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From the Field

From Scientific Uncertainty to Strategic Ignorance

Pollution and Environmental Diseases Without a Cause in Lyon

In the absence of data, uncertainties about the health risks of industrial pollution abound, and are used by private firms to assert that their activities are not harmful. In this article, Gwenola Le Naour and Valentin Thomas analyze how this “scientific ignorance” is maintained in the “chemical valley” to the south of Lyon in France.

On May 10, 2022, a public meeting was held in Lyon to present the results of an investigation by France Télévisions journalists into perfluorinated pollution around a plant in Pierre-Bénite, in the Lyon industrial basin. Perfluorinated chemicals are used in a wide range of industries and consumer goods, from textiles to kitchen utensil coatings, and are said to be "eternal" due to their persistence in the environment and in living organisms. Relatively alarming, the survey data, produced in collaboration with a Dutch laboratory, prove contamination of soil (notably the town’s stadium), water and the breast milk of some residents. [1]

While the residents who came to hear the results of the investigation were concerned about the effects of these pollutions on their health, the episode was a reminder that, while mobilizations relating to pollution and its health consequences are recurrent in this region, they have so far never led to protests that have succeeded in calling industrial production into question, producing new data, or even changing regulations (Le Naour 2017). Proof that this is not a foregone conclusion, the historical difficulties in the Rhône-Alpes region [2] in building sustainable causes and mobilizations contrast with what is observed in other places, notably in several American cities, where important movements for environmental justice have emerged.

For several years now, social science research has been examining the relationship between the production of scientific knowledge on the effects of toxic exposure and the implementation of public health policies. With a counter-intuitive focus on "unproduced science", i.e. science that is either unfunded or generally ignored (Frickel et al. 2010), this work has identified power relations, practices and institutional arrangements that do not so much produce new knowledge but, on the contrary, maintain forms of structural ignorance about the harmful consequences of certain chemical pollutions (Henry et al. 2021). This institutionalized ignorance most often results from the articulation between well-understood strategies on the part of various (economic) players, whose lack of information about a risk allows them to avoid liability (McGoey 2012), and the ordinary operation of scientific and regulatory norms and spaces.

How do these logics operate in the Rhône-Alpes region? Put another way, how can we understand the persistence, within a polluted territory, of such a public health "non-problem" (Henry 2021)? We can provide some answers by taking a close look at the content of the few reports (co)produced by public and private economic players on industrial and health risks in the region.

Maintaining the confusion surrounding industrial pollution

While a great deal of data is available on accidents and acute poisoning by chemicals, little information is available on the chronic and long-term effects of industrial pollution on human health. South of Lyon, private firms seem to play an important role in maintaining this situation. Lyon’s chemical industry, for example, manages to control part of the debate on industrial safety by reducing risk communication to one-off accidents, as illustrated by the following campaigns
the "good reflexes" campaign organized every five years on these specific issues. [3] However, this framing has the effect of leaving in the shadows potential toxic exposures due to less spectacular but more constant discharges, such as those very recently documented by the Notre Affaire à Tous Lyon action group. [4]

The scant health data available in the region, however, do not provide a clear picture of the effects of industrial pollution on health. For example, a survey was carried out in 2008 by the Rhône-Alpes Inter-regional Epidemiology Unit (CIRE), funded by the Regional Health and Social Affairs Directorate and co-signed by the French National Institute for Health Monitoring. [5] The study focused on three areas of the Rhône-Alpes region, considered to be at risk due to a combination of industrial and automotive pollution (Schmitt 2008). Members of the study’s technical monitoring committee include several industrialists: Union des industries chimiques Rhône-Alpes, Arkema Pierre-Bénite et Saint-Fons, Rhodia Opérations Saint-Fons and the Total refinery in Feyzin.

The report’s signatories assert that it is not possible to conclude that the effects of repeated exposure to emissions of multiple industrial pollutants, from both industry and traffic, are carcinogenic, but nevertheless propose that these latter "appear to be a priority, from a health standpoint, for the implementation of emission reduction measures" (Schmitt 2008). How can this ambivalence be explained? We need to look at the details of the method chosen to measure risk. In reality, the latter does not allow us to make any real decisions on the health effects of pollution.

The report is based on Toxicological Reference Values (TRVs), [6] which are standard risk management tools based essentially on the extrapolation to humans of results obtained on animals. However, the interpretation made of these animal toxicology studies depends on the protocols and power relationships at work in the scientific and regulatory sub-spaces within which they circulate and are discussed (Thomas 2021). As they are carried out and interpreted to develop these Toxicological Reference Values, these experimental studies ignore the effects of two essential elements that characterize human exposure: repeated exposure to low doses of toxic products, and exposure to several substances at once or consecutively, sometimes referred to as a "cocktail of exposures" (Dedieu and Jouzel 2015). This clearly shows how the direct interests of certain private economic players are sheltered by the routine knowledge of regulatory policies, without there necessarily being any need for intervention on their part.

Science not produced

These blind spots in the measurement of industrial pollution are all the more remarkable given that the region has a number of worrying diseases with no clearly recognized causes. In particular, the Observatoire Régional de Santé (ORS; Regional Health Observatory) has identified a significant excess of mortality [7] by cancer among men in the commune of Pierre-Bénite compared to the Rhône-Alpes region as a whole. There is no evidence to suggest that this higher mortality rate is linked to industrial pollution, but nor is there any evidence to the contrary. And for good reason: despite two pages of findings on air pollution, the ORS report barely questions these factors, unlike others that are more spontaneously evoked, such as tobacco consumption (Fontaine-Gavino et al. 2014, pp. 16–17 and 39). Environmental and occupational dimensions are thus evacuated to focus attention on individual behaviors, even though cancer is a multifactorial disease making it complex to distinguish between its causes, for example between asbestos and tobacco in the case of occupational bronchopulmonary cancer (Marchand 2016). Here again, however, industry representatives are in no way involved in the drafting of these reports or in the development of local diagnosis methodologies. They are content to allow research routines and presuppositions that ultimately benefit them to persist.

For the time being, there are no plans to carry out new surveys, based on methods adapted to the search for a link between pollution and disease. In the history of environmental mobilization, however, there are a number of approaches that have made it possible to tackle head-on this persistent doubt about the health consequences of industrial activities. In Fos-sur-Mer, near Marseille, a so-called "participatory" study was carried out by a group of scientists in association with members of the local population affected by pollution. [8]

In the south of Lyon, even if criticism is sometimes voiced by local residents and their representatives, for example in the event of pollution or industrial accidents, it tends to be systematically downplayed. The risks therefore appear to be tacitly accepted, without any doubt being cast on the dangers to people’s health. To describe the long-term health and environmental consequences of failing to deal with these pollution problems, some North American authors speak of slow violence (Nixon 2011). Lyon’s chemical corridor is an emblematic case of this low-key environmental violence.


  • Dedieu, F. and Jouzel, J.-N. 2015. "How to ignore what we know? La domestication des savoirs inconfortables sur les intoxications des agriculteurs par les pesticides," Revue française de sociologie, n° 56, pp. 105-133. Available online at the following URL:
  • Fontaine-Gavino, K., Bolamperti, P., Mathey and A. and Dreneau, M. 2014. "Diagnostic local de santé. État des lieux quantitatif. Année 2013. Ville de Pierre-Bénite", Lyon: Observatoire régional de la santé Rhône-Alpes.
  • Frickel, S., Gibbon, S., Howard, J., Kempner, J., Ottinger, G. and Hess, D. J. 2010. "Undone Science: Charting Social Movement and Civil Society Challenges to Research Agenda Setting," Science, Technology and Human Values, vol. 35, no. 4, pp. 444-473.
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  • Le Naour, G. 2017. Aux marges de la ville bourgeoise, la périphérie tout contre l’usine. Mobilisations collectives éphémères et ambivalences de l’action publique, original dissertation, Habilitation à diriger des recherches en science politique, Université de Strasbourg.
  • McGoey, L. 2012. "The Logic of Strategic Ignorance," The British Journal of Sociology, vol. 63, no. 3, pp. 553-576.
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  • Nixon, R. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
  • Schmitt, M. 2008. "Évaluation des risques sanitaires associés à l’inhalation de composés organiques volatiles, métaux lourds et hydrocarbures aromatiques polycycliques autour de 3 zones multi-émettrices en Rhône-Alpes", Cire Rhône-Alpes, p. 40. Available online at the following URL: synthese/2008/evaluation-des-risques-sanitaires-associes-a-l-inhalation-de-compos-
  • Thomas, V. 2021. "Defects in Doubt Manufacturing: The Trajectory of a Pro-Industrial Argument in the Struggle for the Definition of Carcinogenic Substances," Science, Technology, and Human Values, vol. 46, no. 5, pp. 998-1020.

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To cite this article:

Gwenola Le Naour & Valentin Thomas & translated by Oliver Waine, “From Scientific Uncertainty to Strategic Ignorance. Pollution and Environmental Diseases Without a Cause in Lyon”, Metropolitics, 24 November 2023. URL :

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