Edges of Exposure: Toxicology and the Problem of Capacity in Postcolonial Senegal

Edges of Exposure: Toxicology and the Problem of Capacity in Postcolonial Senegal

by Noémi Tousignant

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In the industrialized nations of the global North, well-funded agencies like the CDC attend to citizens' health, monitoring and treating for toxic poisons like lead. How do the under-resourced nations of the global South meet such challenges? In Edges of Exposure, Noémi Tousignant traces the work of toxicologists in Senegal as they have sought to warn of and remediate the presence of heavy metals and other poisons in their communities. Situating recent toxic scandals within histories of science and regulation in postcolonial Africa, Tousignant shows how decolonization and structural adjustment have impacted toxicity and toxicology research. Ultimately, as Tousignant reveals, scientists' capacity to conduct research—as determined by material working conditions, levels of public investment, and their creative but not always successful efforts to make visible the harm of toxic poisons—affects their ability to keep equipment, labs, projects, and careers going.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822371724
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 05/11/2018
Series: Experimental Futures
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
File size: 14 MB
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About the Author

Noémi Tousignant is Lecturer in Science and Technology Studies at University College London.

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After Interruption: Recovering Movement in the Polyrhythmic Laboratory

The distinct aesthetics of decades past jostle on the lab's surfaces. The oldest layer is of chipped tiled teaching benches, rusty gas taps, and heaped, dusty glassware. Professor Fall designates these with a sweeping gesture: "All antiques!" Large gas canisters, also flecked with rust, bottles of chemicals that have expired more recently, and the square heft of a broken-down gas chromatograph (GC) bear witness to less distant, but now ended, analytical activity. Rose Diene, a longtime administrator in the lab, calls these "wreckage." The newest layer of materials includes secondhand equipment donated by a French lab and two kinds of portable testing kits, one designed to monitor drug quality and the other to measure blood-lead levels. These are, in theory, in working order but await supplies, set up, and maintenance not covered by the lab's budget. The portable kits are set in motion at intervals by chemicals, replacement parts, and field costs provided by foreign funding organizations for monitoring projects, while a donated HPLC (high-performance liquid chromatography) system is used occasionally by means of a small cache of reagents picked up on overseas visits. Meanwhile, freezers keep urine, breast milk, and river water suspended in time until they can be carried overseas for tests of traces and markers of pesticides and heavy metals. When I spent time in the lab in 2010–11, I saw barely any activity at the bench. Instead, I heard complaints that "nothing work[ed]." I was told that, due to the lack of chemicals, practical lab exercises had to be canceled or demonstrated by the technicians (i.e. not performed by students) and that outside requests for analytical services were turned down. Research projects and advanced degrees could only be completed overseas.

In 2010, these stilled remains of past scientific activity are the material manifestation of toxicology (and analytical chemistry) at Dakar's national public university, the Université Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD). This lab was the first and main, and at times the only, site where toxicology was practiced and taught as an analytical and experimental science in Senegal. As a division of the Faculty of Pharmacy, it has been primarily a teaching and administrative unit. It was created as part of the post-independence extension of pharmacy education from a technical degree to the full state qualification, on par with a French degree. A toxicology section was first mentioned in the faculty's bulletins (Bulletins et mémoires de la faculté nationale de médecine et de pharmacie de Dakar) in 1961, and the first state degrees in pharmacy were conferred in 1962. Administrative designations varied before 1970, and the unit split into two subdisciplinary units in 2007 (one for toxicology and hydrology, and the other for analytical chemistry and bromatology). Yet for most of its history, the lab was known as the Laboratoire de chimie analytique et toxicologie (Laboratory of Analytical Chemistry and Toxicology, or LCAT). I refer to "the lab" in the singular under its older and best-known administrative-disciplinary heading. This simplifies things but also conveys the continued sense of shared history and identity among both labs' current members, as well as their complementary interests in detecting contaminants.

Pharmacy students are taught theory by the lab's faculty, and, in their fourth and fifth years, perform practical exercises in its two purpose-built teaching labs. They can also choose a lab member as their supervisor for the thesis work they must complete and defend in their final year of study, as a graduation requirement. For these thesis-year students, and for lab staff members, who must publish to be promoted and who are occasionally enlisted in collaborative projects, this is also a research lab. There are designated rooms for research, where most of the analytical equipment is kept. Other rooms serve as offices. Research activity has at times been supplemented by (and sometimes mimicked) routine testing for toxic traces and indices of contamination requested by private clients and governmental agencies. In 2010, however, such requests were being turned down unless clients were willing to pay for shipping and analysis elsewhere. In the combination and intersections of student and staff research, analytical services, and international collaborative projects, the lab has performed, though usually only partially, a broad range of functions: from the provision of medicolegal expertise to tests of food quality and suspicious substances and the monitoring of indicators of exposure and contamination. In addition, senior staff have been cross-appointed to ministerial functions, in particular at the hospital pharmacy of a neighboring teaching hospital campus and at the national drug control laboratory (Laboratoire National de Contrôle des Médicaments, or LNCM), and have initiated at least two attempts, the most recent one successful, to create a national poison control center (Centre Anti-Poison, CAP).

This lab, then, is a key site from which to trace the formation and fate of toxicology as a Senegalese science, and to examine changing capacities to detect, define, and regulate toxins as posing particular kinds of problems in Senegal. What can the lab's current materiality, sedimented over time and now largely deactivated, reveal of this history? What pasts and processes, perhaps also futures, can be salvaged from these "antiques" and "wreckage"? In this chapter, I explore ways of recovering past and potential movement from the lab's inactive materials. I seek, in particular, to decipher the rhythms and directions that once animated its rooms and equipment, and to explore how this movement sustains and haunts scientific aspirations over time. I am not interested in making matter speak for, or in the absence of, people. While much of this chapter focuses on apparatus, reagents, gas taps, benches, signs, and reports, and considers how these carry and convey traces of former analytical activity and future horizons into the present, my aim is to reflect on who makes and moves capacity, and for whom. I am also guided in large part by the memories and recent experiences of those who told me about the lab's past. Their stories gravitated around the (non)-functionality of materials. Critical to performing and narrating capacity as functional in the past, nowdeactivated equipment make palpable — for both the historian and the scientists who inhabit the lab and have depended on it to sustain their careers — the difficulties of making knowledge under chronic resource constraints. And beyond this: the provision, design, and maintenance of the material conditions of science also enact power, generosity, autonomy, dependence, abandonment, and so on. In other words, these things were and are about relationships and investments between people.

In developing three possible readings of the lab's material record — as things remaining, as things designed, and as things kept — I set up a discussion of what these imply for how we describe the (re)making of scientific capacity. The different actions by which things have made their way into the lab's future bear differential imprints of the actors who invested in the lab's capacity: foreign funders and collaborators, the Senegalese state, and lab members, both senior and subordinate. My methodological reflection on how to recover movement also initiates a broader reflection on the meaning of these recovered movements, which coalesces around these three questions: What directions and futures — of scientific advancement, public health, personal careers, institutional histories — have project endings, dwindling budgets, and equipment breakdown interrupted for those who have worked in the lab? How have toxicologists, whether as students, assistants, faculty members, or civil servants, pushed back against material interruption to remember, imagine, and enact continuous, regular, and/or progressive rhythms of scientific activity? And what constraints, material and imaginative, are ultimately revealed by the failures of these efforts to push back — this "will" to work, to know, and to protect — in procuring protections and betterment for the Senegalese people? Finally, this chapter sketches out an overarching periodization of the lab's history that provides chronological orientation to the two chapters that follow.


Enter the lab. Upstairs, through a door, is the toxicology teaching lab. Along the wall is a metal filing cabinet; on it, differently shaped and tinted bottles of chemicals are lined up. The expiry dates on their labels range from the 1970s to the early 2000s. On the shelves' edges, masking-tape labels announce the topics of practical lab exercises: "barbiturates," "cannabis," and "salicylates." Downstairs, in the analytical chemistry teaching lab, other substances are scrawled in chalk at the end of built-in benches: half are "milk," the other half "flour." The rows of tiled benches are identical in both labs; the vents and the gas and some water taps are in obvious disuse; one has a warning not to be opened. In a box at the bottom of a cabinet, glassware is piled up and dusty, but upstairs, on one visit, beakers, flasks, and test tubes have been cleaned and attractively, but randomly, displayed along the top of the bench dividers.

Downstairs, off the side of the teaching lab is the analytical chemistry research lab. Here, on the counter, sits the square heft of a two-decade-old gas chromatograph, and on the floor is a pile of suit-casesized black plastic boxes that contain the components of a simple portable lab to test drug quality. The toxicology research lab is down the corridor, among the offices. The tiled benches and relatively new equipment are kept spotless by Madame Bassene's daily ministrations, yet this room is no more filled with action than those filled with "antiques" and "wreckage."

My first questions were about the origins and arrivals of these materials. These elicited stories about various moments of transnational collaboration. The oldest equipment was associated with la coopération, the French technical assistance provided, after political independence in 1960, under agreements between the governments of France and Senegal in various areas such as defense, culture, and higher education. For the few who were in the lab then, this was a time, which lasted until the early 1980s, of regularly renewed supplies; a time when, Rose Diene now recalls with wonder, "we ordered things from France ... and they came!" These things, according to Babacar Niane, were "not big apparatus," not like the automated analytical machines that later "projects" would bring. Rather they were lightweight materials to be manipulated by hand: flasks, burners, pipettes, and so forth. This may not be entirely true. Georges Gras, the head of the lab throughout the 1970s, had acquired a flameless atomic absorption spectrophotometer (AAS) to analyze traces of mercury. Still, published reports from that time emphasized the need, at such a distance from suppliers of equipment, parts, chemicals, and maintenance expertise, to develop inventive, low-tech manual methods of analysis for detecting and dosing toxic traces. The continued use, over decades, of a set of practical teaching exercises, on unrenovated benches strewn with old glassware, strengthens this identification of these objects Professor Fall calls "antiques" as a legacy of the time of Franco-Senegalese cooperation.

The "wreckage" of machines forms the remains of another era: the era of "projects." This era began, lab members agree, just after Gras's departure circa 1982 and the arrival of freshly graduated Senegalese faculty members from France (though, again, documents suggest a less definite demarcation, for there were "projects" in Gras's time too). From a joint UN agency project that began in 1983 to a vaguely defined "Italian" project in the early 1990s, three international collaborations, all concerned with creating capacity to monitor food and environmental contaminants, provided three fairly sophisticated systems of automated analysis: the machines. Identified by lab members as "project machines" and later also as "wreckage," these evoke an image of waves washing up heavy pieces of lab equipment and filling the lab with activity, then receding, taking with them the supply of "consumable" supplies (e.g., reagents and reference substances), maintenance, and expertise.

The still-functional portable testing kits are also from foreign sponsors acting within the objectives of specific projects, but they are certainly not machines. Both trademarked, the Minilab and LeadCare II are designed to be lightweight and easy to use, even without a lab infrastructure; that is, they provide capacity to perform a single or narrow range of tests without requiring a broader investment of people, materials, and institutions. The Minilabs in Dakar were identified for me as coming from "USP" (U.S. Pharmacopeia) for a sentinel-site drug-quality monitoring project begun in 2002, while the LeadCare II was provided by the U.S.-based NGO Blacksmith Institute for follow-up monitoring after the mass lead poisoning in Ngagne Diaw (see introduction). In 2010, both types of kit are still being periodically supplied with chemicals, replacement parts, instructions, and supervision by the American organizations. Stacks of cardboard boxes of reference substances have been shipped from the United States (only for those classes of drugs targeted by the USP program). A replacement LeadCare II has arrived, provided by Blacksmith, but only after months of delayed blood testing. Continued activation depends on continued support from overseas. Furthermore, the trade-off for "lightness" is a limited analytical scope. Minilab components provide only for screening tests of the conformity and purity of medicines, while the LeadCare II has a ceiling of 600 ppm of lead in blood. A test I watched on blood from a baby, born after epidemic poisoning was averted, now suffering from encephalitis, confirmed only that its lead concentration was higher than this. Such blood samples, as well as drugs that are identified as substandard by Minilab testing, have to be sent elsewhere (a French lab in the first case, the LNCM in the second) for more accurate results. Although they are still active, the testing kits manifest the limits and vulnerability of the capacity flows of which they are part, and they, too, could soon become lifeless remains.

Finally, I was shown some gleaming apparatus in the toxicology research lab room, but then quickly told that most of this secondhand equipment, which was handed down by a French "partner," did not yet work. Donated by an environmental toxicology lab in Dunkerque, France (I also heard of an air sampler donated by a lab in Rouen), this equipment is one material manifestation of long-standing exchanges between French and Senegalese scientists. Although the Dakar-Dunkerque collaboration was formalized by an agreement in 2004, it stems from a longer history of personal and friendly exchanges between Dakar lab members and French scientists that emerged in the aftermath of la coopération. Doudou Ba, who became head of the lab in the early 1980s and recently retired, told me that one departing French technical assistant maintained his relations with the lab because he "understood our difficulties." The main benefit of these relations has been access to better-equipped French labs for Senegalese faculty during their doctoral research or short-term "study visits," and where analyses on samples brought from Senegal have been performed for free. Thus most of the flow has been toward France to palliate the lack of equipment in Dakar. This secondhand apparatus is a rare instance of travel in the other direction, yet the activation of this equipment still depends on the continuation of friendly relations and favors. Only the HPLC, I was told in 2010, gets occasional use because it was set up by a visiting lecturer from Dunkerque and is supplied with small amounts of reagents brought back by a junior faculty member who is doing her PhD in Dunkerque, where, she says: "I ask for a bit of this, a bit of that."


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction: Poisons and Unprotection in Africa  1
1. After Interruption: Recovering Movement in the Polyrhythmic Laboratory  25
2. Advancement: Futures of Toxicology during "la Coopération"  59
3. Routine Rhythms and the Regulatory Imagination  85
4. Prolonging Project Locustox, Instrastructuring Sahelian Ecotoxicology  105
5. Waiting/Not Waiting for Poison Control  125
Epilogue. Partial Privileges  143
Notes  151
Bibliography  179
Index  205

What People are Saying About This

Advocacy after Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders - Kim Fortun

“An impressive contribution to the historical record and an urgent call to action, Noémi Tousignant's account of toxicological research in Senegal is both riveting and horrifying. Her analysis of the impacts of structural adjustment on scientific capacity in postcolonial Senegal considerably adds to discussions about the anthropology of science and the history of public health (and thus the state) in postcolonial Africa; gender in science; and the social dimensions of environmental health sciences.”

Paul Wenzel Geissler

“Noémi Tousignant's innovative historical ethnography of Senegalese toxicology moves science and technology studies in Africa beyond familiar images of postcolonial domination and simplified historical continuities by carefully attending to the fragments of past efforts and their valence for present and future relations between science, state, and citizens. Without losing view of global exploitation and violence, her scrutiny of African scientific institutions' failure to protect citizens retains profound respect for the sustained efforts and achievements of African scientists, and their striving for civic and professional virtue, public service, and professional advancement. A must-read for all interested in twenty-first-century Africa, toxic exposures, and global science.”

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