Use this week’s readings (links below) to write about how health and population trends are influenced by environmental and societal trends. 

**It is important that you use examples from the readings attached below to support your claims.**

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Sociological Inquiry

, Vol


79, No. 3, August 2009, 289–30


© 2009 Alpha Kappa Delta
DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-682X.2009.00291.x

Blackwell Publishing IncMalden, USASOINSociological Inquiry0038-02451475-682X©2009 Alpha Kappa DeltaXXXOriginal Article BREAKING THE FOOD CHAINS ALISON HOPE ALKON AND KARI MARIE NORGAARD

Breaking the Food Chains: An Investigation of Food

Justice Activism*

Alison Hope Alkon,

University of the Pacific

Kari Marie Norgaard,

Whitman College

This article develops the concept of food justice, which places access to healthy,
affordable, culturally appropriate food in the contexts of institutional racism, racial
formation, and racialized geographies. Through comparative ethnographic case studies,
we analyze the demands for food justice articulated by the Karuk Tribe of California and
the West Oakland Food Collaborative. Activists in these communities use an environmental
justice frame to address access to healthy food, advocating for a local food system in
West Oakland, and for the demolition of Klamath River dams that prevent subsistence
fishing. Food justice serves as a theoretical and political bridge between scholarship and
activism on sustainable agriculture, food insecurity, and environmental justice. This
concept brings the environmental justice emphasis on racially stratified access to environ-
mental benefits to bear on the sustainable agriculture movement’s attention to the processes
of food production and consumption. Furthermore, we argue that the concept of food
justice can help the environmental justice movement move beyond several limitations of
their frequent place-based approach and the sustainable agriculture movement to more
meaningfully incorporate issues of equity and social justice. Additionally, food justice
may help activists and policymakers working on food security to understand the institu-
tionalized nature of denied access to healthy food.

This article examines the concept of food justice through comparative case
studies of two racially and spatially distinct Northern California communities.
Food justice places the need for food security—access to healthy, affordable,
culturally appropriate food—in the contexts of institutional racism, racial formation,
and racialized geographies. Our analysis highlights the ability of food justice to
serve as a theoretical and political bridge between existing work on sustainable
agriculture, food insecurity, and environmental justice.

The West Oakland Food Collaborative


and the Karuk Tribe of California
frame their food insecurity and high rates of diet-related diseases not as the
result of poor individual food choices, but from institutionalized racism. We
follow how each community highlights the political and economic histories
through which their key food producers, African American farmers and Native
American fishermen, were denied the land and water necessary for food production.
In addition to poverty, the contemporary racialized geographies (Kobayashi and


Peake 2000) through which institutional racism shapes the physical landscape
prevent many black and indigenous communities from purchasing the quality of
food they once produced. Lack of geographic and economic access confines
their choices to processed, fast, and commodity foods. Additionally, black and
Native American communities suffer from elevated rates of diet-related illnesses
such as diabetes. Activists in the communities we study pursue food justice
through a diverse array of strategies including challenging state policy and the
creation of alternative food systems.

From these case studies, we demonstrate that the concept of food justice
allows sustainable agriculture scholars to better contend with institutional racism
and environmental justice theorists to connect disproportionate access to environ-
mental benefits to social science analyses of race (Pulido 2000). Moreover, it is
our hope that the concept of food justice may create political alliances between
proponents of the environmental justice and sustainable agriculture movements
through an understanding of food access as a product of institutionalized racism.

Ecology and Equity: Building Theoretical Bridges

While environmental justice advocates have long argued that low-income
people and people of color suffer disproportionately from the burdens of environ-
mental degradation, recent scholarship has also begun to emphasize the problem
of disproportionate access to environmental benefits. Attention to environmental
benefits helps the environmental justice movement to solidify its connection to
larger democratic projects such as eco-populism (Szasz 1994), ecological
democracy (Faber 1998), and just sustainability (Agyeman 2005). The sustainable
agriculture movement, on the other hand, focusing primarily on the environ-
mental benefits of fertile soil, clean water, and pesticide-free food, has often
ignored the role of race in structuring agriculture in the United States (Allen
2004). Although the term sustainability includes both ecological protection and
social justice by definition, sustainable agriculture activists have primarily
aligned themselves with the environmental rather than environmental justice
movement (Alkon 2008). Following a brief review of existing literature within
sustainable agriculture and environmental justice, we offer two case studies in
which activists situate their own lack of food access within historical processes
of institutional racism, racial identity formation, and racialized geographies.

Bringing Social Justice Back into Sustainability

The sustainable agriculture movement has traditionally focused on technical
solutions to problems of ecologically devastating food production, making use
of the work of university extension agents and agroecologists. Social scientists,
however, have portrayed an agriculture system embedded in specific, histori-
cally produced social relations as responsible for social and environmental


problems. Foster and Magdoff (2000) trace social scientists’ interest in sustain-
able agriculture to Marx’s use of soil science in illustrating the environmental
consequences of agriculture embedded in a capitalist economic system. The
increased industrialization and consolidation of agricultural firms occurring
since Marx’s observations have held dire consequences for the soil and water on
which food production depends (Buttel, Larson, and Gillespie 1990).

Social scientists have also examined the effects of farm consolidation on
rural communities. Goldschmidt ([1947] 1978) examined two paired California
towns, one dominated by family and the other by corporately owned farms. He
observed more stores, higher per capita income, and a greater diversity of social
institutions in the former. Goldschmidt can be seen as a predecessor to the
concept of civic agriculture, which links the agricultural and environmental to
the “economic, social, cultural, and political dimensions of community life”
and encourages community involvement in the creation of local food systems
(Lyson 2004:28).

The sustainable agriculture movement consists of actors working through
such diverse strategies as direct marketing initiatives (farmers markets and
community-supported agriculture), urban and/or self-sufficient production
(urban farms, community and backyard gardens), and policy work (food policy
councils, attempts to influence the farm bill). The most prominent sectors of the
movement aim to ensure the economic success of small, regional, organic farmers
by encouraging consumer support for locally grown organic food.

Several scholars, however, critique the sustainable agriculture movement’s
ability to make sweeping social changes in the agricultural sector. While support
for sustainable agriculture is largely based on broad social values consistent with
Dunlap and Catton’s (1979) New Environmental Paradigm (Beus and Dunlap
1990), the changes advocated by the movement come through specific tech-
niques and practices that do not disrupt the agribusiness system (Buttel 1997).
As organic farming has become more popular and profitable, it has adapted
many characteristics of the industrial agriculture it once sought to replace,
constraining the sustainable agriculture movement’s ability to advocate for pro-
gressive change (Guthman 2004). Social justice issues are also marginalized
because of the emphasis on the economic success of farmers (Allen 2004). The
movement’s imperative that consumers pay the “true” cost of food, rather than
allowing environmental costs to be externalized, and its association with fine
dining and European food traditions, demonstrate its association with white
privilege and affluence (Alkon and McCullen forthcoming). Sustainable agriculture,
at least as it is currently practiced, cannot transform the dominant agribusiness

While scholarly critiques of the sustainable agriculture movement call
broadly for more attention to social justice issues, the concept of food justice


contextualizes disparate access to healthy food within a broader and more
historicized framework of institutional racism. Because of its focus on racial-
ized access to the environmental benefit of healthy food, food justice can link
sustainable agriculture to environmental justice theory and practice.

Theorizing Food in Environmental Justice Scholarship

In the last two decades, environmental justice scholars have successfully
documented the unequal distribution of environmental toxics through which
low-income people and people of color bear the health burdens of environmental
degradation (United Church of Christ 1987). These communities have organized
numerous campaigns against the companies responsible (Allen 2003; Brown
and Mikkelsen 1997; Bullard 1990; Sze 2006). Similarities in these cases shed
light on an environmental justice frame (Capek 1993) or paradigm (Taylor
1997, 2000), linking distribution of environmental toxins to a culturally resonant
(Gamson and Modigliani 1989) civil rights rhetoric.

While the environmental justice movement is best known for protests
against site discrimination, many activists adopt a much broader approach.
Often grounded in their own experiences as victims of environmental racism,
activists have worked toward pollution prevention (Szasz 1994) and the inter-
nalization of the costs of production by the companies responsible (Faber 1998)
so that no community should suffer the health effects of environmental toxics.
Constantly looking to broaden the environmental justice frame through the
inclusion of issues generally ignored by what Brulle (2000) terms the “reform”
environmental movement, activists have created a complex approach incorpo-
rating the many environmental and social justice factors affecting the places
where low-income people and people of color live, work and play (Alston

Despite the central importance of food to human and environmental
health, and the broad-reaching frame of the environmental justice movement,
the literature devotes limited attention to food access. While Gottlieb and Fisher
(1996) first highlighted an environmental justice approach to food security
more than a decade ago, few environmental justice scholars have incorporated
food or nutrition in their analyses. Several works in Adamson and colleagues’
(Adamson et al. 2002)

Environmental Justice Reader

examine agriculture, but
maintain a traditional environmental justice focus on the toxic despoiling of
land cultivated by communities of color. Although some work on environmental
justice in Native American communities deals with access to and protection of
wild salmon, it tends to focus on the salmon’s importance for Native American
culture rather than its significance as healthy food (see, for example, Dupris,
Hill, and Rodgers 2006; House 1999; Wilkinson 2000, 2005). While the cultural
significance of salmon is fundamental, these analyses ignore its consequences



for Native American health. The concept of food justice, offered as a conceptual
extension of the more inclusive idea of environmental justice and sheds light on
how the food system has been shaped by institutionalized racism.

Research Approach

Data on the West Oakland Food Collaborative (WOFC) came from three
primary sources: participant observation, semistructured interviews, and a survey
of customers at the West Oakland Farmers Market.


During 18 months of parti-
cipant observation, Alkon took on a variety of roles including regular customer,
volunteer gardener, researcher, and observer at the farmers market, WOFC
meetings, and events and activities organized by WOFC member organizations.
Copious notes were taken and later coded, allowing patterns to emerge.
Eighteen in-depth interviews were conducted with WOFC participants and
farmers market vendors. Interviews lasting approximately 1 hour were recorded
and transcribed. The survey was administered to 100 farmers market customers
over the course of 3 weeks through a sample of convenience.

Norgaard began her research in 2003 at the request of the Karuk Tribe.
Tribal members had been less than successful articulating their concerns through
the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission process on the relicensing of the
Klamath River Hydroproject. The tribe sought to seek greater scientific backing
for their claims. Data on the Karuk case study are drawn from four main sources:
archival material, in-depth interviews with Karuk tribal members, Karuk medi-
cal records, and the 2005 Karuk Health and Fish Consumption Survey. The
2005 Karuk Health and Fish Consumption Survey was distributed to adult tribal
members within the ancestral territory in the spring of 2005. The survey had a
response rate of 38 percent, a total of 90 individuals. Additional medical data has
been obtained from relevant federal, state, and county records (Norgaard 2005).

Both researchers recognize the particular tensions that can arise in relation-
ships between white researchers and communities of color. Alkon worked dili-
gently with several individuals active in the West Oakland Food Collaborative
to ensure that the community would benefit from her research. To this end, she
has edited grant applications for several WOFC member organizations and hired
a research assistant who was raised in West Oakland to aid in the distribution of
surveys. Research on the Karuk tribe sought to achieve goals specified by tribal
members that would correspond to the tribe’s existing political needs. All
aspects of the research process (interviews, survey design, and implementation)
were carried out under direction of or by tribal members themselves.

Culture and Agriculture: The West Oakland Food Collaborative

In an old, partially refurbished Victorian home in West Oakland, now home
to the Prescott Joseph Community Center, a group of activists sit around a long


wood table discussing projects and strategies for the procurement of food jus-
tice. While the group is by no means entirely African American, discussions of
institutional racism and inequality pervade many aspects of their work. Among
other projects, those attending WOFC meetings run school and community
gardens, cooking programs, and food distribution efforts focused on supplying
healthy food to this low-income, predominantly African American neighbor-
hood. The most prominent example of the WOFC’s work is a weekly farmers
market through which African American farmers and home-based business
people sell organic produce, flowers, homemade jams, sweets, and beauty


Farmers markets are most commonly associated with the sustainable
agriculture movement’s promotion of small, local farmers. This market, how-
ever, emphasizes antiracism. Indeed, one market vendor described the market’s
primary purpose as “empowering black people.”

Although the produce featured at the market is much less expensive than
in wealthier neighborhoods, it struggles to attract customers unaccustomed to
this kind of shopping. While the market is extremely small, it is a lively place.
Customers and vendors, the majority of whom know each other by name, catch
up on the week’s events while shopping for the week’s provisions. The farmers
market celebrates African American culture through the products featured (such
as black-eyed peas, greens, and yams), the music played (mostly soul and
funk) and the special events celebrated (such as Black History Month and
Juneteenth). The radical potential of merging racial identity formation with
sustainable agriculture is recognized by one market farmer, who claims “this
market fights the systems that are in place to keep down sharecroppers like my
father and grandfather.” Like other environmental justice efforts, the WOFC
emphasizes racism and inequality, connecting environmental issues to the lived
experiences of low-income people and people of color (Bullard 1990; Novotny

One of the most egregious instances of racism highlighted by the farmers
market is the discrimination experienced by African American farmers. In the
words of one vendor, the West Oakland farmers market is different from others
because “we have black farmers . . . you don’t see a lot of black farmers.”
WOFC members attribute the historic decline of black farmers nationwide to
the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s denial of loans, subsi-
dies, and other support that enabled white farmers to transition to mechanized
agriculture (Gilbert, Sharp, and Felin 2002).


In 1997, the USDA settled a
class-action lawsuit on this issue, though black farmers and their descendents
have reported difficulties claiming their portion of the settlement (Wood and
Gilbert 2000). Discrimination against black farmers created an agricultural
sector dominated by whites and deprived African Americans of a source of
wealth and access to economic and environmental benefits.


The goal of the West Oakland Farmers Market is, in the words of one
prominent WOFC member, “to connect black farmers to the black community.”
This view is reflected by the market’s customers; a majority of those surveyed
(52%) claim that support for black farmers is their most important reason for
market attendance.


Several surveys also included responses to open-ended requests
for additional information with comments reflecting this theme, such as “my
consciousness about the plight of black farmers has grown.” These responses suggest
that the concept of food justice might productively connect access to environ-
mental benefits to theories of racial identity formation (Omi and Winant 1989).

Not only have African Americans been stripped of their abilities to produce
healthy, culturally appropriate food, they are also unable to purchase similar
items. WOFC members, along with food justice activists in many parts of the
United States, popularize the term “food desert” in order to describe the lack of
locally available healthy food (Wrigley, Margetts, and Whelan 2002). Many
scholars have observed a positive correlation between the existence of grocery
stores and income (Chung and Meyers 1999) and a negative one between grocery
stores and the percentage of African American residents (Morland et al. 2002).

One WOFC participant, currently organizing to open a worker-owned grocery
store, describes the obstacles residents face in obtaining fresh food:

West Oakland has 40,000 people and only one grocery store. [The many] corner stores sell
generic canned goods. You have that option and then the fast food chains is the other option.
So what people have the option to buy is putting more and more chemicals and additives and
hormones and all of these things into their bodies.

With nearly 1.5 times as many corner liquor stores as the city average (California
Alcoholic Beverage Control [CABC] 2006) as well as an abundance of fast food
establishments, West Oakland is typical of low-income, African American food
deserts in other cities (Block, Scribner, and DeSalvo 2004; LaVeist and Wallace
2000). WOFC members describe the process through which large grocery
stores closed urban locations in favor of suburban ones as “supermarket redlin-
ing,” likening it to racist lending policies and further linking their own work to
a broad and historicized antiracist resistance. Through food justice activism,
WOFC members link their own food insecurity to institutional racism and its
historic and present-day effects on the built environment (Kobayashi and Peake
2000; Massey and Denton 1998)

Not surprisingly, residents of this food desert experience high rates of diet-
related health problems such as diabetes. WOFC members racialize and politi-
cize diabetes in much the same way that environmental justice activists portray
asthma (Sze 2006). In the words of one food justice activist, who recently
relocated to Oakland and became involved in many of the WOFC’s projects,
“diabetes kills more people in our communities than crack!” (Lappe and Terry


2006) In Alameda County, African Americans, more than other racial groups,


are twice as likely to suffer from diabetes (CDC 2002).
WOFC members link these health disparities to the lack of locally available

healthy food. According to one market farmer, a son of Arkansas sharecroppers
who has extensive training in herbal and Chinese medicine: “I’ve seen the African
American people’s health declining. It’s not having access to healthy food, to a
good lifestyle.” Another vendor describes how the WOFC’s projects provide
that access:

It’s the whole process of learning how to grow things and reclaim [public] space and to live
sustainable and healthy [lives]. And what it means to understand that, okay, you’re prone [to]
diabetes. [How do you] counteract that? ‘Cause that’s a huge thing in West Oakland, and [the
WOFC has] things that help you live a more sustainable life knowing that you’re prone to

The WOFC deploys an analysis that attributes high rates of diabetes to food
insecurity, which in turn results from institutional racism.

Because this analysis ties a place-based instance of environmental injustice
to a more systemic and historicized understanding of racism, the WOFC’s solu-
tion focuses on local food and local economics rather than attempts to attract
corporate economic development. In the words of one farmers market vendor:
“I don’t want Safeway or Albertsons. They abandoned the inner city. They sell
poison. They pay crap wages. Independent business is the most important
thing.” Instead of chain grocery stores, the WOFC emphasizes “community
self-sufficiency” and the ability of marginalized communities to provide, at
least partially, for themselves. One WOFC participant describes the goal of her
activism in the following way:

[It’s about] building a community that takes care of each other’s needs. And we can self sus-
tain outside of the dominant system. . . . We want to buy and sell from each other . . . in a way
that helps us sustain our neighborhoods or our communities. That’s different than consuming
in a way that sustains a mega business that’s separate and distinct from us.

The WOFC’s projects aim to address the needs of low-income, predominantly
African American, West Oakland residents through the development of local
food and local economic systems.

The West Oakland Food Collaborative’s food justice activism combines
antiracism with the creation of a local food system. For this reason, their case
offers important insights on the development of an environmental justice
approach to food and its consequences for theorizing and achieving environ-
mental justice and sustainable agriculture.

Battling Corporate River Management on the Klamath

In the Northern part of the state, the Karuk Tribe of California has mobi-
lized its demand for food justice by lobbying the federal government to block


the relicensing of four dams on the Klamath River. These dams prevent the
Karuk tribe from sustaining themselves on their traditional foods, which
include salmon, lamprey, steelhead, and sturgeon (Norgaard 2005). In addition
to lobbying, tribal members have engaged in a variety of protest strategies
including working with commercial fishermen and environmental organizations
to achieve greater visibility; pleading their case at meetings of the dam’s multi-
national corporate owners, directors, and shareholders; and participating in
numerous regional protest activities.

The Klamath River dams disconnect the Karuk from their food sources in
several ways. The dams degrade water quality by creating standing water where
blue green algae blooms deplete oxygen and create toxic conditions down-
stream. Levels of the liver toxin mycrocystin were the highest recorded of any
water body in the United States and 4,000 times the World Health Organization
(WHO) safety limit in 2005 (Karuk Tribe of California 2006). The dams lack
fish ladders or other features that would allow the passage of native salmon.
When the lowest dam was built, Spring Chinook Salmon lost access to 90 per-
cent of their spawning habitat. Around this time, most Karuk families reported
the loss of these fish as a significant food source.

One tribal member describes the devastating effect of the dams on the
Karuk food system as follows:

A healthy riverine system has a profound effect on the people on the river. I have six children.
If every one of those kids went down and fished and caught a good healthy limit . . . you
could pretty much fill a freezer and have nice good fish all the way through the year. But now,
without a healthy riverine system, the economy down here on the lower river is pretty much
devastated. All the fishing community is devastated by the unhealthy riverine system.

—(Ron Reed, Traditional Karuk Fisherman)

The dams and their ensuing environmental degradation have wreaked havoc on
the food needs of the tribe.

The Karuk tribe articulates their right to traditional foods not only as an
issue of food insecurity but of food justice. They locate their current food needs
in the history of genocide, lack of land rights, and forced assimilation that have
so devastated this and other Native American communities. These processes
have prevented tribal members from carrying out land management techniques
necessary to food attainment.

This tragic history provides context to understand the ability of the federal
government to license a dam to a multinational corporation within Karuk terri-
tory. It is the dams themselves, however, that have had the most sweeping and
immediate effect on Karuk food access. Until recently, Karuk people have
experienced relatively high rates of subsistence living. Elder tribal members
recall their first visit to the grocery store:


I can remember first going to the store with mom when I was about in the fifth and sixth
grade and going in there and it was so strange to buy, you know, get stuff out of the store.
Especially cans of vegetables, like green beans and stuff; Mom used to can all that. And
bread. I was about 6 years old when I saw my first loaf of bread in the store. That was really
quite a change, I’ll tell you.

—(Blanche Moore, Karuk Tribal Member)

Traditional fish consumption for Karuk people is estimated at 450 pounds per
person per year, more than a pound per day (Hewes 1973). Up until the 1980s
many Karuk people, especially those from traditional families, ate salmon up to
three times per day when the fish were running. Karuk survival has been
directly linked to this important environmental resource.

When the dams were built, the Karuk tribe was stripped of access to much
of its traditional food as well as the ability to manage the river ecosystem. In
contrast to the traditional diet, present-day Karuk people consume less than 5
pounds of salmon per person per year. Self-report data from the 2005 Karuk
Health and Fish Consumption Survey indicate that over 80 percent of house-
holds were unable to gather adequate amounts of eel, salmon, or sturgeon to
fulfill their family needs (Norgaard 2005). As of 2006, so few fish existed that
even ceremonial salmon consumption is now limited.

Like West Oakland residents, members of the Karuk tribe cannot purchase
the food they once procured through a direct relationship with the nonhuman
environment. Most Karuk do not believe in buying or selling salmon. Even if
tribal members were willing to buy salmon, replacing subsistence fishing with
store-bought salmon would be prohibitively expensive. Replacement cost anal-
ysis conducted in the spring of 2005 puts the cost of purchasing salmon at over
$4,000 per tribal member per year (Stercho 2005). In the communities within
the ancestral territory, this amount would represent over half of the average per
capita annual income. While the Karuk are denied access to an environmental
benefit because of institutional racism, they cannot replace that benefit through
purchase because of poverty.

As in West Oakland, healthy, culturally appropriate food is not available
within a convenient distance to tribal members. Tribal members must drive up
to 40 miles each way to acquire commodity foods and up to 80 miles each way
to shop at supermarkets. According to a nutritional analysis of the local store, it
is nearly impossible to access fresh, healthy food on a limited budget:

The local grocery store in Orleans is lacking in variety and quality of fresh produce and other
food products. . . . In addition, the prices are high, making it financially difficult for a family
to get adequate nutrition. The yearly median Karuk tribal income is $13,000 or $270 per
week. Yet the average cost for a two-person family to eat healthy foods, based on the prices
of foods available at the local grocery store in Orleans, is estimated at approximately $150
per week. Note that this represents 55 percent of the income of an average family for the
week!—(Jennifer Jackson, 2005, p. 11)


Tribal members link the lack of access to traditional foods to the need for
government food assistance:

Instead of having healthy food to eat—fish—we are relegated to eating commodity foods that
the government gives out. That’s our subsidy: high starch foods, things that aren’t so healthy that
the Karuk people are pretty much forced to eat.—(Ron Reed, Traditional Karuk Fisherman)

Self-report data from the Karuk Health and Fish Consumption Survey indicate
that 20 percent of Karuk people consume commodity foods.


Commodity foods
tend to be low in essential nutrients and high in complex carbohydrates and fat
(Jackson 2005).

Because of the greatly reduced ability of tribal members to provide healthy
food to their community, the Karuk experience extremely high rates of hunger
and disease. Recent data from University of California at Los Angeles
(UCLA)’s California Health Interview Survey (Diamant et al. 2005) show that
Native people have the highest rates of both food insecurity (37.2%) and hunger
(16.9%) in California (Harrison et al. 2002). The estimated diabetes rate for the
Karuk Tribe is 21 percent, approximately four times the U.S. average of 4.9 per-
cent. The estimated rate of heart disease for the Karuk Tribe is 39.6 percent,
three times the U.S. average (Norgaard 2005).

Diabetes is described as a new disease among this population and is the
consequence of drastic lifestyle and cultural changes (Joe and Young 1993).
Tribal members account for both the severity and the sudden onset of diet-
related health problems:

Our people never used to be fat. Our people never used to have these health problems that we
are encountering today. Diabetes is probably the biggest one but not the only one. The rami-
fications of the food that we eat and the lives that we live. High blood pressure is another one.
I have high blood pressure. My mother had diabetes. I’m borderline, I’m pretty sure. You can
certainly tell that our people never used to be fat. Now you can’t hardly find a skinny person
around.—(David Arwood, Traditional Karuk Fisherman)

Tribal members posit this dramatic shift as a consequence of their denied
access to salmon and other traditional foods.

The Karuk tribe is the first in the nation to deploy the concept of food jus-
tice in order to link declining salmon populations caused by the dams with high
incidences of diabetes and other diet-related diseases. The tribe frames declined
river health and the ensuing loss of salmon as a direct result of institutional
racism. The Karuk have been stripped of access to an important resource as
well as the ability to manage their ancestral land. Because of cost and distance,
the tribe cannot purchase what it once produced. Tribe members must rely on
locally available unhealthy alternatives and commodity foods—or in too many
cases, go without. Because of this process of denied access to traditional or
replacement foods, diabetes researcher Kue Young (1997:164) writes that the


“resolution of the major health problems of Native Americans requires redress-
ing the underlying social, cultural and political causes of those problems.” In
other words, food access must be connected to the historical process of institu-
tional racism that created food insecurity. Tribal activists make this connection
through the concept of food justice.

Conclusion: Political Implications and Alliance Building

Members of the West Oakland Food Collaborative and the Karuk Tribe
clearly share similar experiences. Through access to land and water, black farmers
and Karuk fishermen once provided the bulk of their community’s food needs.
Today, West Oakland residents and Karuk tribal members live in food deserts.
They cannot purchase what they once produced on their own. Activists link this
lack of food access to their community’s elevated rates of diabetes and other
diet-related illnesses. Furthermore, both groups frame their grassroots struggles
for food justice as attempts to reclaim their ability to produce and consume

We use these case studies to demonstrate how the concept of food justice
can help the sustainable agriculture movement to better attend to issues of
equity, and the environmental justice movement to articulate sustainable alter-
natives. Moreover, it is our hope that the concept of food justice may create
political alliances between the two movements. These theoretical and practical
alliances depend on a broader understanding of how racial and economic inequality
affect the production and consumption of food, a project we will continue to
develop in a forthcoming anthology called

The Food Justice Reader

Theoretically, food justice links food insecurity to institutional racism and

racialized geography, reshaping thinking within the fields of sustainable agri-
culture and environmental justice. Scholars and activists in the sustainable agri-
culture movement have done well to challenge the corporate control of food
production systems and identify resulting impacts to the long-term viability of
soils and surrounding ecosystems. As food is increasingly controlled by large
corporations, ecosystems suffer and communities have less control over local
foods. Yet sustainable agriculture scholars and activists have not yet understood
the ways that race shapes a community’s ability to produce and consume food.

Moreover, a food justice framework links food access to broader questions
of power and political efficacy. While many sustainable agriculture advocates
and scholars implicitly assume that all communities have the ability to choose
ecologically produced food, the concept of food justice can help to illuminate
the race and class privilege masked by this approach. Access to healthy food is
shaped not only by the economic ability to purchase it, but also by the historical
processes through which race has come to affect who lives where and who has
access to what kind of services. Because it highlights institutional racism and


racialized geographies, food justice may therefore encourage the sustainable
agriculture movement to embrace a more meaningful approach to social justice.

Attempting to survive as both a movement and an industry, sustainable
agriculture has formed alliances with the consumption of elite, gourmet food.
This prevents activists from critiquing the capitalist system of food production
responsible for environmental degradation. Through a food justice approach
emphasizing race and power, there may be space for sustainable agriculture
activists to build coalitions with proponents of environmental justice. This coa-
lescence may allow food activists to engage in a more fundamental critique of
the global food system and the local stratification that results from it.

Additionally, the concept of food justice may allow sustainable agriculture
activists to access the discursive power of the environmental justice movement.
An antiracist approach to agriculture can borrow from the civil rights rhetoric
that has become a master frame in U.S. society. This may make the concept of
sustainable agriculture more culturally resonant to the low-income people and
people of color who lack access to healthy food. Therefore, deploying the concept
of food justice may enable sustainable agriculture and environmental justice
activists to form new alliances.

Beyond naming food access as a dimension of environmental inequality,
we hope the concept of food justice will contribute to environmental justice
work in the following ways. In articulating a demand for access to healthy food,
these cases contribute to the developing focus on racially stratified access to
environmental benefits within environmental justice. Unfortunately, it is not
only the extent of environmental degradation that has intensified in the past half
century, but also the degree of social inequality. For this reason it will become
more and more important for the environmental justice movement to place
attention on access to environmental benefits. Additionally, because food is
often central to communities’ collective cultural identities, the concept of food
justice can illuminate links between environmental justice activism and the
process of racial identity formation. These dimensions address both Pellow’s
(2004) call for scholarly attention to process and history and Pulido’s (2000)
injunction to connect environmental justice to social science analyses of race.

As an issue, food justice may help environmental justice activists to galvanize
a more proactive, solution-oriented approach that can compliment its political
pressure for government and corporate responsibility for localized epidemics
and toxic pollutants. While some environmental justice organizations have
moved toward a “pollution prevention” perspective, they have only begun to
envision alternatives to environmental injustice conversant with traditional
notions of environmental sustainability (Agyeman 2005; Pellow and Brulle
2005; Peña 2003). Because the sustainable agriculture movement has histori-
cally privileged the construction of alternative food systems over other kinds of


activism, this issue can add an additional strategy to the environmental justice
lexicon. Finally, it is also our hope that through the use of these case studies,
activists and policymakers working on food security will understand the institu-
tionalized nature of denied access to healthy foods in these communities.


*This research was made possible by support from the Floyd and Mary Schwall Fellowship,
the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, and the Department of Sociology at University of
California at Davis. Many thanks to those who read earlier drafts of this piece, including many of
our colleagues and two anonymous reviewers. Our deepest gratitude goes to the members of the
West Oakland Food Collaborative and Karuk Tribe, who have graciously shared their insights and
experiences with us.


Although the WOFC ceased to operate formally in 2005, many member organizations
continue to work toward its principles. The WOFC remains a useful framework for discussing the
network of activists addressing food justice issues in West Oakland.


During my fieldwork, the farmers market was run by the WOFC. It had originally been
founded by David Roach, whose Mo’ Better Foods was one of the WOFC’s member organizations.
After my fieldwork, Roach became the farmers market’s sole manager.


While the WOFC focuses on African American farmers, Mexican, Hmong, and more
recently, white women farmers have also been included. Nonfarming vendors are overwhelmingly
African American residents of either West Oakland, or nearby predominantly African American
neighborhoods. The WOFC’s promotional activities emphasize the African American farmers while
treating nonblack farmers as allies. While produce sold at the farmers market and other WOFC
projects need not be certified organic, recognizing that the cost of certification is often prohibitive,
farmers use the phrase chemical-free to connote organic growing practices.


Although the decline of African American farmers took place in the rural south, it has direct
bearing on African Americans living in West Oakland. Each of the African American farmers, as
well as many of the other vendors, is directly descended from southern sharecroppers.


Other choices included good quality food, support for local farmers and small businesspeople,
convenient location, and atmosphere.


Native Americans were not included in this data.


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Turning Public Issues into Private Troubles: Lead Contamination, Domestic Labor, and
the Exploitation of Women’s Unpaid Labor in Australia

Author(s): Lois Bryson, Kathleen McPhillips and Kathryn Robinson

Source: Gender and Society , Oct., 2001, Vol. 15, No. 5 (Oct., 2001), pp. 754-772

Published by: Sage Publications, Inc.

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Lead Contamination, Domestic Labor,
and the Exploitation of Women ‘s

Unpaid Labor in Australia


Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and University of Newcastle


University of Western Sydney


The Australian National University

Residents living in the vicinity of lead smelters are subjected to particularly high levels of contamination

from the toxic process of smelting. Yet, public health strategies currently promoted by state health
authorities in Australia do not focus their major attention on stopping the contamination at its source.
This article focuses on housecleaning regimes, largely implemented by women, aimed at stopping the
toxic materialfrom being ingested by children. Because the residential areas surrounding the smelters
are degraded, their property value is low and, by and large, working-class families live there. As this
article shows, the recommended cleaning regimes are embedded in social class and gender relations.
Analysis of the implementation of the strategy and the historical context within which it is administered

provides an example of a state gender regime, the state “doing” gender and class, and a lens through
which to view contemporary gender and class relations.

Feminist theory presents competing interpretations of the state. Theoretical posi-
tions provided by liberalism see the state as a neutral umpire, although liberal femi-
nists see it as currently co-opted to men’s interests (Eisenstein 1984; Pateman 1988;
Phillips 1987). On the other hand, the radical feminist position sees the state as irre-
deemably patriarchal (MacKinnon 1989). Nonetheless, most feminist theorizing,
interpretation, and activism takes a position somewhere between, and there is

AUTHORS’ NOTE: This research wasfunded by an Australian Research Council Small Grantfrom the
University of Newcastle. We wish to thank Sarah Holcome, Sonia Freeman, and Andrew Johnson for
their contributions to this research and Tsari Anderson for her editorial assistance.

REPRINT REQUESTS: Kathryn Robinson, Department of Anthropology, Research School of Pacific
and Asian Studies, The Australian National University, ACT 0200, Australia; e-mail: Kathryn. robinson@

GENDER & SOCIETY, Vol. 15 No. 5, October 2001 754-772

? 2001 Sociologists for Women in Society


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Bryson et al. / WOMEN’S UNPAID LABOR 755

widespread agreement among activists that while we must remain wary, we have no
choice but to be involved in “struggles in and through the state” (Pringle and Wat-
son 1990, 242).

Using a case study of state intervention in the industrial contamination of a resi-

dential community, this article offers a contribution to feminist analysis of the role
of the state. Residents of three Australian lead smelter towns, with high levels of
toxic pollution, have been given a strong message by state health authorities that
their children’s health could be irreparably damaged unless they adopt a strict regi-
men of housecleaning and child management to reduce the ingestion of lead parti-
cles by their children.

This case study of state action on a site that is classically women’s domain pro-
vides insight into a “state gender regime” (Connell 1990) through examining the
state “doing gender” (West and Zimmerman 1987). Connell (1990) has commented
on the potential of case studies such as this to illuminate the nature of particular
state gender regimes (and gender relations more generally). He proposed that each
“empirical state” has a definable “gender regime” that is the precipitate of social
struggles and is linked to-although not a simple reflection of-the wider gender
order of the society (Connell 1990, 523). The “empirical states” with which we are
concerned are at the second level of formal Australian state structures, specifically
the public health authorities in the states of New South Wales (NSW) and South
Australia, and also the third formal level, the local government.

Unraveling the complexity of the state’s role in developing and implementing its
health strategy for dealing with the effects of lead pollution within smelter towns
allows us to tease out some of the complexities of state intervention. How do they
identify and address this health issue? Whose interests do the interventions serve?
What are the impacts for different groups of women? Because the intervention is
focused on mothering, we start by examining some relevant features of motherhood

in contemporary Australia and its place within the wider scheme of gender


The motherhood role, embedded in a traditional gender division of labor that
assigns responsibility for caring work to women, has been recognized by feminists
as pivotal to understanding gender relations and women’s inferior power position
(Finch and Groves 1983; Hartmann 1981; Heres 1987; Pateman 1988). It is signif-
icant that the most influential modern philosophical treatise on justice in Western
liberal democracies, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, accepts that “the principle of
fair opportunity can only be imperfectly carried out, at least as long as the institu-
tion of the family exists” (1973, 74). Feminist theorists agree that family and citi-
zenship are fundamentally linked and gendered, although there is disagreement
about how and why this is so (Bittman and Pixley 1997; Heres 1987; MacKinnon
1989; Pateman 1988).

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756 GENDER & SOCIETY / October 2001

While schools of feminist thought account in different ways for women’s posi-
tion and gender relations, they do not contest that motherhood involves a responsi-
bility for family work, which falls unequally to women. Graham (1983) pointed to
the bifurcated nature of caring as involving “caring about” and “caring for.” In
terms of parenthood, she suggested that fathers are expected to “care about” their
children, and this may involve taking some responsibility for overseeing that care is
provided. For mothers, the two aspects are firmly fused: They are expected to both
“care about” and “care for.”

Empirical studies in Australia and elsewhere of perceptions of motherhood
clearly expose a dominating ideology that reflects such views of caring (Dempsey
1997; McMahon 1999; Russell 1983). This is summed up well by a study of moth-
ers of young children in Sydney in the early 1980s in which Wearing found that a
“good” mother is seen to be “always available to her children, she spends time with
them, guides, supports, encourages and corrects as well as loving and caring for
them physically.” The respondents also saw “good mothers” as “responsible for the
cleanliness of their home environment” (Wearing 1996, 85), a perception that fig-
ures in an important way in our case study. She found that this pattern was still
robust in the 1990s in the face of women’s challenges to traditional notions
(Wearing 1996), although, not surprisingly, some change seems to be occurring as
more women are employed. Her earlier study (Wearing 1984, 130-40) found that
employed women, in line with their practice of relying more on others for child
care, tended to place more emphasis on what Graham (1983) would term “caring
about” rather than “caring for.”

Decades of research into time use confirm women’s disproportionate share of
the work involved in both domestic cleaning and child care relative to their male
partners (Bittman and Matheson 1996; Bryson 1997; Fenstermaker Berk 1985).
Women in Australia, as elsewhere, are far more likely to undertake cleaning chores
and physical care of children. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (1994) found that
women’s share of laundry was 89 percent (90 percent if in full-time employment),
their share of cleaning 82 percent (84 percent if in full-time employment), and of
physical care of children 84 percent (76 percent if in full-time employment)
(Bittman and Pixley 1997, 113). These tasks are central to the housecleaning
regime devised by state authorities that we examine here.

But motherhood is not only a key to understanding what goes on in the home. A
rich strand of feminist research shows how motherhood provides a basis for
women’s activism and resistance in the wider community (Abrahams 1996;
McPhillips 1995; Naples 1991, 1998). Brown and Ferguson (1995) pointed to the
way women have been in the forefront of the “fight against toxic hazards,” as they
constitute the majority of both the leadership and membership of active organiza-
tions (see also Garland 1988; Krauss 1993). They located the origins of women’s
propensity to be involved in “making a big stink” about pollution in their family
responsibilities, in “their different, gendered experience … based on their roles as

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Bryson et al. / WOMEN’S UNPAID LABOR 757

people who centre their worldview more on relationships than on abstract rights
and on their roles as primary caretakers of the family” (Brown and Ferguson 1995,
147). We, too, found that more women than men were involved in a vocal public
campaign against lead pollution in the smelter towns and that activism was very
largely motivated by the women’s concern for their children (McPhillips 1995).
Here, however, our primary focus is not motherhood in relation to residents’ often
fierce (although small and not very effective) campaigns but on motherhood and the
state’s lead remediation strategy.

Nonetheless, our research is informed by recent feminist research and theorizing
focused on motherhood that is concerned with difference, resistance, and women’s

activism (Abrahams 1996; Naples 1992, 1998). These studies provide an important
correction to earlier feminist theorizing, which often treated women as a monolithic
category (white and middle class) and overemphasized structure at the expense of
agency. The importance of difference was stated strongly by Black feminists in
both the United States and Britain (hooks 1982; Many voices 1984) who specifi-
cally took up the different meaning and experiences of family and motherhood for
Black women.

Feminist theorists have provided a leading and timely input into social theory
generally by emphasizing the importance of both resistance and difference. This
was partly in reaction to the overly structuralist approach of much socialist-feminist
or dual-systems theory (Hartmarni 1981; Walby 1990), which focused on the
gendered division of labor and, at least in earlier theorizing, implied a unified sub-
ject. The correction was important, because as Franzway, Court, and Connell
(1989, 35) pointed out, “structure is realised and reconstituted only through social
practice,” which thus must account not only for agency but also the different cir-
cumstances of the practice. However, we must not lose sight of structure and the
fact that “action requires social structure as its condition” nor that “practice is his-
torically concrete, developing in time” (Franzway, Court, and Connell 1989, 35).
This directs us to both continuity and change and to a trio of ubiquitous elements
that constitute gender relations: agency, structure, and history.

We now turn to the case study itself, describing our method and providing back-
ground on the three cases. In the discussion, we outline how the associated health
issues have been defined and redefined and how this informs public health strate-
gies for dealing with pollution in the smelter towns. To contextualize the strategy
historically, in the subsequent section we consider attempts to deal with lead pollu-
tion in one smelter town, Port Pirie, starting in the early twentieth century and cul-
minating in the domestic cleaning strategy adopted in the 1980s and 1990s. We
examine the role of the state in this process and the reaction of the residents. Women

have been at the forefront of community resistance to the remediation strategies
that rely on their unpaid labor as carers. Finally, we draw conclusions on what our
case study reveals about the role of the state and note the implications for feminist
theory and gender relations more generally.

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758 GENDER & SOCIETY / October 2001


We first became interested in the public health intervention processes in lead-
affected towns when one of us (McPhillips) became caught up with the effects of
lead contamination in her residential community, which bordered on Boolaroo, a
smelter town in NSW. McPhillips’s personal experience of dealing with lead con-
tamination became the subject of spirited debate and theorizing in our (then) shared
work context-the sociology department of the local university. This led to the
development of the research reported in this article.


We began with a review of the social science literature on the contamination of
residential communities, and the kinds of interventions made by public health
authorities, in Australia and overseas. The style of intervention that we found in
Boolaroo clearly followed from previous attempts to remediate the effects of lead in
other smelter communities. In general, the published studies were within a health
intervention or epidemiological paradigm and did not encompass a sociologically
informed critique of the circumstances of lead contamination or of the preferred
ameliorative measures. None of them incorporated a critique of the gendered char-
acter of interventions.

In investigating the case study of Boolaroo, we collected qualitative data
through direct engagement in the community; through participant observation in
community activities; and through interviews with eight residents of Boolaroo,
including female members of community groups (both for and against the smelter).
We also interviewed personnel in the local health authority who had been involved
in testing children’s blood levels and in designing and implementing subsequent
intervention measures.

Historical materials relating to the genesis of the political conflict over contami-

nation in Boolaroo were available to us. These included reports in local newspapers
(which had been systematically filed by the municipal library and collected by
activists), reports and scholarly articles produced by the public health authorities,
and a television documentary produced for the state-owned public broadcasting
authority that critically recorded an intervention in 1991 intended to remove his-
toric contamination from Boolaroo residences (Australian Broadcasting Corpora-
tion 1992). The smelter company produced regular community newsletters, which
were available to us, as were the public health information brochures.

In interpreting the data relating to Boolaroo, we used a comparative perspective,
drawing on the reports of similar interventions in the other Australian lead smelter
towns. There are three major sites of lead production in Australia: Port Pirie in
South Australia, and Broken Hill and Boolaroo in NSW (see Figure 1).

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o 1000
I I I I 1


Figure 1: Map of Australia Showing Major Lead Smelter Sites

Port Pirie

Although lead has been a known environmental contaminant for at least
100 years, public health intervention has been attempted on a large population scale
only in the past 20 years. In the early 1980s, Port Pirie in South Australia (which
houses the largest lead smelter in the Southern Hemisphere) was identified by the
South Australian Health Department as a serious source of lead contamination. The
city of Port Pirie is located 320 kilometers north of Adelaide, and the main
employer, the smelter operator BHAS, had a workforce of 1,500 at the time. The
South Australian government undertook a remediation program based on a domes-
tic cleaning regime aimed at reducing lead levels in children-the most vulnerable
group to the effects of lead. The remediation program adopted by the health depart-
ment for Port Pirie became the blueprint that other lead-affected towns drew on.

During the early remediation work undertaken at Port Pirie, research clearly
demonstrated that exposure to low levels of lead sources could cause detrimental
effects to children’s physiological and neurological development (McMichael et al.
1992). This pressured the federal government through its regulatory authority, the
National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), into lowering the
acceptable levels of lead in air and blood, which in turn put further pressure on state
health departments to intervene in, and remediate, lead-affected communities. In
1993, the NHMRC lowered the lead level considered safe (from 25 to 15 gg/dL)

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760 GENDER & SOCIETY / October 2001

with the future aim of lowering the level to that accepted in the United States-
10 gg/dL (Alperstein, Taylor, and Vimpani 1994, 5).


Boolaroo is a small suburb of the city of Lake Macquarie, which is contiguous
with the city of Newcastle. Located on the western tip of Lake Macquarie, it is about
200 kilometers north of Sydney. Boolaroo residents are not dependent on the
smelter as their principal avenue of employment. Nonetheless, the area has housed
a lead industry for more than 100 years, and since the 1950s, it has been smelting
lead. Lead contamination in Boolaroo is both historical and current. Even with the

implementation of stack and emission controls in recent years, significant concern
remains about high levels of lead in soil and house dust. In 1991, the Newcastle
Public Health Unit (PHU) conducted a survey of the levels of lead in children’s
blood. The first report indicated that a significant proportion of young children in
the suburbs closest to the smelter had high blood lead readings (Galvin et al. 1993).
This prompted the PHU to instigate a remediation program, which still exists today.

Broken Hill

Broken Hill, in far western NSW, has had numerous lead mines in operation for
many years. From the late 1980s, much of the lead-mining industry there has been
in recession, and the major economic activity is now tourism. Broken Hill also has
substantial unemployment and a large number of single-parent families and other
social security recipients. Lead contamination has been a focus of concern to Bro-
ken Hill residents and health professionals given the close proximity of the commu-
nity to mining operations, the dangerous nature of the open-cut mine where lead
oxide is released directly into the air, and the fact that lead mining has been the
town’s main source of employment until recently. Since the mid-1990s, there has
been a remediation program in place that incorporated a domestic cleaning regime.
The critical features of the populations in all three areas affected by the pollution is
that they are of low socioeconomic status with manufacturing providing predomi-
nantly male employment.

The Household Cleaning Regime

Public health authorities have systematically turned to an approach dealing with
lead effects that is focused on the ways in which it is ingested, particularly by chil-
dren, rather than with stopping pollution. In the vicinity of the Boolaroo smelter, for

example, an attractive poster was distributed to residents, with the title “Lead:
Lower the levels & protect your child” (PHU n.d.). It mentions soil, food, house-
hold dust, old paint, and the lead worker as potential sources, identifying interven-
tions that can be made, with most of them involving an intensification of domestic
labor. To avoid exposure of children to lead in household dust, parents are advised

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to use a wet mop instead of a broom; keep dust from children’s play areas, including
under beds and in closets; and remember to dust corers, along sides of windows,
and behind furniture and doors. Advice to the lead worker includes the following:
Keep kit bags out of reach of children; keep children away from work clothes; and
clean dust from inside and outside of car, especially if driven to work. To avoid lead

in food, the parents are advised to intensify domestic labor by preventing children
from sucking dirty hands, fingernails, or objects; wiping surfaces before preparing
food; and covering food and utensils to prevent lead dust from settling on them. The
problem of contaminated soil is addressed by advice to wash children’s hands
before eating, especially if playing outside; to provide clean soil or sand for chil-
dren to play in; and to use a nail brush under nails. The poster does not represent the
source of the lead contamination in any way.

The focus on domestic-based interventions deflects attention away from the
source of the pollution, which is clearly in the interests of capital. We argue that the

burden of activities to ameliorate the effects of pollution falls disproportionately to
women and must be counted as an aspect of the state’s gender as well as class
regime. The communities, which already bear the burden of toxic contamination
and its attendant health, social, and economic effects, are further burdened with the

responsibility of “putting things right.”
The spotlight in the three smelter towns in recent years has been very much on

children, even though evidence suggests that lead is a health hazard for all age-
groups (Alperstein, Taylor, and Vimpani 1994; Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention 1991). In earlier years, the focus of official programs was on workers
and also in a manner that deflected attention away from the smelting companies’
practices. Before we look in detail at the instigation of the domestic cleaning regime
in the 1980s and 1990s, it is instructive to trace the evolution of public health
approaches to dealing with lead pollution at Port Pirie, the first Australian smelter
town in which such an intervention was made.


The Early Twentieth Century

The approach of both the companies and governments to lead poisoning issues
show continuity during the past 70 years, in their shared tendency to privatize a pub-
lic problem. In the years after World War I, an outbreak of problems referred to as
an epidemic of lead poisoning in Port Pirie led to the establishment of a government
inquiry, which returned a finding that the “epidemic” was located among Southern
European migrants, who were seen as either susceptible or “malingerers.” Workers
were seen as at risk because of their resistance to the use of respirators and not tak-
ing sufficient care to wash their hands or shower after work. As Gillespie (1990,
305) put it, there were struggles over “accounting for illness.” In this struggle,

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762 GENDER & SOCIETY / October 2001

the company was able to establish its account as the most plausible and have it sanc-
tioned by the state, thereby controlling the solutions that were adopted, and contain-
ing the intervention of the state and workers in the organisation of production.
(Gillespie 1990, 306)

The company’s major focus was on managing its current problems rather than
working toward prevention, and this provides a window into where the corpora-
tion’s interests lie. Some changes in production practices were made, but these were
minor ones and inexpensive,’ and migrant workers ultimately were the scapegoats.

In the 1920s, wives were also potential victims of contamination, more so if they
lived close to the smelter, in particular through their household work of laundering
the clothes of male workers. While women clearly have been involved and their
labor exploited in the past, during recent years, women have been targeted more
explicitly by public health strategies. Families of workers, but also other residents
who live close to the smelter, are pressured to be involved in the housecleaning
regime because of its emphasis on the implications for their children’s health.

The 1980s and 1990s: Developing the Domestic Cleaning Regime

In the early 1980s, the South Australian health department responded to U.S.
research linking impaired intellectual development with lead by undertaking a sur-
vey of the factors implicated in elevated blood lead levels of young children living
within the vicinity of the smelter at Port Pirie (Landrigan 1983). Using a control
sample of children with low blood lead levels, researchers found that 5 of the
16 evaluated behavioral factors were significantly associated with high lead levels.
These factors were a history of placing objects in the mouth, nail biting, dirty hands,
dirty clothes, and eating lunch at home rather than at school (Landrigan 1983, 8).
The survey also found that higher lead levels in children were associated with the
number of persons in the household working in the lead industry (cf. Donovan

However, the research also showed that none of the factors were as important as

living in a contaminated environment and that living near the smelter was three
times more important than anything else (Landrigan 1983, 9). Because past emis-
sions still contaminate the atmosphere and the soil, reducing emissions was
acknowledged as insufficient for dealing with the problem. More recently, public
health officials recognized that the only effective way of dealing with lead contami-
nation at smelter sites is relocating residents (Galvin et al. 1993, 377), although to
our knowledge no public body has ever implemented a relocation program.

In 1984, the South Australian health department and the smelter management
started an education program about the importance of personal hygiene and house-
hold cleaning. The focus was on “pathways” through which lead is ingested by chil-
dren and the ways this can be minimized within the home. The general manager of
smelter operations expressed the view that “given reasonable care and hygiene,
then you can live with the levels of contamination from past emissions.” Fowler and
Grabosky (1989, 153-57) suggested that the company was “defensive and cautious”

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lest remedial action imply admission of legal responsibility. The company main-
tained public health to be a government responsibility and invested far less than the
government. The South Australian government’s response was restrained as well,
illustrating the power of major capital by showing an unwillingness to “antagonise
one of the state’s largest employers” (Fowler and Grabosky 1989, 150). The gov-
ernment was prepared to burden working-class women, rather than business.

In 1986, another case control study examined children’s blood lead levels in Port
Pirie (Wilson et al. 1986). The study focused mainly on environmental issues and
the implications for the smelter. It assessed behavioral differences between “cases”
and “controls” and again pointed to the “pathways” for ingestion such as “biting
fingernails” or “dirty clothing/hands at school.”2 In 1988, the public health program
at Port Pirie also undertook external decontamination in the yards of 1,400 homes at

highest risk, and adjacent vacant blocks and footpaths were sealed (Heyworth
1990, 178). Subsequently, a “partial decontamination” of the same area was insti-
tuted, in recognition that contamination is continuous. Such a program requires a
permanent cycle of treatment of the homes and vacant blocks and a continuing
awareness within the community of the need for vigilance in terms of personal and
home hygiene (Heyworth 1990, 183).3

In 1993, after several months of remediation, including replanting tailings
dumps and the implementation of housecleaning regimes, the blood lead levels had
elevated in a part of the town deemed to be a nonrisk area and hence not subject to
the campaign. Further investigation found the source to be stacks of lead ore left on
the wharves in open piles, with dust being carried by the winds into residential areas
not previously considered at risk from the smelter.

The South Australian Health Commission published a decade review of the Port
Pirie program in 1993 that concluded, “Given the amount of lead contamination to
which these households are exposed, changes in dust hygiene would not seem to be
a realistic way to ensure lower exposures to lead by the child” (Maynard, Calder,
and Phipps 1993, 25). This point, that domestic strategies are unsustainable in the
long term (Maynard, Calder, and Phipps 1993, 5), had previously been made by
Landrigan in 1983 and by Luke in 1991 after an extensive search of the world litera-

ture on the topic (Luke 1991, 161-67). Many people are prepared to modify their
behavior in the short term, but sooner or later they revert to more comfortable hab-

its. The report notes that because there is a constant process of recontamination, it is

unrealistic to expect continuing voluntary participation of residents in programs for
lead remediation. Another barrier to ongoing participation is the stigmatization that
is involved if a child’s blood levels are high. Parents are reluctant to have their child
labeled as potentially intellectually impaired, and they themselves feel stigmatized
by the implication that they have dirty houses.

Over time, parents tend to withdraw from participation in blood-monitoring pro-
grams. This can be seen as a form of resistance in situations where parents are
expected to comply with surveillance of a problem that has a source external to the
home and family, but they are expected to deal with the consequences. Their con-
certed efforts at housecleaning fail to bring the promised results, and they continue

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764 GENDER & SOCIETY / October 2001

to suffer the stigmatization of the threats to their children’s healthy development
and the implication that they are poor housekeepers.

During the evaluations of cleaning regimes by health authorities, little attention
was paid to the women involved as the cleaners, which indirectly provides us with
some insight into the state gender regime. Apart from the effort and the responsibil-

ity, there is evidence that the cleaning process itself can be contaminating (Austra-
lian Broadcasting Corporation 1992; Luke 1991, 99).4

Fowler and Grabosky (1989, 148) suggested that the “regulatory orientation to
pollution control has been characterized by negotiation and compromise, rather
than strict enforcement.” Governments have been reluctant to antagonize business,
and business has been motivated by a “desire to avoid the loss of a marketable prod-
uct rather than environmental concern” (Fowler and Grabosky 1989, 147). State
recognition of business interests as more important than smelter community resi-
dents has ultimately resulted in greater recourse to the cleaning regime. Further-
more, it is unlikely that the public health care system has the long-term capacity to
maintain the level of involvement and monitoring that is required. This suggests the
program is “window dressing,” a project of state legitimation, which rests on the
state’s class and gender regime and which masks the interests that are served by de
facto tolerance of levels of industrial pollution damaging to a small and easily
ignored segment of the population.


A similar household cleaning regime to that developed and applied in the 1980s
by public health workers in the vicinity of the Port Pirie lead smelter was subse-
quently put in place in the NSW smelter towns of Boolaroo and Broken Hill. The
regime was formalized in 1994 by a federal agency, the Commonwealth of Austra-
lia Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), and outlined in a document pub-
lished by the EPA titled Lead Alert: A Guide for Health Professionals (Alperstein,
Taylor, and Vimpani 1994).

Lead Alert set out the “steps to minimise exposure and absorption” of lead by
children. Health professionals are told to give the following advice “to parents if a
child’s blood lead is more than 15 ,lg/dL” (Alperstein, Taylor, and Vimpani 1994,
17). Parents should ensure that children’s hands and face are washed before they eat
or have a nap, discourage children from putting dirty fingers in their mouths,
encourage children to play in grassy areas, and wash fruit and vegetables. In terms
of housecleaning, they are advised to wet dust floors, ledges, window sills, and
other flat surfaces at least weekly or more often if the house is near a source point

for lead; to clean carpets and rugs regularly using a vacuum cleaner; to wash chil-
dren’s toys, especially those used outside; and to wash family pets frequently and
discourage pets from sleeping near children. The parent should ensure that the child
does not have access to peeling paint or chewable surfaces painted with lead-based
paint and that the child’s diet is adequate in calcium and iron, which helps to

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minimize lead absorption. Children should be provided with regular frequent meals
and snacks, up to six per day, because more lead is absorbed on an empty stomach
(Alperstein, Taylor, and Vimpani 1994, 17).

The document was widely disseminated, not just in smelter communities but in
situations where people had elevated blood lead levels from any source. The house-
cleaning regime has been promoted as a primary intervention strategy, despite the
evidence from evaluations of the Port Pirie experience (as well as studies in other
countries) that show it to be ineffective.

This extremely detailed cleaning regime involves an implicit threat for noncom-
pliance, the threat of adversely affecting one’s child’s health and intellectual devel-
opment. Because of the nature of the tasks, the responsibility for most of this work
falls to mothers rather than all parents.

For communities in the vicinity of lead smelters in Australia, public health
authorities recommend an even more stringent regime than that implied in Lead
Alert. The regime suggests not vacuuming with a child in the room since the clean-
ing raises dust. Dusting should ideally cover what one Boolaroo mother described
as “bizarre places” such as the fly wire in screen doors. Other suggested strategies
include moving children’s beds from under windows and putting away soft toys
because they cannot be easily washed (Gilligan 1992,4). To add to this intensifica-
tion, some anxious parents intensify the regime further. The “wet dusting” or mop-
ping over of all horizontal surfaces is done more than once a day by some mothers.
In a television documentary on the subject of lead poisoning and children, women
who had implemented the regime in both Boolaroo and Port Pirie expressed their
frustration. “They tell you to run round with a washer after them. They are not
allowed to put their fingers in the mouths”; “You do things that you just would not
do”; “We must be the only housewives in New South Wales that do these tasks”
(Australian Broadcasting Corporation 1992). Another mother verbalized the worry
and guilt associated with such responsibility for her children’s health, “You feel
guilty if you just don’t want to do the work… you think your child does not have a
normal life … should you have more children?” (Gilligan 1992, 45).

The lead abatement program also involves the monitoring of the child’s blood
lead levels as the most significant means of measuring the levels of lead absorption.
This means subjecting the child to frequent blood sampling and a constant measur-
ing as to whether the family’s efforts have been successful. There is constant con-
tact for both mother and child with health and other professionals and often
researchers (Australian Broadcasting Corporation 1992; Gilligan 1992, 4). The
constancy of the monitoring creates the impression that the responsibility for the
public health problem falls on the residents themselves (and especially on moth-
ers), rather than the government or the corporation (see also McGee 1996, 14). The
monitoring of blood lead levels also gives the impression that something is being
done but actually does nothing to address the source of the contamination. In some
cases, children’s blood lead levels have risen after the implementation of household-
cleaning regimes.

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766 GENDER & SOCIETY / October 2001

A study of the effects of the lead issue on Boolaroo residents found that families
of children with high blood lead levels experienced “feelings of guilt, stigma, anxi-
ety, stress and powerlessness… that the difference may be due to or to be seen to be
due to some action or inaction of them as parents” (Hallebone and Townsend 1993,
17). We found that in Boolaroo, health professionals regarded parental failure to
present children for monitoring as evidence of irresponsibility. As with smelter
workers in the 1920s, stigma is attached to those who do not conform to the clean-
ing standards.

Cathy Phipps, a worker with the health program in Port Pirie, confirmed that ele-

vated blood lead levels incur stigma as they are assumed to be associated with lack
of adequate child care and hygiene (Clean-up hopes 1994). We found that some
Boolaroo women were critical of homes where there were children with high blood
lead levels on the basis that the mothers “weren’t looking after them properly” (see
also Hallebone and Townsend 1993). In one instance, a Boolaroo mother told us
that she received anonymous phone calls calling her “ignorant and dirty.” Another
was chastised for her irresponsible behavior in having her grandchildren come to
visit her in her contaminated home, while another local mother had overheard the

site manager of the lead smelter claiming that only children from “dirty homes”
have high lead levels. The consequences of the politics of shifting blame onto indi-
viduals-in this case mothers-leave them open to stigmatization, which is likely
to be internalized.

Stigma is not the only problem. Manning (1993), an economist, attempted to
quantify the cost for Boolaroo families of the extra domestic work, as part of his
overall cost estimates of the abatement strategy employed in the area. He calculated
there were 40 minutes of additional domestic work per day, costing about Aus$10
per hour.

Not only are women enslaved by the domestic cleaning, but their children’s psy-
chological and/or emotional development is put in question. In the education book-
let written by the education department for use in Boolaroo schools, the family unit
is presented as the most important element in dealing with lead exposure: “Children
who are supported and confident in their family unit will be better able to deal with
any problems associated with the lead issue” (quoted in Mason 1992, 41).

Despite evidence of limited success in the long term, domestic cleaning regimes
are becoming popular for dealing with lead contamination from gasoline.5 As has
occurred with the smelter communities, the effect again is to shift responsibility
from the polluting source to the private sphere of the family and women.


The focus on housecleaning regimes as a response to children’s elevated blood
lead levels has the effect of stigmatizing parents and calling into question their
capacity to care for their children. As noted above, mothers who have implemented
the regime, however, find it very oppressive and anxiety provoking, hence many

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cease doing it (McGee 1996, 14). There is also resistance to the surveillance of chil-
dren’s blood lead levels in situations where the health authorities are not offering an
effective response to the problem. The proportion of smelter-town families who
continue to present their children for blood testing has declined considerably over
time (Isles 1993; Maynard, Calder, and Phipps 1993, 9; Stephenson, Corbett, and
Jacobs 1992; Western NSW PHU 1994).

Nevertheless, women in smelter towns have responded with active as well as
passive resistance. Following the PHU’s 1991 revelation of elevated blood lead lev-
els in Boolaroo children, local residents, mainly women, formed the North Lakes
Environmental Action Defence Group (No Lead). It has campaigned for action by
state and local government and by the smelter to counter the high levels of lead

Teresa Gordon, the president of No Lead, was described in the local newspaper
as having “transformed herself from a media-shy concerned citizen to a slick, com-
pelling orator for the powerful lobby group” (Sorenson 1995). Gordon was quoted:

I think a lot about women and the environment today and the way housekeepers are
left with the problems. Boolaroo is a typical example of that. Mothers are asked to
clean the home and it is the women who are left with the burden of guilt and responsi-
bility. When kids’ blood lead levels do not go down, it is the mother’s fault and not the
industry’s. (Sorenson 1995, 14)6

Gordon fits the profile of the women activists described by Kaplan (1997). She
coins the term female consciousness to describe the basis of political action by
women who “proclaim their identity as wives and mothers according to the terms
their culture dictates” but make demands on the state and powerful social actors to
enable them to fulfill those responsibilities (1997, 185). She sees this concept as
fulfilling a similar function to Molyneux’s (1985) notion of “practical gender inter-
ests,” explaining why women act collectively in response to threats to their families

and communities and “assume authority to speak for entire communities” (Kaplan
1997, 186).

No Lead has addressed the issue of lead contamination by refocusing public
attention on the responsibilities of the government to regulate the industry and the
industry’s responsibility to reduce toxic emissions. They have found themselves in
direct conflict with the company’s public relations strategists who have attempted
to downplay their political significance as legitimate representatives of community
interest. No Lead has been able to successfully work with environmental groups
like Greenpeace and has achieved some success in refocusing government attention
on Boolaroo. For example, a Parliamentary Select Committee set up in 1994
resulted in a management plan that placed more responsibility on the smelter and
the local government in limiting the effects of plant emissions, although it rein-
forced the emphasis on housecleaning regimes (NSW Parliament 1994).

Other women in Boolaroo have actively resisted government interventions
intended to ameliorate the exposure of children to lead, which they see as stigmatiz-
ing their children as intellectually limited or themselves as poor housekeepers. The

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768 GENDER & SOCIETY / October 2001

most significant of these was the 1992 resistance by the Parents and Citizens Asso-
ciation to a temporary closure of the local school for remediation. The parents ques-
tioned whether the school was indeed contaminated or if the contamination was any
more significant than that which they experienced in their homes. They rejected the
implication that the school posed a threat to their children’s intellectual develop-
ment, citing cases of local children who had succeeded academically. The women
involved in this public protest expressed a fear that the school would be closed for-
ever, once the children had been relocated. McPhillips (1995, 48) commented that
the issue brought out the “deep-felt suspicion that this section of the local commu-
nity held for government bureaucracies.” That is, they do not see the public authori-
ties as acting in their interests and resist the authorities’ efforts to intervene in the
situation. In this case, the women’s resistance was successful, and the remediation

was carried out while the school was routinely closed for summer holidays.



The strategy promoted by public health authorities for smelter towns, rather than

dealing with the source of the pollution, turns this public issue into a private family
matter. In appearing to do something, the state selected a remediation strategy that
has been repeatedly proven to be ineffective. Research from many countries (Luke
1991) persistently shows that the major issue is one of proximity to the smelter and
the level of emissions, with past pollution also a critical factor. There is a continuing
history of failure of the smelting companies to own the pollution problem they
cause and to deal with it. Profit levels, rather than health concerns, have historically
taken precedence, with the state mediating the corporations’ interests. The state his-
torically has facilitated the shifting of the focus of responsibility for the problem to
the relatively powerless. Now the blame is laid on working-class women, whereas
early in the twentieth century, it was directed toward recently arrived male immi-
grant workers, although women were indirectly implicated.

The official remediation strategy does not fall in a gender-neutral way on both
parents. It relies for its implementation on additional daily caring labor being
undertaken by mothers of children deemed “at risk” and thus on the basis of a tradi-
tional understanding of the responsibilities associated with motherhood. In addi-
tion, it relies for compliance on the mothers’ emotional commitment to their chil-
dren’s health, a situation with great potential to engender feelings of guilt and to
stigmatize those who “fail.” The exploitation of these working-class women’s
unpaid caring labor is not only an example of the state “doing” gender but a recent
form of “doing” class as well. Brown and Ferguson (1995, 161) noted that

when activists discover that local industry values its bottom line or international repu-
tation more highly than it does the health of children in the community, this realization

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violates the trust that the women toxic waste activists have placed in the ideal of cor-
porate citizenship and governmental protection.

Working-class mothers are the target of a burdensome housecleaning regime
that absorbs their labor but at the same time effectively shifts responsibility for
ensuring the pollution does not damage their children’s health away from the corpo-
ration and the state. This strategy reflects a state gender regime that involves mate-
rial exploitation in the form of reliance on women’s labor in a manner that serves
powerful interests and ideological exploitation through the manipulation of the
women’s sense of maternal responsibility.

The structural features of class and gender do not, of course, account for the
whole story. Residents are not duped nor have they have been silent on the matter.
The women as individuals resist or reject the recommended regime and have been
at the forefront of organized community resistance strategies. Women organized
into community-based pressure groups have had limited success in directing atten-
tion back onto the smelter as the source of the toxic pollution and away from their
responsibility as domestic carers for the health of their children.

This case study raises specific questions about where the responsibility lies for
the health of residents of smelter communities. But it also illuminates class and

gender relations in contemporary Australia and the manner in which the state is
engaged in the reproduction of class and gender difference.


1. In 1992, the company still had personnel devoted to the management of the problem. There was a

Port Pirie manager for health and environment and a company-wide manager of environmental projects
(Australian Broadcasting Corporation 1992).

2. In terms of current standards, the controls also had elevated blood levels (with a mean of
17 Ig/dL), which casts doubt on the conclusions from the study. The study had the effect of normalizing

the underlying high level of contamination (represented in the high blood levels) and, once again, the
effect of focusing attention away from the source.

3. Over time, improvements have been made in levels of air emission. However, past emission levels
(“historic contamination”) remain part of the problem that needs to be dealt with by major decontamina-

tion programs that should establish buffer zones by buying up the houses closest to the smelter. (By
1992, 100 houses in Port Pirie had been purchased and demolished.)

4. This potential was belatedly recognized in the 1993 Port Pirie high-risk area program when the
blood of both parents and children was tested after residents were encouraged to participate in the home

contamination procedure (Maynard, Calder, and Phipps 1993, 9).
5. At the Newcastle conference on Lead Abatement and Remediation in 1994, Professor

Bornschein, director of Epidemic Research at Cincinnati University, claimed that “full abatement is
expensive and ineffective” and that good results can be obtained from educating people about personal
and home hygiene. He indicated that this was to be the focus of 29 programs to start in the United States
in the near future (Maguire 1994).

6. Reprinted with permission from Newcastle Newspapers.

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770 GENDER & SOCIETY / October 2001


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Lois Bryson is an emeritus professor of the University of Newcastle and an adjunct professor at

the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University, Melbourne, Australia. She has had an
extensive research and teaching career in sociology, and herpublished work hasfocused on gen-
der issues especially in relation to family, employment, and social policy.

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on social policy and resource management, gender and health, principally focusing on

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  • Issue Table of Contents
  • Gender and Society, Vol. 15, No. 5, Oct., 2001

    Front Matter

    From the SWS President: The Ironies of Power [pp. 649 – 653]

    2000 Sociologists for Women in Society Feminist Lecture

    Women, Science, and Academia: Graduate Education and Careers [pp. 654 – 666]

    Women and Their Hair: Seeking Power through Resistance and Accommodation [pp. 667 – 686]

    Cultural Constructions of Family Schemas: The Case of Women Finance Executives [pp. 687 – 709]

    For Whom Does Education Enlighten? Race, Gender, Education, and Beliefs about Social Inequality [pp. 710 – 733]

    Research Reports

    Women, Men, and Patriarchal Bargaining in an Islamic Sufi Order: The Tijaniyya in Kano, Nigeria, 1937 to the Present [pp. 734 – 753]

    Turning Public Issues into Private Troubles: Lead Contamination, Domestic Labor, and the Exploitation of Women’s Unpaid Labor in Australia [pp. 754 – 772]

    Book Reviews

    untitled [pp. 773 – 774]

    untitled [pp. 774 – 775]

    untitled [pp. 775 – 776]

    untitled [pp. 777 – 778]

    untitled [pp. 778 – 779]

    untitled [pp. 779 – 781]

    Back Matter [pp. 782 – 782]

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