pesticides and Farm Workers Health: Between Visibilization and Invisibilization” (2013-2016) funded by the French Ministry of Environment. She is the author of Au carrefour de la chimie et de l’agriculture: les sciences agronomiques en France et en Allemagne 1840-1914 (Paris: Editions des archives contemporaines, 2001). Among the volumes she has co-edited are with ‘Risk and risk Society in Historical Perspective’ (History and Technology, 2007) and Toxicants, Health and Regulation since 1945 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2013) both with Soraya Boudia. She is the French translator of Ludwik Fleck‘s pioneer work Genesis and development of a scientific Fact - Genèse et développement d’un fait scientifique (Paris: Les Belles Lettres 2005 & Flammarion, 2008). She is now writing her forthcoming book, a history of the government of sanitary risks posed the agricultural pesticides in Twentieth Century France.

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