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Weapons of Mass Pollution: Health, Hazards, and the British Environment, 1850-1950

Sat, April 13, 8:30 to 10:00am, Hyatt Regency Columbus, Marion

Session Submission Type: Panel


Pollution from industry and warfare has a long and checkered history. As Joel Tarr, Jacob Hamblin, Richard Newman, and Donald Webster have shown, the toxic legacies of war and economic growth remain dangerous threats to public health and the environment. From chemical sludge discarded near factories to battlefields littered with unexploded ordnance and dioxins, the hazards can persist for decades in the air, water, and earth upon which humans rely for their livelihoods and sustenance.

Using a range of formerly classified archival materials and innovative methodologies, this panel focuses on the history of pollution and its wide-ranging political, economic, social, and ecological significance. In doing so, it sheds light on the dark side of British economic and military history by demonstrating the real-world consequences of past government, business, and military activities. The panel also explores the deeper cultural meanings of pollution by uncovering how scientific inquiry, media coverage, and visual representations of pollution were leveraged by stakeholders to challenge authority, mobilize responses, deny responsibility, and (mis)inform public dialogue.

Taken collectively, the panel provides important lessons for the present day as it highlights the ways in which victims and perpetrators respond to pollution and its ecological catastrophes. Jennifer Tucker’s paper discusses how the alkali industry transformed two towns in northwestern England and considers some of the complexities of environmental systems and stories that are still embedded in the landscape – long after many of the physical traces of the Victorian chemical industry have disappeared. Alex Souchen’s paper explores the environmental legacy of total war by connecting British disarmament policies and the ocean dumping of leftover munitions with the mass death of oysters in the Thames Estuary. Peter Thorsheim’s paper examines the fraught history of British attempts to neutralize chemical weapons by burning them, including the consequences for animals exposed to toxic fumes.

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