Not Your Day Job: Environmental Historians In Unexpected Places

Unsafe to hang a coat in. Our newly-built, formaldehyde-emitting MDF wardrobes (Image: T. Logan)

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Have you ever found yourself caught up in a project or a cause that mattered to you, but wasn’t your day job? Something you didn’t expect to be doing, but (hopefully) are glad you did? 

As environmental historians, many of us venture – or throw ourselves head-long – into some kind of environmental work that isn’t confined to what we teach or research. Over the next few months, we’ll hear from scholars at home and abroad who brought their academic training to public projects and concerns in myriad ways. If you have a story to share, we’d love to hear it: email us.

Our first story comes from Tracey Logan in London, England.

Toxins in the Woodwork: Environmental History and Resilience 

A pollution incident at home, six weeks into my PhD, was a major distraction from the day job. But despite the trauma there have been academic and, hopefully, public health benefits. Because the experience of fighting a cause offers new academic insights into governmental processes able to deliver significant environmental change, processes which may have existed for centuries. Equally, studying historic battles illustrates the possible twists and turns of events which environmental campaigning involves: the coalescence of factions; the weighted odds for and against past and present causes.  ‘Right’ is not necessarily ‘might’ and the public good can be hard won.  But those lessons from the past can help us to develop resilience in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds, odds which can be improved by using skills nurtured in the day job. 

I neither expected nor wanted to become part of the story … Yet what happened to us has now become part of the historical record, a case study that future environmental historians may consult. 

As a former BBC science reporter, I neither expected nor wanted to become part of the story. As a student of urban history such an outcome once seemed inconceivable. Yet what happened to us has now become part of the historical record, a case study that future environmental historians may consult. It demonstrates the high levels of indoor air pollution that can come from seemingly innocuous consumer products, in our case, new MDF bedroom furniture which polluted our bedroom air to thirteen times the World Health Organisation’s safety limits for carcinogenic formaldehyde.  It was probably my background in science that led us to smell a rat, or rather, to sense that the eye-stinging fumes from our new shelving and wardrobes might be dangerous. We were right. Gold-standard scientific tests conducted by BRE (the former government’s Building Research Establishment) identified the extremely high levels of toxic gas in air we had hoped to sleep in for eight hours nightly. The Guardian newspaper wrote a feature on our case earlier this year. We submitted our scientific evidence to a European consultation on restricting formaldehyde emissions from consumer articles.  Our testimony has been considered and archived by the UK government’s Environmental Audit Committee’s enquiry into Toxic Chemicals in Everyday Life 

Drop dead gorgeous but unfit for human habitation. Tracey Logan’s formaldehyde-emitting MDF cabinets and drawers (Image:  T. Logan) 

The firm which made our bedroom furniture built a nursery for a neighbour’s first child. 

Through our experience, I seem to have developed a parallel day job. When not writing my urban history thesis, I lobby parliamentarians, political parties and trades unions to support new, as well as (hopefully) imminent, European environmental legislation amid the uncertainties of Brexit. This has given me experiences which connect with the environmental politics of the past. I have taken tea in the Palace of Westminster while discussing strategy with a Baroness, flanked by leading politicians doing something similar for other causes. Half a century ago Clean Air Acts were passed in this place, heralding the elimination of London’s infamous smogs. Our supportive MP advised that changing the law requires forming allegiances with other interested groups, so that the public health argument can more effectively counter industry lobbying along the lines of: (a) there is nothing to see here; (b) switching from dirty to cleaner practices is impossible; (c) and even if it were possible it would cost jobs. Meanwhile, customers buy their furniture and breathe in its potentially harmful fumes, young and old alike. The firm which made our bedroom furniture built a nursery for a neighbour’s first child.  

Ecologists at the Institute of Arctic Biology’s Toolik Field Station in 2009 probing the depth of thawed permafrost on the site of a recent tundra fire. Instruments nearby collect data on temperature, humidity and atmospheric gases, sharing them via satellite with other researchers worldwide. Note the abundance of ‘bog cotton’ from nutrients released by the burning. Photograph by the author.

As I write this, London is nearing the end of two weeks of Climate Change disruption by Extinction Rebellion supporters. Their protests are being heard loud and clear, and are the result of work over decades, by academics, journalists and politicians. It is researchers’ tenacity which has brought the existential threats of post-industrial greenhouse gas emissions into view. While science reporting for the BBC, I visited a polar research station to see for myself how that environmental evidence is painstakingly gathered. It is a slow and unglamorous day job. But I felt its historic significance while recording the drip-drip-drip of melting ice blocks in the thawing permafrost of a collapsing Arctic riverbank, or watched ecologists probe the depth of thawed permafrost after a recent tundra fire. Those who appreciate the threat of climate change understand this and readily spot many other tell-tale signs of warming. But such harbingers of climate emergency are still missed by many. However strong the evidence, it must be repeated ad infinitum for change to occur. What hope, then, for our small campaign to protect the public from formaldehyde poisoning in the home?  

Historic events are unpredictable and historic actors do not necessarily know of other events and actors working along similar or opposing lines. My Masters thesis of mid-nineteenth century local government in Chiswick, a small district to the west of London, would not seem to offer much of use to our current environmental campaign. But it taught me how easy it is to read the detail of Acts of Parliament and see how they are used, or ignored, by various groups. This facility has helped to understand the current gaps in UK consumer protections against formaldehyde (and other chemical) pollutants. It showed me the resistance of authorities to change and how this can be supported by an erroneous zeitgeist (such as the false Victorian view that polluted air, not polluted water, caused cholera).  I learned that even first-class scientific evidence, such as John Snow’s iconic epidemiological mapping of cholera outbreaks in Soho, can be ignored for decades. I discovered that when Joseph Bazalgette built the world’s most advanced sewer system for London, which protected the metropolis from future cholera epidemics, he knowingly allowed it to increase sewerage flooding in Chiswick, risking public health outside the newly-defined metropolitan boundary for a full fifteen years. My current PhD thesis, on the experiences of western districts to the growth of Greater London at the turn of the twentieth century, also contains such David and Goliath stories. But sometimes, as in the case of an 1880s temperance missionary who persuaded Chiswick’s Improvement Commissioners to prosecute a slum landlord for supplying unclean drinking water, help can come from unexpected sources.  

…it is no good saying it just the once. You have to say it over, and over again.  So that is what we are doing.

There came a point in our efforts to raise awareness of the threat of formaldehyde from MDF furniture when we thought nothing could come of it. Under the circumstances, more work on my thesis and far less on the environmental campaigning seems the wisest course. Then a chance meeting with ChemTrust, a chemical pollution lobby group, showed that others were working hard to fight indoor air pollution, too. They alerted us to multi-national European initiatives which recognised the threat from formaldehyde emissions from wood products, and sought to protect consumers and workers from it. So, we continue to do what we can, as two ordinary people with day jobs, to alert others of the potentially-high formaldehyde emissions from MDF furniture. Even experienced politicians and campaigners recognise the need for such repetition. At a lecture in the House of Commons, John Bercow, MP (the ‘Speaker,’ famous for his controversial rulings in Brexit debates) reminded us that however good your point, it is no good saying it just the once. You have to say it over, and over again. So that is what we are doing.  

For my PhD that means the prospect of contributing something meaningful to the historical record. For our MDF & formaldehyde campaign, it is the chance to witness the genesis of new public health protections.

Writing this article has not only allowed me to tell the story of our formaldehyde pollution to a new audience; it also means I can share the pleasures of finding the usefulness of skills acquired in various day jobs, towards improving public health. These include:  journalistic skills like good communications; reminding us to consider the knowledge and interests of our audience when trying to convince them of an argument; signposting (‘I am about to tell you this,’ ‘this is me telling it to you,’ and ‘I just told you that’); the academic skills of good referencing, forcing us to demonstrate the evidence for our statements; and finally, that most important of skills, resilience, something most PhD researchers (and marathon runners) know must be nurtured while ploughing that lonely furrow towards thesis submission. Resilience here means the ability to persevere against what can sometimes seem insurmountable odds. For my PhD that means the prospect of contributing something meaningful to the historical record. For our MDF & formaldehyde campaign, it is the chance to witness the genesis of new public health protections, knowing that we played our small part in their gestation. 

Tracey Logan is a PhD student at the Centre for Urban History, University of Leicester, England. She can be reached at tjll1@le.ac.uk. She was formerly a reporter for the BBC in Science & Technology, Environment & Medicine.

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