Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty: Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers / Edition 1

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Before 1980, sick building syndrome did not exist. By the 1990s, it was among the most commonly investigated occupational health problems in the United States. Afflicted by headaches, rashes, and immune system disorders, office workers—mostly women—protested that their workplaces were filled with toxic hazards; yet federal investigators could detect no chemical cause. This richly detailed history tells the story of how sick building syndrome came into being: how indoor exposures to chemicals wafting from synthetic carpet, ink, adhesive, solvents, and so on became something that relatively privileged Americans worried over, felt, and ultimately sought to do something about. As Michelle Murphy shows, sick building syndrome provides a window into how environmental politics moved indoors.

Sick building syndrome embodied a politics of uncertainty that continues to characterize contemporary American environmental debates. Michelle Murphy explores the production of uncertainty by juxtaposing multiple histories, each of which explains how an expert or lay tradition made chemical exposures perceptible or imperceptible, existent or nonexistent. She shows how uncertainty emerged from a complex confluence of feminist activism, office worker protests, ventilation engineering, toxicology, popular epidemiology, corporate science, and ecology. In an illuminating case study, she reflects on EPA scientists’ efforts to have their headquarters recognized as a sick building. Murphy brings all of these histories together in what is not only a thorough account of an environmental health problem but also a much deeper exploration of the relationship between history, materiality, and uncertainty.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty is all at once about the women’s health movement, ventilation, cybernetics, virology, and chemical toxicity. It is labor history and medical history wrapped into a fiercely disputed knot. Unraveling that tangle, and using the Syndrome to tell us about who we were at the turn of the millennium, Michelle Murphy has written a remarkable, insightful book.”—Peter Galison, author of Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps: Empires of Time

“How does an illness come into being? In this provocative study, Michelle Murphy takes us on a journey into the making of an environmental illness, into the spaces of the modern office building, gendered labor practices, and workers’ bodies to reveal what is perceived and what is invisible in the built environment where many Americans spend their working days. How sick buildings and indoor air pollution became visible problems in environmental health is a story that takes us far beyond the architectural history of office buildings. It takes us deep into the architecture of reality: into how we know and what we know about environmental exposures and the uncertainties they pose both to knowledge and human health.”—Gregg Mitman, author of The State of Nature: Ecology, Community, and American Social Thought, 1900–1950

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822336716
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 2/28/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 264
  • Sales rank: 824,844
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Michelle Murphy is Assistant Professor in the History Department and the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto.

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Read an Excerpt

Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty

Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers
By Michelle Murphy


Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3659-4

Chapter One

Man in a Box

Building-Machines and the Science of Comfort

[1] Crack open an office building constructed from the late twentieth century and you will find a machine. Behind glass and concrete, behind suspended ceilings and drywall were the building's guts: aluminum ducts worming through dense pink insulation, crisscrossed wires delivering electrical signals, boilers burbling in basements, droning fans caged by grates. Office buildings in the late twentieth century were machines engineered to control the indoor climate. They were machines designed to encourage the buzz of "information" work inside and to produce a clean, orderly corporate world sealed o from both the polluted outdoors and the dangerous factory floor.

Office buildings were not just luxurious spaces for the American managerial class; they were also constructed to promote the efficient labor of the droves of mostly women in the office's lower ranks. Perceptions about the physiological needs of these laborers were built into the very pipes and ducts of office buildings.Not simply a pleasant and passive backdrop, the office building's cool, comfortable air was the material manifestation of a historically specific, gendered, and raced way of apprehending the relationship between office workers' bodies and the spaces that ordered their labor. More specifically, inscribed into the humidifiers and thermostats was a mechanistic and "modernist" way of assembling bodies and buildings together, a formula set in the interwar years. It was a relatively simple assemblage, shaped by the reductionism of that era, and thus the building-as-machine is a useful history to crack open first. While at initial glance an arcane topic, the history of ventilation engineering is installed in virtually every building constructed in the late-twentieth-century United States. Sitting in your office, the university library, or even your home, you feel this history every day.

Man in a Box

Imagine a ventilation engineering laboratory in the years between the world wars, when standardization signaled the height of scientism. The focal point of the lab was the "psychrometric room," a small square side room separated o from the rest of the lab to form an environmental chamber. The chamber was sealed airtight. It was an empty box (see the "air conditioning room" in Fig. 1).

Inside the box, young white men, mostly engineering students, sometimes stripped to underwear, repetitively lifted light weights. Outside the chamber, the researchers, sleeves rolled, used sensitive instruments such as the hot-wire anemometer and the whirled psychrometer to monitor the interior atmosphere. They used anal thermometers and odor scales to probe their subjects' physiological responses to mechanically generated climates. These older white men, university professors or presidents of lucrative air-conditioning businesses (such as the Carrier Air Conditioning Corporation), were members of the American Society for Heating and Ventilation Engineers (ASHVE). One of the ASHVE's most exalted projects was undertaken by the Research Technical Advisory Committee on Physiological Reactions, which experimentally studied how to mechanically fabricate an indoor climate for human comfort. In the 1920s, their research into human comfort and artificial environments commanded lab space at Harvard and Yale, gained government support at the U.S. Bureau of Mines, and attracted distinguished researchers, such as Wallis Carrier, the "father of air conditioning," C.-E. A. Winslow, the respected editor of the American Journal of Public Health, and Constantine Yaglou and Philip Drinker, professors in Harvard's Department of Industrial Hygiene. Studying men in boxes (and boxers) was their means of scientifically articulating an "optimum" indoor climate for nonindustrial buildings of all sorts, but especially office buildings, whose owners were among their biggest customers. They were searching for a universal indoor climatic standard that could be manufactured within any building, anywhere-what the architect Le Corbusier called "respiration exact," but what ASHVE engineers more prosaically termed "the comfort zone."

What qualities made up "comfort" in the great indoors of the interwar years? What qualities were inserted into the empty box? ASHVE researchers concentrated on just three: temperature, humidity, and airflow. In a self-referential circle, these researchers sought to measure comfort only in terms of those attributes of air altered by the ventilation technologies their companies already manufactured. Temperature had long been alterable upward with steam radiators or heated forced air; airflow with fans and ducts. The ability to mechanically alter humidity, called "air conditioning," was relatively new in the early twentieth century, having first been developed for industrial processes and only in this period extended to "comfort cooling." Other qualities, such as the molecular composition of air or the microbes that floated within it, remained undetected by ASHVE's experimental setup. What was uncontrolled and undetected in the box remained irrelevant to their project of comfort and in practice resided in the realm of imperceptibility. Only temperature, humidity, and airflow, and not other attributes, were materialized by modern ventilation engineering.

Yet in the recent past, before engineers-turned-merchants hawked air conditioners, other qualities had populated indoor air. Ventilation engineers had previously promoted the mechanical supply of "fresh air" in the name of healthfulness, not comfort. The fight against foul air, excess carbon dioxide, and miasma (disease-causing air emanating from organic matter, such as filthy rivers, waste piles, and human bodies) had allied ventilation engineers with public health reformers, called sanitarians, who sought to improve the living conditions of the worthy laboring poor by constructing sewers, treating drinking water, and legislating standards for fresh air in tenements, schools, and factories. "Ventilation comes next to godliness," preached one such reform-minded engineer. But foul air also plagued the middle classes, who commonly observed that stale air, while not deadly as in tenements, lowered the body's vigor, causing "dullness, headache, sleepiness, fainting, nausea, and the like." Both miasma and excess carbon dioxide were exuded from people's bodies. The engineering solution to these worrisome exhalations was dilution of "stale air" with "fresh air" from the outside. For the urban middle class, concern over stale air was shaped by a class anxiety over the close proximity of the "great unwashed" in tight urban spaces. By the mid-twentieth century, it would be this white middle class whose built environment benefited most from sanitarian services.

At its most economical and widely practiced in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ventilation was simply opening windows. In contrast to this commonsense provision of fresh air, the emerging professional field of ventilation engineering solicited its business by arguing that only machines could reliably and precisely deliver fresh air in the volume and quality necessary to guarantee healthfulness. Yet, just as ventilation engineers were making their pitch, the theories that validated the need for fresh air fell out of favor. Quickly in the twentieth century, miasma was made an outdated concept by germ theory, just as the carbon dioxide theory of stale air was also experimentally over-turned. By 1923, the influential New York City Commission on Ventilation vehemently called into question the previous century's fervor-and expenditure-for "fresh air." There was simply little scientific or public consensus about what made air healthful, or even whether mechanical air supplies were superior to natural ones.

In the interwar years, moreover, the indoor environment in which the professional middle class dwelt and labored had materially changed from the conditions that had inspired public health reformer's zeal for fresh air. Office buildings were heated with steam radiators, not coal, and were supplied with electricity that powered lighting and fans, thereby clearing the indoor air of its former smoke and soot. In the skyscrapers that now spiked downtowns, mechanical services of pipes, elevators, and wiring were modern engineering feats in themselves. Outside, downtown streets were crowded and polluted-there was less "fresh air" for ventilation to bring in.

Office buildings with mechanical ventilation now could become havens from the people and pollution out on the sidewalk. "Man-made weather," so ventilation engineers began to argue, could shelter the privileged from the stenches and unsavory minglings of urban civilization and the corporeal discomforts of fickle natural weather. In the 1920s, with declining support for the old ideology of fresh air, ASHVE engineers began searching for new means to secure their livelihood and articulate their work. Through their efforts the indoor environment was imbued with the virtue of "comfort" (not health), an attribute they sought to experimentally qualify and mechanically generate. "Comfort" as an attribute invested with scientism also had the asset of being a luxury of wealth. By providing comfort, ventilation engineering set out to construct a new environmental norm for privileged citizens. Once a norm of privilege, the mere provision of widespread mechanical ventilation could signal an escape into privilege for the masses-the escapist spaces of movie theaters were the mass public's first exposure to the ephemeral effects of cool. Selling comfort through science became the interwar ventilation engineer's trade.

Beginning in 1919, the central technical problem of the ASHVE research program was to specify a point of universal comfort by calibrating the triumvirate of temperature, humidity, and airflow within environmental chambers. Crack open this experimental setup and one can find an assemblage within the discipline of ventilation engineering that gave indoor comfort its distinctive form.

I use the term assemblage to describe the technical and social constellation of words, things, practices, and people that governed what was possible in a given discipline. Interwar ventilation developed at its heart a configuration of subject positions, objects, practices, and discourses that articulated one another and that, by working together, drew out specific capacities and qualities for buildings, their inhabitants, and the researchers studying them. Such knowledge-producing assemblages allowed the apprehension of some stimuli and not others. Any method of perception was materially constrained, such as by employing only part of the spectrum of light waves (human eyes are different from bee eyes) or by only focusing on objects of a certain size (microscopes vs. telescopes) or by only registering phenomena occurring at certain speeds and not others (such as the slowness of geological time). Perception always involves disengaging from a broader field of possibilities for the sake of focusing on, isolating, and rendering intelligible a more narrowly delineated set of qualities. I call the regular and sedimented contours of perception and imperception produced within a disciplinary or epistemological tradition its "regimes of perceptibility."

Regimes of perceptibility are about more than just what we can see. As regimes, they were often understood by the historical actors employing them as natural or inevitable outcomes of social and technical arrangements. Produced by assemblages that are anchored in material culture, regimes of perceptibility establish what phenomena become perceptible, and thus what phenomena come into being for us, giving objects boundaries and imbuing them with qualities. Regimes of perceptibility populate our world with some objects and not others, and they allow certain actions to be performed on those objects. The experimental setup in ASHVE's environmental chamber relied on an assemblage that produced just such a regime of perceptibility for the apprehension of the effects of buildings on bodies in terms of "comfort."

The assemblage of interwar ventilation engineering began with an empty box. It was a tabula rasa into which measurable variables could be inserted under controlled circumstances and their effects untangled and extracted from the messy politics and confounding influences of actual workplaces. While the environmental chamber stood in for the building, the experimental subjects within-usually young, white, male engineering students-stood in for office workers. Their mild physical activities, such as methodically pedaling a stationary bike, were held as abstract equivalents to the labor expended working on light office machinery: labor in a box. The human body itself, moreover, was to be regarded as a machine. As one ventilation engineer explained, bodies could be "regarded as a combination of radiator, thermostat and humidifier." Like other interwar researchers calibrating the efficiency of the laboring body, engineers studied the skin-sealed human motor as they did other machines, by measuring inputs and outputs. The artificial climate made within the environmental chamber was the input. The output was comfortable and productive labor as indicated by such physiological measurements as those of pulse, weight loss, "metabolism" (exhaled breath), and body temperature. Distanced from medical concerns, the body that ventilation engineers investigated was one of skin effects, sweat, and other sensations associated with comfort. "Comfort" was materialized as a neutral atmosphere that least exerted itself on bodies in business dress.

The environment-chamber experiments were a mechanistic microcosm of how building-machines ideally connected to bodies. Buildings could be calibrated to provide inputs that encouraged desirable human outputs. The building-machine presupposed a body-machine, which, like itself, had an optimal level of function. In this way, a machined apprehension of the human body was constructed into buildings. All bodies, no matter how different, strove toward the same ideal of efficiency. Comfort could be universalized. This shared possibility of fleshly comfort, moreover, could be located as a quantifiable combination of just three qualities: temperature, humidity, and airflow. The assemblage of a comfortable human-machine in a box-machine generated combinations of temperature, humidity, and airflow that were then distilled into a statistical representational form, the "comfort zone chart" that could then be built everywhere for everybody. In short, bodies governed by nature's norms could be translated into a universalizable environment.

In practice, the golden point on the graph that identified the optimum climate was charted through measurements largely taken from the bodies of the young, white college men in boxer shorts who acted as the research subjects in their studies, turning a human particular into a universal. In the masculine, homosocial culture of engineering, these were not just any human bodies but the bodies of trustworthy engineers trained in rationality. Measurements were coming from human-motors whose senses were deemed reliable because they were invested with rationality and had bodies that could be coded as "ordinary." In the context of white male privilege in engineering, they were bodies that could be marked as unmarked, as "ordinary," cultureless, raceless, genderless witnesses appropriate to the calculation of an "average" human body-"Man" with a capital M. In full circle, a standardizable environment interpolated a standardizable human. Man in a box translated into a universalized man-made weather precisely because the experiments presupposed a certain kind of humanity. Particular bodies elevated to universals and the mechanically built environment articulated each other, called each other into a particular form. They replicated in a distinctly modernist and straightforward assemblage, one which could generate an interior of universalized "comfort" that optimally would be unnoticeable to its inhabitants, and which in turn was expressed as a standard of privilege.


Excerpted from Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty by Michelle Murphy Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Man in a box : building-machines and the science of comfort 19
2 Building ladies into the office machine 35
3 Feminism, surveys, and toxic details 57
4 Indoor pollution at the encounter of toxicology and popular epidemiology 81
5 Uncertainty, race, and activism at the EPA 111
6 Building ecologies, tobacco, and the politics of multiplicity 131
7 How to build yourself a body in a safe space 151
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