Communicating about Chemicals

In an article posted today at, Jennifer Rogers of the Reproductive Health Technologies Project reflects on the current PR campaign to rehabilitate Bisphenol-A (BPA) in Washington, D.C. As she notes, we need federal (and international) legislation to regulate toxic chemicals, which all-too-often fall on the shoulders of everyday people.

Right now, I happen to be reading about POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants) and international efforts to enforce and to expand the Stockholm Convention. The logic of this treaty is based on the assumption that there are certain chemicals worth regulating as groups instead of as individual pollutants.

What I’m wondering is if communicating the risks of such chemicals is more persuasive when individually (e.g., BPA or PCBs) or collectively (i.e., POPs) identified? Given the acronyms and technical names that arise with toxins (it took me a month to learn how to spell “phthalates”), how can we more effectively and meaningfully communicate a clearer sense of urgency and awareness with publics and governments?

About Phaedra C. Pezzullo

Pezzullo is an Associate Professor at Indiana University (U.S.A.). She is author of *Toxic Tourism: Rhetorics of Travel, Pollution, and Environmental Justice* (University of Alabama Press), co-editor of *Environmental Justice and Environmentalism: The Social Justice Challenge to Environmentalism* (MIT, with Ronald Sandler), and editor of a 2008 special issue of the journal *Cultural Studies* on the environment.
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2 Responses to Communicating about Chemicals

  1. Branden says:

    There’s another issue with these technical names for toxins. There is a history (usually by pro-chemical people, if I can use such a misleading description) of worry that complex, unfamiliar chemical names arouse fear, although to my knowledge rarely backed up with anything more than anecdotes. Research I did found that risk ratings were significantly higher for known toxins (mercury, lead, arsenic) than for the unknown toxins with complex names. If this finding generalizes, use of specific chemicals or categories of chemicals would depress concern equally.

  2. mtstevo says:

    I don’t have an answer to your questions, but looking to other toxins (say, asbestos!) might be instructive. Certainly, the Canadian asbestos industry has fought long and hard to have chrysotile treated differently from other forms of asbestos, whereas most environmental & occupational health advocates have pressed for regulation or bans on asbestos as a category. As a matter of advocacy, it seems like there would be all the usual argumentative tactics that come with the particular v. universal framing (one side gets charged with engaging in special interest pleading, the other is over-generalizing). I’ll have to keep thinking about it.

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