Check out Episode 23 of The Chemical Sensitivity Podcast!
The title is “Chemicals in Central America, Chemicals Everywhere.”
It features a conversation with Alex Nading, Ph.D.
Professor Nading teaches anthropology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in the US. He specializes in the impacts of pesticides and toxic exposures for people who work on sugarcane plantations in Nicaragua, climate change, and environmental health and activism.
You will Professor Nading explore:
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Aaron Goodman 00:05
Welcome to the Chemical Sensitivity Podcast. It's a podcast that amplifies the voices of people with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity or MCS, also known as Environmental Illness, chemical intolerance and toxicant induced loss of tolerance or TILT. The podcast also highlights emerging research about the illness. I'm Aaron Goodman, host and founder of the podcast.
This is Episode 23. The title is Chemicals in Central America, Chemicals Everywhere, it features a conversation with Alex Nading, PhD. Professor Nading teaches anthropology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York in the US. He specializes in the impacts of pesticides and toxic exposures. For people who work on sugarcane plantations in Nicaragua, climate change and environmental health and activism.
You'll hear Professor Nading explore how people in Nicaragua who work on sugarcane plantations are impacted by chronic exposures to pesticides and other chemicals used in industrial agriculture, how we're all impacted by chemicals and toxins no matter where we live, and why there's so much denial about the fact that MCS is a real illness.
I hope you enjoy the conversation and find it of benefit. We release new episodes twice a month, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Leave a review on Apple podcasts. It's a great way to help others learn about the podcast find us on social media, just search for the Chemical Sensitivity Podcast, or podcasting MCS. Leave your comments about anything you hear on the podcast and please share the podcast with others. The podcast is also available on YouTube. You can read closed captions in any language you like. You can support the podcast and help us continue creating greater awareness about MCS. Please find the link in Episode descriptions at ChemicalSensitivityPodcast.org. If there's someone you'd like to hear interviewed on the podcast or topic you'd like us to explore, just let us know email firstname.lastname@example.org and thanks for listening.
Aaron Goodman 02:33
Well, Professor, Alex Nading, thanks so much for joining me on podcast.
Alex Nading 02:37
Well, it's great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Aaron Goodman 02:39
I'd like to invite you to talk to our listeners a little bit about your work as an anthropologist, this is a work you've been doing for a long time. Do you want to let us know how you got started? And what kind of work you've been doing?
Alex Nading 02:51
Yeah, I'd be happy to so it's you know, anthropology mean does mean many, many different things. In my case, I'm, I think of myself as an anthropologist of medicine in the environment. So I came to an interest in in things chemical through an interest in more broadly and things bodily and environmental, in that sense. And so my my earliest first project was about Dengue fever prevention thingies, mosquito borne disease that affects people in lots of different parts of the world, increasingly, more and more parts of the world. But I was focused on urban Nicaragua. And so like a lot of anthropologists my way of understanding how people were dealing with this disease, which is, you know, mosquito borne disease tends to affect people in concentrated cities.
Alex Nading 02:51
My approach to understanding that was to join the people who were sort of on the front lines of confronting it, who are community health workers working for the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health, so I spent more than a year working with them trying to identify the habitats of mosquitoes and eliminate mosquitoes using pretty harsh organophosphate chemicals. And so it really took me a while I have to admit, I was so interested in the in the dynamics of mosquito ecologies, which I'll spare you for today. That it took me a long time to realize and to really hear what those community health workers were telling me over and over again, about the experience of working with those chemicals.
Alex Nading 04:17
And it was really when, towards the end of my initial period of field work and 2007/2008 that I started to become aware of a broader chemical landscape in Nicaragua that was more related to agricultural pesticides. And I started reading in the newspapers there about workers who worked in the banana industry, in the sugarcane industry, who were very concerned about the long term effects of pesticide exposure. And then I realized that the very chemical that my friends and interlocutors were using in public to do a public health good, in other words to control mosquitoes, was in fact a pesticide. So that got me interested in things that were, you know, intoxicants and industrial toxicants and what they do to bodies and eventually after many yours I started a new ethnographic project which involved longterm fieldwork with former workers on sugarcane plantations in the western Pacific Coast of Nicaragua, there are several sugarcane plantations, and in just about all of them, people had really, for decades been concerned about the use of agrochemicals there. And this doesn't just apply to the sugar industry, but to the cotton, peanut and other kinds of industries and at various times had been dominant in this area. And in particular, people who had worked in that industry were concerned that the onset of a new form of kidney disease, which wasn't related to diabetes, wasn't related to hypertension, like kidney disease normally is might be related to chemical exposure. To date, there hasn't been any real clear connection between a particular chemical agent and the onset of this chronic kidney disease. But I've been working with one of the groups of patients and pen family members that's trying to get answers to that and more broadly, think about the chemical impact of industrial agriculture in Central America. So that's sort of where my, my research interest comes from.
Aaron Goodman 06:03
Yeah. So you started with looking at Bengue, Nicaragua, moving into the effects of agro chemicals on agricultural workers, sugar cane workers, kidney disease, which is pretty common, right? And I wonder, you know, because a lot of listeners may be asking, Do people in Nicaragua, who you work with, you know, do they report having symptoms of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity as well?
Alex Nading 06:34
That's a really good question. So you know, in medical anthropology, one of the things a lot of times we're interested in is categories of diagnosis and categories of disease of which MCS would be one kind of category, to my knowledge, MCS as such, doesn't really have the kind of salience in Nicaragua that it might in North America, but I don't think that means that people aren't noticing particular kinds of sensitivities to the inorganic chemicals in their myst. And I'll give you an example of that the community health workers that I mentioned a minute ago, worked with on organophosphate larvicide, that by a US EPA standards is not suitable for household use, they were applying it in households. And they didn't get a lot of personal protective equipment, they were glad to be doing this work. Because as I said, it was a public health good. But they did not start to notice after say a month long campaign of going house to house applying bits of this it comes like usually in a little sort of powder form that's a this powder to standing water in cisterns and other kinds of places where mosquitoes might lay their eggs, they would notice and they would talk to me very often about coming home with nausea with fatigue with blurred vision, and even sometimes more acute effects like burns, that's that you could you could think of that as a as a kind of a kind of sensitivity. Or you could think of it as an acute injury.
Alex Nading 06:47
But when you combine that with the fact that this place, like a lot of places is a place where layers and layers of different kinds of chemicals are in in the mix, you start to notice that when people do talk about fatigue, and they do talk about skin problems, and they do talk about vision problems, even if they're not community health workers working with harsh and organophosphates, these issues are routed through chemicals. So among other things in this place, historically, there has been caustic soda production, which emits mercury and other kinds of toxins into the air and water. There has been cotton and sugarcane and peanut plantations that have used chemicals from DDT to paraquat. Now I'm all of the Dirty Dozen chemicals at one time were were used in in different applications throughout from the 50s up into the 70s and 80s, and then to the present. And so there is a way in which although it's not the most industrialized place in the world, the Western Nicaragua is a place where chemicals infused people's lives and people are starting to connect the dots between their lived conditions of just generalized stability and those industrial toxicants. So I would say it's an emergent category rather than one that sort of cemented in the way we might think of it here.
Aaron Goodman 09:28
And is a situation where for example, you know, if kidney diseases presenting as more common that can seem to be more prescient, you know, more urgent to take care of a kidney disease, right, but it's perhaps a situation where chemical sensitivity is sort of a shadow in the background. When I'm hearing you talk, it seems like you know, a lot of people in the Global North it's taken decades to recognize what what's happening with their bodies, right. To identify what this condition is, and I think it's only with the advent of widespread access to the internet, for example, that a lot of you will have had opportunities to learn from each other and to get educated and say, oh, yeah, this is it, in spite of the fact that doctors are, you know, infrequently prone to diagnosing, right. So could it be a situation where, as you're maybe alluding to that it's very widespread, people just aren't able to put a finger on it, but the symptoms are there, nevertheless,
Alex Nading 10:30
I think that may be part of it. I think that there's also probably something to be said for the fact that when people are confronted and in sometimes some cases sort of bombarded with different kinds of health concerns that there is the the ability to speak up and speak out about this low line, kind of maybe not quite as acute or not quite as organ centric or system centric kind of problems. That might be harder to do, right. And so what's interesting, though, is that a problem like kidney disease, as I see it, and this is maybe more so than the than the problems I was talking about with the organophosphates, even though it's a it's a diagnosable condition, there is no clear linkage between it and any particular chemical yet, but what it's done is because people have gotten together on the internet and in person and communicated about that, that's created this opening, where people can talk about chemicals, and what they do and what they might do more broad, right. And that people can also start to share their memories of prior moments, which they're now kind of maybe understanding as having something to do with chemical exposure or something ongoing. So one disease that looks very much like a discrete problem that could be tackled all on its own, and in which many people are trying to approach in that way. I think for people who are living through that every day has also become a way to start talking about a whole bunch of other things. So it's not as if there's MCS, and, you know, kind of multi symptomatic diseases over here and very clear, but allergies over here, I think they kind of talk to each other.
Aaron Goodman 12:15
Yeah, very interesting. And a lot of people will be listening will, you know, maybe like me, I don't often hear about MCS outside of the global north, right. And I imagine it must be really prevalent, because of just the fact that developed, so called developed countries develop, export our waste to these to many countries. And, you know, I've lived in the global south a lot for many years. And I know, that's where I actually got ill. And I know that a lot of countries have lax relatively, lax laws around the use of chemicals compared to the global north. So you have a sense of how common MCS may be in developing countries and parallel question, what if we should be interested? Do you know like, what does Nicaragua for example, and the people there and their chronic exposures to chemicals? Why should we care?
Alex Nading 13:10
So first of all, I don't have I'm not sure anybody does have statistical data on the prevalence of MCS in the global south. But what what we do know is that people are both, you know, in a good way, for the most part living longer in countries in the Global South. And so, you know, it's that has the benefit of obviously, people having, you know, being able to do many more things in their lives. And it is sort of an indicator of development, and some does that, right. But it also means that because the things that have been the acute killers are less acute, so things like malaria, or even HIV AIDS, or yellow fever, are these kinds of diseases that are maybe not completely under control, but more controlled than they were in the past. Because those diseases are killing fewer people, people are now able to articulate the other kinds of problems like MCS and that so what's interesting is that the rot the proliferation of wastes and chemicals that you've talked about, has come along with a proliferation of other kinds of biomedical technologies.
Alex Nading 14:21
And so I do think that now there is an emerging sense of a conversation around that in many parts of the world in terms of what Nicaragua can teach us. I think Nicaragua is a pretty striking test case where it maybe that's the wrong phrase and pretty striking example of what happens over time as different kinds of toxins as I mentioned earlier kind of layer on top of one another, right. So it has been an it continues to be a place with not only somewhat lacks regulation, but also a place where People are maybe among unique among, among populations in that there's a living memory of massive use of DDT, there's a living memory of pretty concerted response on the part of the government, the revolutionary government of the 1980s, to confront the overuse of pesticides and to sort of foment a kind of ecological democracy. And in that same living memory, there is after the revolution, a kind of counter revolutionary backlash in which the chemicals made a comeback, right. And so in some ways people can tell their stories and the stories in their lives and their health through different kinds of chemical regimes. And I think they can even trace their illnesses across this chemicals. And I think that, to me, makes it a kind of place where that idea that I think a lot of us know, but have to continue reiterating that simply treating a chemical like a like a, like a malaria parasite and saying, This chemical does this to bodies, and not looking at the multiple kind of constellations of chemicals, and thinking about what multiple low dose exposures might do that Nicaragua is a place where multiple low dose exposure is the norm, right.
Alex Nading 16:15
And so people speak about those things, as much as they might talk about acute injury and poisoning. It's really the people that I work with, and that I talk to are really trying to make sense of layered multiple low dose exposures. And they in their own way through their own politics are really trying to call attention to what that might mean. And they run up against something that I think is really familiar, which is a chemical industry and an agricultural industry. And to some extent, a government that really wants to treat chemicals, like individual individual harm doers, right tend to say, well, we tested your water and you don't have high level of chemical x. So you can't blame your problem on that chemical. Now, if you have a bunch of low levels of chemicals, y, z, ABC and D, they're all too low to map, right? Because there's low doses and low doses won't hurt you. And that's what people constantly have to make sense of like, well, if the doses are too low to hurt me, how am I still hurt, right?
Alex Nading 17:07
Only through telling stories about injury that people can sort of have confidence in the idea that, yeah, maybe the multiple low doses are doing something, right? Maybe they are affecting my kids development, maybe they are affecting my skin, maybe they are, maybe they are the reason that I can't move and get up and go back to work. Maybe they are the reason that I have headaches, right. And so it's that vernacular, understanding that sort of, I know my body kind of understanding that people are developing and had been developing for a long time. And in some ways, this is the last thing I think, in some ways, the lack of regulation, and the sort of systematic inattention that especially poor Nicaraguans have had from from medicine, from capital and other things in some ways that actually helps that vernacular understanding develop in a more in a more kind of articulated sort of way than it might be in a place where you're constantly bombarded with doctors and mainstream talks, the college is telling you that your instincts are wrong. I think there's a way in which people have learned to heal by thinking through their instinct and sharing their knowledge.
Aaron Goodman 18:12
It's very interesting. And I think that's what that's one of the goals of this podcast right to to amplify the voices and experiences we have with MCS, because as you say, in Nicaragua, people are sharing their experiences of ill health as a result of chronic exposures. And that is a way to challenge or disrupt the pervasive denialism. And I wanted to ask you, you know, you've written I believe, and talked about, at least in our previous conversations briefly about how you make a connection between the chronic exposures to chemicals in the Global South, that people face right on a low low dose chemicals on a daily basis to your own experiences as someone who lives in United States as an academic, as a professor, and and you also mentioned the lack of regulation, right? And we also face a lack of regulation, right? How do you how do you view that those two things, please,
Alex Nading 19:05
in terms of the connection of between what I've studied and my own life, I mean, I'm when you study these things, you do start to become more aware of how none of us are innocent of these, of these entanglements of these chemical entanglement that we're all participating in. And so one of the things that I've written about is the, the way in which even as I was writing a kind of critical review of anthropological literature and related literature around toxicity over the last 20 years or so, I couldn't help but notice that I was doing it and I was doing time in a fairly newly constructed office that was full of brand new carpets. And if you know what I'm talking about, right with the with noticeable adhesives and paints fit in there, as we all are, and we're doing right now working on a computer, that sort of unnecessary appendage of my job that's packed with heavy metal holes and powders and other kinds of things that are emitting low doses of different kinds of probably toxic substance into the air printing drafts and student papers and letters on a printer where the toner leeches, obviously into my atmosphere, right.
Alex Nading 20:20
So in other words, producing knowledge about toxicity is also reproducing that kind of lowest low dose toxicity. And so we're kind of enveloped in it in a way and that it really was in the process of kind of trying to connect those things. And I realized how much I was I was sort of implicated there. And I like that idea of thinking of us as non innocent, not because that means oh, we're all you know, we're all participating, therefore, we can't, there can't be an effective politics, I think it's actually a more effective politics for us to kind of approach these problems of our industrial president, not from a purified position of moral righteousness, but from an acknowledgement that we're working from within rather than somehow from outside the kind of system. And again, the Nicaraguan examples, the nice one, these folks who work on sugarcane farms depend to some extent, still on the sugarcane industry, which is not necessarily something that they're 100% happy with, but their prop, their politics are more practically oriented towards how do you work through that reality, rather than try to treat it as if, as if it's as if it would be possible to completely immediately do away with it. And so that's one of the things that I've kind of one of the things that I've kind of come to over over the course of work and doing this kind of, and I think I might have forgotten the second.
Aaron Goodman 21:38
That's no, it's fine. It's really fascinating. And, you know, you talk about how you and we all are, to a certain extent, exposed to low or higher doses of levels of chemicals on a daily basis, toxins, and for you, it's in your workplace, and many, for many of us it is as well, and you talk about the chemical entanglement, and that we're all involved. And I wonder if you see us as victims, in a way being oppressed, because sometimes I certainly feel that way when I walk through the grocery store, and I certainly feel a certain level of oppression and a desire to push back. And I wonder how you view that? And if if you find any ways of resisting in your own life? And then if we expand that to a broader scale, I know you've written about in Nicaragua, people finding ways of resistance? And are there any examples that resonate with you of resistance in your own life in the Global South? And if I could just add one more North America, you write about that. And others have also noted that toxic exposures are most common in communities that are experienced marginalization, right, racialized communities, places where people are faced economic challenges, housing challenges, and I believe you talk about Flint, Michigan, perhaps in your in your writings?
Alex Nading 23:03
Yeah. So I share that feeling. I mean, I think personally, I probably go between the sense of, I mean, if I'm honest, the sense of resignation, and like feeling overwhelmed by just the unavoidable ability of pee fast, and PCBs, and all those and synthetic perfumes, and you know, all of those things, and I don't consider myself to be somebody that that personally lives with severe MCS, right? I'm just, you know, in some ways, a person whose sensitivities flare up here and there, and yet I am angered by that. And I think anybody who's anybody who's investigating their local environment should feel victimized to an extent. I mean, I think we're not innocent, but we also we are experiencing are, and what's scary about it is that we're not we won't know what kind of harm that is, until it's too late. That's what we know that the one thing we know about sort of 20th century and forward and industrial chemical living is that there's what Michelle Murphy calls a latency to the effects of those things. Right. And so that's a scary, but I do think, at the same time, that there are ways that we can call attention to that in ways that are creative and and potentially radical. I mean, obviously, you mentioned the cases of environmental injustice where toxic exposure is compounded with histories of racial marginalization or class in a way the courts have been an effective vehicle for calling attention to that, depending on the state and depending on the court, right. And so we shouldn't discount those sort of classic theoretical methods, right?
Alex Nading 24:55
Even in the global south courts have to an extent brought attention to chemical harms done by corporations and other state. But I think we have to go beyond that. And one of the things I write about, and this would apply to Flint, although I'm not personally the person that's done the research on it, there are others that can appoint you too. But even in Flint, where courts have, have played a role, I think equally, that's what's played a role is forms of create what you might call kind of creative solidarity. And this is where I think anthropologists and other scientists participate, right, that is in trying to use our all of our creative talents, such as they are, right that writing and performance, but also of creative use of technical tools like fencing, biosensors, and the Internet, which you mentioned, to create solidarity these across this community to do the work of what Mel Chen called toxic worlding. Right, which is to recognize the toxicity that to some extent unavoidable in our bits, but to find ways of making the connections between that toxicity and racism, the technic, the connections between that toxicity and settler colonialism, the connections between that and, and sexism or workplace exploitation to make those connections apparent to those and I think there still are those who would rather not see right, and I think that visible Ising is radical act. And I think that it has to take form in ways that are responsive to the place to the places where we are. So like lots of other environmental actions, I think, thinking about transnational connections is really important, but also recognizing that one of the insidious things about this form of harm, that it looks different in different places, which means that response to some extent has to be different in different places, there won't probably be a one size fits all kind of political response to this, because in some ways, the experience of indigenous communities with chemical harm is never going to be fully commensurate with the experience of a settler person. Right?
Aaron Goodman 26:59
In other words, much more grave, much more serious, much more devastating, potentially, or how do you view it?
Alex Nading 27:07
Yeah, I think in that sense, the level of gravity might be different. But it also, I think it also might come down to the ways in which how are people understanding what what the harm is? Is it limited to a body or is is the harm to an ecosystem felt in a bodily way and seen as an assault in the same way, by me as it might be by somebody for whom that ecosystem is not just a part of home, but a part of self? And I think if you look at the ways in which chemical violence takes hold, in different people's lives, not just by sort of trying to measure it, right, but trying to help people conceptualize it, right, those concepts are going to be different. I mean, so the example that I might draw from from Nicaragua would be in thinking about that kidney disease, right? A lot of scientists are really interested in the fact that a kidney disease that we see in Central America looks a lot like kidney disease that folks are seeing in countries like Sri Lanka, South India, a few other places. So this seems like maybe a global kapow. And there's this real big push among scientists. And I have to say most of these scientists are from Europe and North America, to try to figure out are we looking at the same disease, right, is that you know, and then they're confounded by the fact that like, well, in Nicaragua, the folks are mostly working on sugarcane plantations, and in Sri Lanka, they're doing these other kinds of activities in here, there's heavy metal exposure, and there there's glyphosate like this. And that and purpose seems to be to come up with some unified theory, right?
Alex Nading 28:41
But what you don't see so much isn't attention to the way in which even if we did at the end of the day, find out yes, this is the exact same disease because there's this, you know, this this particular kind of inflammation and this particular kind of symptom pen apart progressives in the exact same way. So Aha, we found out we have this new disease, and we know it's the same thing and as a global phenomena, what you would still be back to where you were with a lot of the other diseases that we know are uniform is that we know that the experience of HIV AIDS in South Africa is and was different than the experience of HIV AIDS in India, right, and how people make sense of it, and how they ultimately work through it has to be different, right? Because the meaning of disease matters, but the meaning of healing matters. And so it's not as if I'm not supportive of broad coalition's but I come more and more suspect of the idea that at least from the top down, we can solve these kinds of problems without attention to place and without attention to the to the environments in which people lives and how they make sense of them. So I think that's what I'm saying is that for the folks that I work with, it matters less to them that they that they're part of some global disease community, then that their history and their experience and their understanding of what the harm is, is acknowledged and work through in their way even if that means losing some potential for solidarity.
Aaron Goodman 29:56
So they view it you know, if the forest is being cut down outside A person whose Family's Home for example, if there's chemical pesticide being applied next door, it's that's the immediate reality. Is that it? And? And is it? Yeah. Is it also, if I could just jump in, you know, for us in the West, most of us are big, sweeping generalizations are sort of divorced from nature anyway. Like, you know, it's so is it? Is it that?
Alex Nading 30:24
Yeah, I think I think that, you know, toxic chemicals make us think about what our relationship to nature is. And I think in terms of, you know, I guess what I would say is this, there are a kind of very still existing and deep, what we might call kind of ontological differences between the way that people look at their bodies and themselves in relation to the rest of the world. And for and for many of us, that world out there, we would call nature, right or built environment. And I think others have different kinds of views of what that is, right? And so that, depending on how you're viewing what that is, that's going to change how you understand what harm is. So that's one thing. But of course, chemicals are already sort of disrupting that, right, because there is no indigenous cosmology that I had already accounted for a PCB, right, or a PFS or a DVD, right.
Alex Nading 31:21
And so I think what they those kinds of harms do is that they both challenge all of our because I don't think that the harms are necessarily prefigured by modern science either, right? So they challenge all of our ideas about what nature and all of our ideas about what a healthy body is, right? And they force us to be more creative with the ideas that we had, and to invent new ones, and sometimes maybe to sacrifice or in the case of many of us in the West, I think to to hold an advance our faith that science is going to save us right that we can engineer our way out of an engineering problem. And so I think by looking comparatively at other ways of dealing with this, we can we can have that faith in technology and science checked without losing our hope. Right. And I guess that's that's kind of what I'm trying to try to say.
Aaron Goodman 32:13
Yeah. And so I have one more question for you. And then, you know, if there's anything else you'd like to share would be, that'd be welcome as well, most definitely. But you know, a lot of people as you know, run into denialism, right from family members, governments who aren't providing enough safe housing, for example, and workplaces are reluctant to accommodate and even schools and higher education, right, a lot of people are really experienced a lot of challenges with MCS in the settings which we have to live in and exist in. And I wonder how you view this widespread denialism. And, you know, I would say the harm, I would ask the harm that it creates for folks, and maybe just like the status of the illness and a wider scale as a medical anthropologist, it's noted as like a contested illness. But yeah, how can it be when there were so many? And you're talking about science catching up, I think or you didn't use catching up? But do you think science will catch up and say, help save us or help validate what we live with?
Alex Nading 33:18
Number one, I do believe that there is there are there are scientists and medical practitioners, even those who are trained in the kind of classic allopathic traditions that are allies. And that do and that aren't doing that denial work, where I think that the denial that you're talking about is systematic, its historically entrenched. And it is, in some sense, a reflection of that faith in a certain kind of in the idea that of a certain kind of scientific rationality, I don't know how you would put it that I think a lot of people don't even realize that they know how much they need that to be real in order to get by, right. So in other words, your line manager at work, or your, you know, local health authority, or your insurance company, say in the United States, right, they may be denying your claim less, because they're personally suspicious of you're telling the truth about how you feel, and more professionally invested through their office in a certain way of construing. What counts as violence and what counts as harm and what doesn't? Right.
Alex Nading 34:31
And so I think the solution is, again, this is where critical work and collaborative work really matters. So this does sort of try to show us as individuals, right, how our lives depend on affirming a certain view of what counts is illness and drawing sharp boundaries around those categories of this illness. And this is not right. Why did why do we need to do that? What work does that categorize that you should do and who does it do work for? Right? And once we start to trace that, right, and once we start to see where we fit in that, then we might be able to start changing how we how we behave towards towards those problems, and not just not just adding a new category. But as much as I think that that's important. I think insurers and others should be taking these categories seriously. And looking at the evidence that's a mass from huge groups of people that just can't all be. I mean, it just it just defied beggars belief that this would not be something that's actually real, right. But to ask ourselves, why is it that this kind of categorization like Who is it doing work for? Right? And are we are we okay with doing work for that, for those people for whom it does work? Because I won't, I won't say specifically who I think it's doing work for, to reinforce that denialism. But I think that probably your listeners have thought about this. And that one of the things that they do in their daily activist work is probably and just in their daily lives is probably try to help others understand who that denial is, isn't this actually doing work? Because I would say it's probably not your insurance agent individually. It's not your HR manager individually. But it's something else.
Aaron Goodman 36:19
That's really amazing. And a lot for us to think about. And I wanted to ask if I may, as a as a medical anthropologist, there have to be and there are. Are you aware of other illnesses that have also been denied and having this history of being delegitimized? And can we hope that you know, people who suffer and struggle with MCS, can we hope that in the not too distant future, hopefully, that there will be a change that we can go to doctors and talk with insurance companies and in our workplaces, in schools and in other settings? Can we have any hope that this widespread denialism gaslighting being told we have mental illnesses? Which we know is just totally not true? Right? We know, we know. And it's so harmful to hear that other illnesses that have experienced the same delegitimization? And can we have any hope?
Alex Nading 37:16
I think there is hope when it comes from different none of them fully kind of resolved kinds of places, I'm afraid, but there is I mean, you know, doubt and denial have been part of the way that the medicine and capitalism work together for a long, long time. Right. So you would have been laughed out of the room, if you had up until, you know, pretty far into my lifetime, if you had suggested and, you know, a meeting of the US Congress or the parliament? Well, maybe I don't know how it went down in Canada, but that there was a connection between tobacco and lung cancer, right now everybody knew it. And everybody who had a family member who got lung cancer could talk to other family members and see that connection, but it didn't exist. And this, this settling of that kind of doubt about the harm of that particular substance and was systematic, and it was reinforced in all kinds of ways.
Alex Nading 38:15
But it was effective. It became something that was just natural. And I see this also in my own work with chronic kidney disease of unknown causes just what it's still called, anecdotally, workers can draw the lines of connection between years of grueling toxic exposure and labor and sugarcane fields. And this disease, many of them still have their disease diagnosed not as occupational but as what they call in Spanish in Nicaraguan Cameroon are common. Basically, it's something that just comes from nature, right. But even when it's diagnosed, it's something that just comes from nature, right? What's in that nature, a whole bunch of chemicals that maybe not were connected to the sugar industry, but were connected to the cotton industry before that, to militarization before that, a whole bunch of stuff. So like, it's already industrial and toxic, right? And so a tension and kind of the crystallization of categories as real and thinkable is always a political achievement. It's not just science, making progress and merging its way towards more perfect naming of classification of what's out there. And for all, everything, including something as obvious as lung cancer, that the existence of that as a pathology that's induced by an industrial arm is an achievement, and it was an achievement, also for it, to take them.
Alex Nading 39:33
So let's not forget that and let's just just one more long COVID condition like long COVID If it had not come alongside that massive sort of global pause and almost razor sharp attention to COVID In general, I think a lot of us would probably who know people who've had long COVID would probably be talking to those people today about how nobody believes them. I about how their insurance won't cover them about how they're being forced to return to work and everything else that goes on with it. Somehow, in this moment of mass death and tragedy, I see that long COVID is actually being taken seriously. And that, you know, the connection between exposure to a virus and long term fatigue, brain fog, etc. A lot of similarities with what a lot of people with MCs live with, that's not being dismissed. People aren't being gaslighted, at least not in the same way. So there's hope there, right, even if it's even if the means are kind of odd. It's interesting, and I think hopeful to me that long haulers are actually getting real serious attention from science, but also from the rest of us, right. I feel fortunate that that's not been something that I or any of my close family have had a little bit but certainly my co workers and others have. And I can just, if I cast my mind back five or even seven years, I think the long haulers would be joining forces with the people living with MCS, because you would probably be sharing a lot of similar kinds of difficulties. But to me, that means that there's hope. And there's hope for people with chronic fatigue syndrome, because I see the kind of solidarities that are being built across communities and with scientists there, there's hope with for people living with chronic Lyme disease, because you can see how they've changed the conversation about that it does happen.
Aaron Goodman 41:23
Fascinating. I wanted to ask you just inspired another question if it's possible. And you you know, you talk about the environment and how different people have different understandings of what the environment is. And you know, chemical, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, as we know, is also known as chemical intolerance and environmental illness. And so for me, it that strikes me as it's always struck me as a very odd term, because when I think of the environment, I think of like, an app pristine, natural environment, right, I don't think of synthetic toxin as the quantum of the environment. So I wonder if you have any views on the term environmental illness, it may be used less frequently now than MCS, not sure.
Alex Nading 42:10
I have been doing work in and around this kind of loose field of what's called political ecology, sometimes for a long time, which is sort of a you know, sort of critical studies of the environment with the with the capitalism and the imperialism and colonialism left and right. In between that and environmental history, one of the things that I think I maybe have become more comfortable with is thinking of the environment. As always, as number one never really pristine. Always people's even when it doesn't look people as we've tried to make it in a lot of our settler colonies, right. And, much like our own selves, you know, I was talking about was computer views. Never innocent, right.
Alex Nading 42:54
So to me, the environment is as much your office workspace that's an environment. It's an intentionally built. But of course, there's a lot of unintentional things that happened in there, right? As much as the state forest, and I'm looking at my window across the courtyard. So I think of the environment as the medium in which we're in which we're living, right. And so it's easier for me to maybe think of it in that way. And I think it's also important because I think one of the things that we should be wary of we as much as we should feel angry and pension militate against the proliferation of harmful substances to do that, in the name of returning to some kind of pristine state can be potentially dangerous, right? If only because who gets to define the pristine, right? What does that look like? Right? And what becomes of that which can't be restored, right? That which has to pass to persist in a state of non innocent presence, right? How can how can we make allies with that, too? And so that's my that's my kind of take on what the environment means to me.
Aaron Goodman 44:03
Got it, very helpful. Well, everything you've shared has been just incredibly fascinating. I've learned a ton listening and talking with you. Would you like to share anything else with us?
Alex Nading 44:13
Well, first of all, I'm I'm really grateful to have the chance to speak with you. I don't have anything else specific to share, except that I think we're really really a fortunate moment now that we we have the ability through media like this, to continue to to make connections and that making connections over shared experience is really important. And making connections despite differences of experience is also really important. And I think that one of the things that I that really excites me and brings me back to these kinds of conversations is the continued knowledge that we can be working really hard together without always necessarily having to be convinced or working really hard on the same thing. And that may sound but I really feel like knowing more about others struggles is not just a comfort because one feels less alone. But it's also a comfort because one becomes more alert to the possibilities for different kinds of of actions and different kinds of different kinds of political movements that maybe won't seem immediately useful, but become lodged and layered. And that's just like those chemicals mired in us. And in some ways, they're kind of a kind of a protected, I really think that the future, at least for research in social science, on these things is collaboration is seeding of the ground have kind of fun, fine, finalizing sort of knowledge and a continued kind of opening up with new sorts of questions. Because we can get to that place where opening new questions is normal, then it's going to be a lot harder for denialism to be the default.
Aaron Goodman 45:49
And what kind of questions are top of mind for you, or you'd be holding as you move forward in your work?
Alex Nading 45:54
I think probably top of mind for me is how to put toxicity into relationship to other elements of the environment. I'm particularly thinking about it in terms because I'm interested in sort of climate change and, and change that a planetary kind of longterm scale, I particularly gotten interested in the relationship between toxic exposure and heat exposure. And the reason is that a lot of the leading research on the disease that I've been most interested in sort of centers heat exposure as a cause. And I've started to ask myself, how does how does something like that become the most probable cause? And of course, that does a lot of harm to people who have been complaining and thinking about chemicals for a long time. But I'm actually really interested in understanding how, how and in what ways we know that chemicals get disappeared, and invisible eyes and minimize, I think a big part of the work is understanding the processes by which that happens. And so I'm, I'm working on some research right now and trying to look at these studies to sort of show how he becomes an alibi for toxicity. But at the same time, how knowledge of he really can't exist without a chemically sort of a chemically driven form of agriculture that exposes people to so I'm kind of interested in the ways in which these different forms of environmental violence inform one another, even as they they protect one another and have. There's a media study scholar and Nicole Sterolscelski, who talks about this as sort of environmental, I think she calls it environmental externalization. Right, how, how, when, when we when when we can pin health problems to things like heat exposure, right, which seems so natural, right? We won't pay attention to any of the other things that lead people to be exposed to that in the first place. And so I'm interested in in all of the different ways that chemicals or chemicals are given alibis. That's the way I'm thinking about it right now, like, what, what are the alibis? And how and how do they act as alibis for other kinds of powerful thing, and I think that hopefully can be a really important maybe sort of set of ideas that might apply to other contexts beyond the one that I'm, you know, the sugarcane industry.
Aaron Goodman 48:10
I think it will I think it's fascinating, and you know, just anecdotally, a lot of people talk about, you know, are they more affected by MCS symptoms on hot or cold days and people have different stories to tell right and different experience?
Alex Nading 48:23
Oh, yeah, yeah.
Aaron Goodman 48:24
We're certainly you know, going to be living on a hotter planet. And maybe we can loop back and connect again and, and hear more about your research because it's really fascinating.
Alex Nading 48:32
I would love to and again, I'm, I'm really, really grateful for the chance to talk and and to meet you. And it's been a lovely conversation. So thank you.
Aaron Goodman 48:44
That brings us to the end of this episode of The Chemical Sensitivity Podcast. Thank you very much to Professor Alex Nading. for speaking with me. Podcast is produced by me, Aaron Goodman, Raynee Novak, and Kristy Eckland. We release new episodes twice a month. Please subscribe for free wherever you get your podcasts. Leave a review on Apple podcasts. It's a great way to help others find the podcast. Follow us on social media. Just search for the Chemical Sensitivity Podcast or podcasting MCS. Leave your comments about anything you hear on the podcast and please share the podcast with others. The podcast is also available on YouTube and you can read captions in any language you like. You can support the podcast and help us continue creating greater awareness about MCS. Please find a link in Episode descriptions at ChemicalSensitivityPodcast.org And if there's someone you'd like to hear interviewed on the podcast or topic you'd like us to explore, just let us know email email@example.com and thanks so much for listening.