What Is Sick Building Syndrome?
Durham, N. Let there be no uncertainty: our buildings have a long history of making us sick. Crowded and unsanitary homes always abetted tuberculosis and other infectious diseases; the advent of gaslight and central heat produced both methane and carbon dioxide poisoning, while toxic pigments in paints and wallpaper sickened and killed thousands of children; and poorly designed and badly ventilated buildings [End Page ] contributed to the shattering rates of occupational mortality and morbidity that once characterized the American workplace.
These relatively specific illnesses are of course not the subject of Michelle Murphy's sometimes frustrating but ultimately satisfying study. Neither, however, is sick building syndrome by itself her chief subject. Instead, the heart of this book is the very uncertainty of sick building syndrome.
Paradox and irony loom large as well, it would seem, since sick building syndrome "came to be defined formally through its very lack of causal explanation" p.
This irony, with its allusion to earnest quests for comprehensible cause, points to Murphy's central thesis about the imperceptibility and uncertainty surrounding sick building syndrome and many other nonspecific illnesses of the late twentieth century: that uncertainties "can be the tangible, and even purposeful, result of human action" and that inaction born of those uncertainties, too, can be "the purposeful product of state and corporate efforts" p. Sick building syndrome arose in the late twentieth century as a consequence of the particular office spaces that ventilation engineers, office designers, and management created and of the "methods, tools, and actions" employed by the workers in those spaces, to make office health problems into "a phenomenon about which things could be said and done" p.
Technology and Culture
But no description of the origins of sick building syndrome can explain away its uncertainties, often formulated in "simplistic" debates "formulated in all-or-nothing terms: Is sick building syndrome a real, physically caused, phenomenon or not? Where one comes down on that simplistic question tends to code along political lines. Simply noting the stark contrast between today's workplace conditions and those of fifty years ago can seem to support an antilabor stance that sees sick-building syndrome as "simply a phantasm of illness" p.
But arguments for the syndrome's reality can seem to dismiss modern biomedicine, which has not been able to reconcile sick building syndrome to its dose—response curves, thresholds, and specificity of cause. Murphy chooses not to resolve the uncertainties that surround the syndrome but rather to examine how "ordinary people created knowledge about and experienced their everyday environment" p.
The central chapters proceed in roughly chronological order. The first two survey the technological and social factors in the creation of the modern office workplace.
The next two chapters look at the development of "popular epidemiology" as a way for workers to challenge the industrial toxicologists' dismissal of environmental dangers in these engineered environments. The most fully conceived and sharply focused chapter discusses an episode of sick building syndrome in an unexpected place: the Environmental Protection Agency's bleak and deteriorating modern home office in the s.
The next chapter addresses the rise in the s and s of professional building investigators who employed the outlook and models of "systems ecology" in order to make sick building syndrome explainable as something much more multifaceted and dynamic than exposure to a single substance. A somewhat experimentally framed last chapter on multiple [End Page ] chemical sensitivity MCS focuses on the personal experiences of MCS sufferers, dominated by their "abjection," a twilight-zone status characterized by social and biomedical exclusion: MCS was "an invalid bodily state" p.
Bulletin of the History of Medicine
Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty
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Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers
Michelle Murphy. Murphy's language brims with postmodern social science jargon; nevertheless, her style is If you would like to authenticate using a different subscribed institution that supports Shibboleth authentication or have your own login and password to Project MUSE.
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