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Carcinogens, Mutagens, Reproductive Toxicants

The Politics of Low Doses and Limit Values in the twentieth and twenty-first Centuries

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Published on Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Nous avons le plaisir de vous annoncer la tenue d'une conférence internationale intitulée : « Carcinogens, Mutagens, Reproductive Toxicants: the Politics of Limit Values and Low Doses in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries ». Cette conférence aura lieu à Strasbourg à la Maison Interuniversitaire des Sciences de l'Homme-Alsace (MISHA) les 29, 30 et 31 mars 2010. Pour des informations détaillées, vous pouvez consulter le site suivant : http://irist.u-strasbg.fr/ (lien "CMR Conference" sur le menu à droite).


Contact : Soraya Boudia (soraya.boudia@unistra.fr)  et Nathalie Jas (jas@ivry. inra.fr).


The boom in industrial activity and the development of techno-scientific activities over the course of the twentieth century together with the commercialisation of a myriad of innovations and the introduction of new substances into the environment have continually extended the range of potentially dangerous health and environmental hazards and have long been the focus of a series of initiatives that have aimed to categorise, expose, criticise and manage such risks. The development and deployment of methods for regulating these products and activities as well as their side-effects have been the fruit of long processes of scientific research, activism, public policy and ongoing mutations in the institutional landscape that have taken place at different periods and at a varying pace in national spaces – the United States in particular –, the European Union and on an international scale.

The aim of this conference is to analyse how carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic to reproduction (CMR) related issues have been constructed as scientific research topics and gradually formulated and dealt with in the public and political arena until they became the subject of transnational policies that now seek to regulate the entire range of toxic substances via a UN-sponsored system of global governance. Our task, as social scientists, is therefore to classify the various ways of regulating these substances while recognising the overlap between the changes in the scientific paradigms used to assess the related hazards and the different forms of related criticism, the resulting activism and the institutional and political solutions that have been devised to highlight the changing nature of the “CMR” issue both over time and in terms of its tendency to shift from one scientific, social and political space to another.

We feel that this is a suitable analytical framework for assessing the production dynamics, legitimization mechanisms and deployment vectors for public policies dealing with health and environmental hazards. In particular, we would like the conference to:

  • Explore long-term trajectories and dynamics. While the whole CMR issue along with all of its attendant implications is now debated in the public domain, the underlying issues go back a long way and have largely helped to forge the manner in which the topic is perceived and dealt with in today’s society. Therefore, in order to understand and analyse the processes that underpin present-day forms of expertise and regulation, it is essential to retrace the historical timelines of the long-term trends that underpin these same processes.
  • Apply different spatial and temporal scales. The shaping, analysis and management of CMR-related issues operate on a number of different social, geographic and temporal levels and therefore need to be dealt with from a number of different perspectives. When studying the different ways of governing CMRs, we feel it is particularly important to analyse the international regulatory environment and variations at national, European and international level. We need to examine the problem as it is dealt with by different expert bodies – those that operate at a very local level such as a company, for example, as well as those operating at national or international level. The same goes for temporality: a problem will have specific features at a given moment in time, but it is also composed of overlapping narratives squeezed into shorter or longer periods. Differences and shifts in spatial and temporal scales will all contribute meaning and help to define and transform the object of interest, namely CMR-related issues. 
  • Expand and contrast analytical categories and perspectives. Analysing ways of governing CMRs over a relatively long period poses a certain number of methodological problems that need to be identified and clarified. While we stress the need to pay careful attention to long-term dynamics, these dynamics need to be dealt with in different ways: either based on an analysis of the actors (scientists, politicians, activists, etc.) who have actually been involved in carrying out CMR-related scientific or political work, in monitoring certain substances, devising standards and thresholds or defining toxicity; or, at another level, based on an analysis of the arenas and spaces in which CMRs have been present. And while each of these different levels and categories of analysis will provide important information, what we are really interested in is how they all fit together in the overall picture. As such, we feel that it would be heuristically beneficial to sift through a number of case studies dealing with substances, committees, institutions or national systems for comparative purposes, and to localise the actors and places concerned by the development of general CMR-related categories and policies.


The following section includes a number of topics likely to shed light on CMR-related issues.

I- Scientific knowledge and expertise

In view of the numerous works devoted to CMR-related issues, these have become firmly established as a topic of scientific research and expertise. Many debates and initiatives have focused on the health hazards of physical or chemical agents and sought to classify and define ways of protecting and regulating. Many fields and an increasing number of scientific disciplines have been involved in exploring these issues over time – oncology, toxicology, ecotoxicology, epidemiology, expology and environmental health. Within this complex mosaic, it is important to analyse the associated competing and conflicting professional and cognitive imperatives. Some scientists work on pathologies, others on environmental pollutants and others on dosimetry, all of which have triggered a rapid development in research and expertise that is frequently driven by internal dynamics but constrained by a certain number of factors inter alia controversy, activism and compliance requirements. These spheres are often linked not physically but by calculations represented in various tables showing estimated doses and regulatory or recommended limits. Due to the specialised nature of these domains, dosages and exposure limits appear to be largely disconnected from the experiences and evolving demands of ordinary populations. Another aspect concerns how scientific proof is provided and the limits to its validity for the various protagonists in controversial debates. Models used, data gathering techniques, populations studied and the definition of the reference population are all variables likely to trigger contradictory debates over what constitutes scientific proof in the eyes of both experts and lay-people.

In the conference, we will attempt to retrace the historical trajectory of CMR-related studies and knowledge production by analysing a series of topics: for example, the groups of scientists involved in the production of knowledge relating to the effects of exposure to toxic substances or industrial or environmental pollutants as well as the definition of the theoretical concepts and experimental and instrumental methodologies deployed in such work; or the formation and specific features of various disciplines that deal with these issues and the influence of the prevailing disciplinary culture on the production of cognitive and technical knowledge. We wish to identify and map the various domains concerned and the manner in which information circulates between them. We wish also to pay special attention to the deployment of the toxicological “threshold paradigm” and the practices developed around the definition of dose-effect models and exposure limits, with particular emphasis on the whole question of uncertainty (uncertainty over the effects, existence of a threshold, status of scientific proof, causality, pathological latency, etc.), and the ways in which all of these have been managed and the political uses to which they have been put.

II- The construction of national and transnational regulation systems and spaces

CMRs were largely developed and managed within national or transnational regulatory frameworks and now account for an important part of the work of these regulatory bodies. Beginning in the 1950s, the principle of setting exposure limits has mostly been taken up by the experts working in many different areas: food additives, pesticide residues, radiation, electromagnetic waves, nanoparticles and water and air pollutants – in other words the whole environment in the broadest sense of the term – dwellings, workplaces, the urban environment and the entire planet. This gave rise to the contemporary proliferation of terms for describing maximum values: Acceptable Daily Intakes (ADIs) for food additives or pesticide residues; Maximum Allowable Concentrations (MACs) or Threshold Limit Values (TLVs) for the air and workplace. The growth in the use of different terms and the occasional use of different approaches simultaneously has helped to forge the systems for detecting and managing industrial and environmental pollutants that still largely underpin contemporary CMR-related policies.

We wish to retrace the history of CMR-related policies and regulatory bodies as well as how these have been managed over time. Our aim is to understand how these substances have been identified, formulated and integrated into scientific expertise processes. We wish to focus in particular on the transnational regulatory framework. The entire CMR field has evolved through regular interchanges between the international, European and national regulatory spheres. We are interested in research in the following areas: the early attempts to introduce concerted policies at European and international level prior to the Second World War (scientific commissions, International Labour Organization, Society of Nations, etc.); the growth in the number of regulatory bodies in the years after World War II and the organisation of international systems of regulation in the 1950s and 1960s; the developments in this institutional landscape in the early 1970s driven by growing environmental awareness and ecological activism; and, the transformations that have taken place since the mid-1990s in the approaches to detecting and handling new crises and the emergence of new forms of governance with EU adoption of the new regulations on the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restrictions of Chemicals (REACH), followed by the gradual deployment of the UN-Sponsored Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS). We feel that for each period it is important to analyse both complementary and conflicting interests as well as the power games played out between the different countries and institutions involved in transnational regulation.

The workshop aims to reflect the manner in which experts deal with a whole range of frequently contradictory parameters and imperatives: scientific knowledge, economic and political choices and the social acceptability of risky technologies, etc. Moreover, because scientific expertise forms the basis for an opinion that will in turn be used in political decision-making, it is of specific interest in understanding the true role of science in the development of public policy. As such, we will focus especially on the trajectories and networks of the scientific experts involved in these systems. Our preliminary research has shown that the same scientific experts are often key players in various regulatory bodies and may have to stand up for competing approaches and interests. The fact that experts belong to and move between many different bodies is essential to understanding the modus operandi and how a common culture is forged within a regulatory system. We are also very interested in analyses focusing on how agreements and disagreements have been dealt with between experts and their impacts on public policy. As such, careful attention must be paid to how data is actually gathered and used on the one hand, and to the various obstacles encountered by scientific expertise on the other.

III- Criticism, activism and the public space

CMR-related issues gradually became a nub of social and political contention over the course of the twentieth century. The increasing importance of the related problems and proposed solutions owes much to the different forms of public criticism and activism deployed throughout the twentieth century in a wide range of different public forums. Obviously, the various forms of collective mobilisation, characterised by a return to political and association-based activism and the use of litigation, public debates and other citizens’ forums or conferences has varied according to the populations concerned, the geographical areas in which they took place and local political traditions. CMR-related issues have mobilised different populations depending on the period in question and the substances involved: these populations have ranged from workers employed in specific sectors to the population as a whole and included specific populations such as children, pregnant women, the elderly, users of a given product, commuters or consumers, and residents living near classified facilities or high-risk activities. In addition to the different populations concerned, each issue is defined by its own specific national or regional features and political traditions. The basis used to organise various umbrella associations for local residents, victims or citizens has an increasing bearing, not only on how fears are shaped, but on the cognitive stances that enable people and groups to hone their arguments and put forward demands relating to industrial and environmental exposure. These processes in turn produce new forms of activism such as those witnessed in workplaces where whistleblowing on health-related issues has helped to place working conditions and industrial risks firmly back on the agenda. Activism raises issues such as the effects of, and interaction between multiple exposure hazards and helps researchers assess the methods for researching epidemiology and toxicology.

The workshop aims to map the various types of activism and the spheres in which they are deployed, the different forms of action, the nature of the arguments, the impact of such mobilisation on the issues in question and, more generally, the scoping mechanisms used to circumscribe the problems. Also important is research work dealing with the emergence of activism and organisations that strive to exert influence on an international scale and thus help to drive forward the process of global regulation. 


Monday, 29 March 2010

8h45-9h - Registration

9h-9h30 - Introduction

Soraya Boudia (University of Strasbourg) and Nathalie Jas (University of Paris-Sud/INRA)

9h30-10h - Coffee break


Session 1 - Governing Occupational and Environmental Issues: Long Term Transformations

  • Christopher Sellers (State University of New York, Stony Brooks), Precautionism Towards Industrial Hazards: The Cold War Roots.
  • Nathalie Jas (University of Paris-Sud/INRA), “To protect Mankind from the Dangers of the Chemical Age”: International Organizations, International Experts and Regulation of Chemicals in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
  • Jean-Paul Gaudillière (INSERM/EHESS), DES, Public Expertise and the 1970s Controversies about Low-Doses Carcinogenesis.
  • Alexander von Schwerin (University of Braunschweig), The Hollaender Legacy. Mutagens and a New Problematisation of the Consumer Society.
  • Soraya Boudia (University of Strasbourg), Managing Scientific and Political Uncertainty. Risk Assessment in Historical Perspective.

Commentator: Patrick Zylberman (EHESP).

12h15-13h30 - Lunch


Session 2 - Scientific Knowledge and the Government of CMR (1)

  • Laura Centemeri (University of Coimbra), What Kind of Knowledge for CMR Related Health Issues? Some Lessons Drawn from the Case of Dioxin in Seveso.
  • Beat Bächi and Carsten Reinhardt (University of Bielefeld), Limit Values and Governmentality: Regulating Carcinogens in France, the Federal Republic of Germany, and Switzerland (1945-1980).
  • David Demortain (London School of Economics), Regulatory Toxicology in a Context of Controversy. The Contentious Application of 90-Day Rat Feeding Studies to GM Safety Assessment.
  • Antoine Debure (INRA), Debates over Conservative Assumptions among Experts: the Assessment of Risk for Flavouring Agents in Food.
  • Scott Frickel (Washington State University), Untangling Ignorance in Environmental Hazard Assessment.

Commentator: John Pickstone (University of Manchester).

16h-16h30 - Coffee break


Session 3 - Scientific Knowledge and the Government of CMR (2)

  • Nancy Langston (University of Wisconsin), Toxic Bodies: Endocrine Disruptors, Thresholds, and Uncertainty.
  • Angela N. H. Creager (Princeton University), The Political Life of Mutagens: A History of the Ames Test.
  • Josquin Debaz (EHESS), Breaking the Waves: Scientific Argumentation in French Electromagnetic Waves Controversies.
  • Augustin Cerveaux and Véronique Pitchon (University of Strasbourg), ‘Size Matters’: Fine Particles, Nanoparticles and Nanotoxicology. A Paradigm Shift in Toxicology?

Commentator: Laurence Lestel (CNRS).

Tuesday, 30 March 2010


Keynote Address: Sheldon Krimsky (Tufts University).

10h-10h30 - Coffee break


Session 4 - Exposed Bodies and Populations: Biological and Political Identities

  • Anne Fellinger, (University of Strasbourg), Gendered Toxicity: Women Bodies, Scientific Knowledge and Radiation Protection.
  • Michelle Murphy (University of Toronto), Toxins and Time: Reproductive Toxins and Canada’s Chemical Valley.
  • Paul Jobin (CEFC / University of Paris Diderot), The Guinea Pigs of Epidemiology? Two Cases of Industrial Hazards (CMR) in Taiwan.
  • Barbara Allen (Virginia Tech-National Capital Region), From Suspicious Illness to Policy Change: Popular Epidemiology, Science and the Law in the U.S. and Italy.

Commentator: Ilana Löwy (INSERM).

12h15-14h - Lunch


Session 5 - National Features in the Age Globalization

  • Stefania Barca (University of Coimbra), Work, Bodies, Ecology: Laura Conti and the Environmental Debate in 1970s Italy.
  • Matthieu Fintz (AFSSET), Chlordecone is Back! How to Understand the Historical Gap between the US and French Disputes and Controversies over the Health and Environmental Effects of an Organochlorine Pesticide.
  • Jean-Noël Jouzel (CNRS/Sciences-Po Paris), “Nanotoxicology”: A Fragile Discipline Challenged by Uncertain Sanitary Issues.
  • Jung Lee (Seoul National University), Dangerous to My Baby at Every Level: “Environmental Hormones” on the Tip of Every Mom’s Tongue and the Environmental Health Politics in Post-Colonial South Korea.
  • Francis Chateauraynaud (EHESS), How Argumentative Conjunction Can Affect the Trajectories of Multiple Issues. A Comparison of the Uses of CMR in Controversies on Health and Environment.

Commentator: Paul-André Rosental (Sciences-Po Paris).

16h15-16h45 - Coffee break


Keynote Address: Carl Cranor (University of California).

Wednesday, 31 March 2010


Session 6 - Local and Global Issues of Inter-regulation

  • Maud Borie, Béatrice Cointe, Camille Durand, Maricia Fischer-Souan, Viviane Gravey (Science-Po Paris), Europe, Nitrates and Norms in Brittany, from 1975 to Nowadays.
  • Didier Torny (INRA), Normalizing an Everlastingly Polluted World. The Construction of MRLs for Chlordecone in French West Indies.
  • Emmanuel Henry (University of Strasbourg), Fixing Occupational Exposure Limits (OEL) in France in the 1990s-2000s: Reaffirming the State's Role and Reinforcement of Scientific Expertise.
  • Veerle Heyvaert (London School of Economics), Endocrine Disruption: A Concerted Legal Strategy for a Diffuse Challenge.
  • Jody Roberts (Chemical Heritage Foundation), Unruly Technologies and Fractured Oversight: Towards a Model for Chemical Control for the Twenty First Century.

Commentor: Pierre-Benoît Joly (INRA).

11h-11h20 - Coffee break


General Discussion and Synthesis introduced by Dominique Pestre (EHESS)


  • MISHA, 5 allée Général Rouvillois
    Strasbourg, France


  • Wednesday, March 31, 2010
  • Tuesday, March 30, 2010
  • Monday, March 29, 2010


  • Soraya Boudia
    courriel : soraya [dot] boudia [at] u-paris [dot] fr
  • Nathalie Jas
    courriel : nathalie [dot] jas [at] inra [dot] fr

Information source

  • Nathalie Jas
    courriel : nathalie [dot] jas [at] inra [dot] fr


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Carcinogens, Mutagens, Reproductive Toxicants », Conference, symposium, Calenda, Published on Tuesday, November 10, 2009, https://doi.org/10.58079/fdi

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