Society for Cultural Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
In 2014, the chemical Perfluorooctanoic acid (C8 or PFOA) was discovered in the public drinking water of Hoosick Falls, NY and in residential wells around Hoosick Falls, NY and Bennington, VT. Once a key ingredient in the manufacture of high-performance plastics like Gore-Tex and non-stick kitchenware, PFOA is a man-made chemical that is persistent, mobile, and toxic. After 75 years of industrial use, today PFOA has spread worldwide, is durable on the order of centuries, and is now found in the bodies of most living creatures on earth. Yet the near universal reach of the problem stands at odds with the lived dimensions of it: the experience of PFOA toxicity remains confined to drinking water disasters near plastic manufacturing hubs in the United States. Drawing on three years of involvement with the discovery of PFOA in my adopted hometown, I ask how ethnography might recognize the haunted landscapes of toxicity in conversation with the embodied experience of them. In doing so, this paper reflects on how anthropology can take stock of contamination without getting swept up in the evocative purchase of the term today. Against recent theorizations of contamination as an emancipatory release from modern categories, this paper is resolute: toxic contamination is a horrible thing. The ongoing struggle of Rust Belt communities to secure clean drinking water offers insight on what a more inhabited vision of justice might look like for people, politics, and theory today.