Chemical Consequences: Environmental Mutagens, Scientist Activism, and the Rise of Genetic Toxicology

Chemical Consequences: Environmental Mutagens, Scientist Activism, and the Rise of Genetic Toxicology

Chemical Consequences: Environmental Mutagens, Scientist Activism, and the Rise of Genetic Toxicology

Chemical Consequences: Environmental Mutagens, Scientist Activism, and the Rise of Genetic Toxicology

Synopsis

Here is the first historical and sociological account of the formation of an interdisciplinary science known as genetic toxicology, and of the scientists' social movement that created it. After research geneticists discovered that synthetic chemical were capable of changing the genetic structure of living organisms, scientists began to explore how these chemicals affected gene structure and function. In the late 1960s, a small group of biologists became concerned that chemical mutagens represented a serious and possibly global environmental threat. Genetic toxicology is nurtured as much by public culture as by professional practices, reflecting the interplay of genetics research and environmental politics. Drawing on a wealth of resources, Scott Frickel examines the creation of this field through the lens of social movement theory. He reveals how a committed group of scientist-activists transformed chemical mutagens into environmental problems, mobilized existing research networks, recruited scientists and politicians, secured financial resources, and developed new ways of acquiring knowledge. The result is a book that vividly illustrates how science and activism were interwoven to create a discipline that remains a defining feature of environmental health science.

Excerpt

[A] human being contains hundreds of thousands of genes and although mutation in any particular one is exceedingly rare, the vast number of genes within an individual ensures that most of us carry one or two new mutant genes and that we are all, in fact, mutants.

—Testimony of Gary Flamm, niehs research scientist, at a U. S. Senate hearing on “Chemicals and the Future of Man, ” April 1971

In 1941 University of Edinburgh geneticist Charlotte Auerbach and her pharmacologist colleague John Michael Robson discovered chemical mutagenesis (Auerbach and Robson 1944). Their findings, based in wartime mustard gas research, provided strong evidence that highly toxic chemicals were capable of changing the genetic structure of living organisms. Over the next two decades, scientists enrolled a diverse array of chemical compounds—some naturally occurring, but most synthetic and highly toxic—as research tools in experiments designed to explore gene structure and function. By the time Auerbach published the first monograph on mutation research in 1962, chemical mutagens had become standard tools of the trade, occupying shelf space in research and teaching laboratories in universities, medical schools, and government agencies (Auerbach 1962b).

This disciplinary perspective began to yield to competing understandings when, in the late 1960s, a small group of geneticists began voicing fears that mutagenic chemical agents might pose serious, and possibly global, environmental threats. Outside of the lab, they argued, synthetic chemicals circulating among human populations represented genetic hazards that remained undetected in standard toxicological screens. As a result, potentially millions of people around the world faced daily genetic assault from exposure to what some scientists had begun calling “environmental mutagens. ” These were presumably safe chemicals used to grow and preserve food, produce cosmetics, develop pharmaceuticals, and manufacture countless other industrial products. Damage to an individual's sex cells initiated by environmental mutagens could, if passed from parent to offspring, remain within the population for generations and ultimately compromise the long-term integrity of the human gene . . .

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