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From Poison to Carcinogen: Towards a Global History of Concerns about Benzene

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Benzene's history resembles that of many another substance discovered, industrially exploited, and then increasingly regulated across the world over the last two centuries of the chemical industry's development. This paper connects the evolving patterns of its production, use, and oversight through the twentieth century to a certain transformation in the understanding of its effects on human health. Early on, when only some of benzene's health effects were known, it came to be regulated as a 'poison'. But then benzene emerged as one of a handful of widely used substances known to cause cancer in the second half of the twentieth century. During this period standards for proving carcinogenicity were undergoing change and being debated within the international community. At the same time, support strengthened for a more restrictive and precautionary approach to benzene, at least in many parts of the world. It became the first chemically defined hazard in the post-WWII period to receive its own 'convention', or recommendation for national legislation, from the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 1971. The changing concerns about benzene's effects on the human body in four locations - Europe, the United States, China, and Mexico - suggest some implications for a more genuinely transnational and global history of worries about environmental chemicals. Similarly, this article demonstrates that global environmental historians need to pay more attention to health and medical history; that the 'global' passage from poison to carcinogen has only been partial; and that this narrative has faltered especially in developing or partly developed parts of the world.
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Keywords: aplastic anemia; benzene; carcinogen; epidemiology; industrialization; occupational disease; regulation

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 April 2014

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  • The half-yearly journal Global Environment: A Journal of History and Natural and Social Sciences acts as a forum and echo chamber for ongoing studies on the environment and world history, with special focus on modern and contemporary topics. Our intent is to gather and stimulate scholarship that, despite a diversity of approaches and themes, shares an environmental perspective on world history in its various facets, including economic development, social relations, production government, and international relations.
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