Toxicology and the chemistry of cohort kinship

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Birth cohort studies are characterized as longitudinal investigations of research subjects with at least one common characteristic, usually being born in the same time and place. Such studies are increasingly common around the world and across a number of disciplines (Gibbon and Pentecost 2019), including toxicology. The small group of approximately twenty reproductive and developmental toxicologists I researched while conducting fieldwork in Nanjing, China – who I refer to as the DeTox Lab – were just beginning to conduct cohort studies when I was there in 2011. At the time, cohort studies’ potential loomed large in the scientific imaginary of the Lab, promising a means of including more people from multiple generations in research on an increasing number of health conditions, resulting from the many toxic exposures faced by those living in and around the Yangtze River Delta (Lamoreaux 2016). Today, as I analyze from afar the research that the DeTox Lab has undertaken since I returned from fieldwork, it is striking to think about the way the methodology of cohort studies has transformed their research.

The Detox Lab started by conducting research on male infertility, specifically the impact of occupational pesticide exposure on the genetic integrity of sperm. In this research, subjects were recruited on the basis of their shared occupational environments. The Lab went on to assess the epigenetic effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals on sperm counts and quality among those not working in toxic occupational environments, but simply living in specific urban settings at a particular moment in time. Here, studying the chemical relations between people and what stood outside helped toxicologists understand the effects of pollutants in regional and national environments, as well as the embodied impacts of state policies that developed industrial and agricultural capacities at rates unsurpassed by previous decades. As the Lab grew, and acquired further funding from the same Chinese state whose industrial regulations and environmental policies its research implicitly critiqued, they continued to think through the possibility of epigenetically inherited male infertility through animal studies. The DeTox Lab conducted experiments on rodents, testing the sperm quality and quantity of male rats and mice whose mothers had been directly exposed to pesticides. They also began conducting an epidemiological component to epigenetic studies, gathering a wide variety of samples (blood, semen, urine) from men that visited infertility clinics and their relatives for possible future research.

With the further addition of birth cohort studies to the DeTox Lab’s scientific repertoire, new questions have become possible, as has a new scale of research. For the Lab, cohort studies are a methodology of casting the widest net, and of quickly asking a large number of open-ended questions about correlations and associations between reproductive and developmental conditions and the many indirect and multi-factorial exposures faced by their research subjects. This is seen as urgent work in a context where people often face levels of everyday exposure to toxins that far exceed many other national contexts. It is also work that is now broadly supported through national and international funding mechanisms, and that – in such collaborations – moves their research away from thinking about male infertility toward thinking instead about fetal, infant and child development. This is partly because of the newness of these birth cohorts, which limits their studies to the first and second generations of research subjects. It is also because of a globally relentless focus on prenatal, fetal and infant health, especially the first 1,000 days of life (Pentecost and Ross 2019), that now incorporates birth cohort research.

Whereas the Detox Lab’s research on male infertility primarily stressed how sperm health was influenced by nutritional, national and occupational environments, birth cohort studies focus on how the effects of exposures are transmitted from one generation to another (Roberts 2019). Such research often folds multiple external environments into the singular maternal transmitter, and folds mothers into their offspring (Mansfield 2017). This scalar reductionism simultaneously overlooks maternal health and places the burden for the effects of the “maternal environment” on women (Lappé 2016; Mackendrick 2014; Richardson et al. 2014; Warin et al. 2012; Valdez 2018). In particular, cohorts studies’ concentration on the mother-infant dyad problematically reasserts an idea of an individualized, maternal ‘epigenetic responsibility’ (Hedlund 2011) for what might be more accurately described as the effects of capitalist industrialism. In birth cohort studies, the cause of China’s “exposed biologies” (Wahlberg 2018) reads more like a failure of mothers to protect and reproduce healthy children, than the unregulated industrial development and economic growth articulated in the DeTox Lab’s earlier research.

But cohort studies also have the potential to bring into view relations beyond the mother-infant dyad. In toxicological cohort studies humans are often shown to stand in meaningful relation to the many chemicals that are within and surround them. This might be thought of as, following Vanessa Agard-Jones (2016), a chemical kinship based in shared exposure. But unlike the chemical kinship Agard-Jones describes, in which communities of injury find the grounds to demand accountability through mutual exposure, the Detox Lab’s chemical kin do not know they are related. This is because the chemical kinship of cohort studies not only describes the intimate entanglements of industrial chemicals, human bodies and nefarious effects: cohort kinship is also crafted through scientific research. To some extent, cohort studies make cohorts – delimiting a segment of a broader group through both a recognition of shared exposure and a limitation of those with outlying characteristics. Even when research subjects know they are enrolled in the same cohort study as a number of other people facing similar circumstances or medical conditions, access to the other cohort members is limited by constraints of anonymity as a matter of institutional ethics. While cohort members certainly have something in common – indeed, this commonality is the grounds of their participation – a biosociality based on shared exposures and effects is under-facilitated, if not impossible.

Cohort kinship in this instance is, then, represented by and for the toxicologist. Of course, a similar argument was made about anthropological kinship studies. After the so-called death of kinship, when David Schneider (1984) and feminist anthropologists expressed skepticism about the ability of kinship studies to capture “actually-existing biological relatedness,” anthropological kinship studies shifted. Debates about cultural construction and biological realness moved on to, as described by Sarah Franklin, “the wider question of how kinship models enact or perform culturally specific ways of knowing about the world at large” (Franklin 2013, 286; see also Hayden 1995). For example, in 1987 Sylvia Yanagisako and Jane Collier pointed out that the circles and triangles used to symbolize women and men in kinship charts were oversimplified expressions of a particular vision of dichotomous gender. Their point was that beyond the presumption that other people’s relatedness was, too, based on “blood” and “biology,” anthropologists’ kinship studies were based on additional cultural assumptions. Taking this critique of kinship studies a bit further — beyond the dichotomous gender, profound heteronormativity, and stubborn individuality (Strathern 1991) assumed in anthropological studies of kinship — another cultural assumption of kinship studies was that non-humans could not be kin.

Anthropologists long recognized the key roles of objects, animals, totems and spirits in human lives, even before the non-human and multispecies turns. But it is more recently, at a moment of grave concern for the future of our planet, that social scientific effort has been made to study and promote non-human beings and entities as kin. This is certainly part of a broader effort to think beyond the human when discussing “alternative kinship imaginaries” (Ginsburg and Rapp 2019) in queer, disability, black and Indigenous studies (Benjamin 2018; Kafer 2019; TallBear 2018; Luciano and Chen 2015). But the recent promotion of beyond-human companionship and kin-making more specifically focuses on seeking out alternative kin at a moment of planetary urgency (Dow 2016; Haraway 2016; Tsing et al. 2017). For example, Adele Clarke and Donna Haraway’s contributions to the recent edited volume, Make Kin Not Population (2018), suggests kin-making as a strategy for multispecies co-flourishing and increased repro-environmental justice, while Deborah Bird Rose describes non-human and other-worldly kinship as a means of connecting across temporal, spatial, and taxonomical divides at a time of extinction (Rose 2017).

Attuning to chemical kinship is a bit less optimistic of an endeavor – one which Agard-Jones refers to as “the cynical side of kinship” (2016). In toxic relationships, chemical and otherwise, kinship is not about strategic engagements or willful encounters (Dow and Lamoreaux forthcoming). Kinship is instead unintentional, unwanted, or unknown entanglements of beings with other beings and other things, across lifetimes and between generations. Birth cohorts in toxicology similarly stretch understandings of kinship to the chemical and the toxic. At a time when industrial pollutants increasingly shape everyday life (Fortun 2012; Murphy 2008), toxicologists’ birth cohort research is often an exploration of how entities such as organophosphate insecticides, particulate matter, and various endocrine disruptors come into intimate relation with humans in the present and potential future (Lamoreaux 2019). Such focus has the potential to facilitate understandings of toxic relationalities and responsibilities through a new kind of kinship chart. The presumed biological relatedness of research subjects depicted in such charts is not exactly queered (Roberts 2019); humans are still dichotomously gendered and otherwise heteronormative. But humans do stand in meaningful relation with the non-human entities that take on a larger role in the kinship stories cohorts studies tell.

Birth cohort studies and the (un)making of kin they capture and produce are a more and more common tool for toxicologists to analyze and communicate the potential harm of human relationships to the chemical byproducts that increasingly saturate the planet. Toxicologists such as those based at the Detox Lab remain hopeful that their present and future research will show broad, multigenerational effects of the toxicities at the heart of economic and industrial policies, thus making the effects of relationships between industrial development and infant and child development more convincing. In this sense, birth cohorts have the potential, in imperfect ways, to account for the non-human and chemical relations that intimately connect and effect human lives, shaping future (in)abilities to make kin.

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Janelle Lamoreaux is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at University of Arizona. She is currently finishing a book manuscript called In/fertile Environments: Epigenetics in a Toxic China. The book is about how environmental health scientists and activists make sense of the increasingly toxic worlds in which they live, through epigenetic research that brings into being various forms of the environment. Lamoreaux teaches courses on environmental health, the anthropology of science, ethnographic research methods, and introductions to cultural and medical anthropology. Her research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the Wenner Gren Foundation, and the University of Arizona College of Social and Behavioral Sciences Research Institute.

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