Bringing Social Science to Life

Daniel Renfrew’s Life Without Lead is an exhaustively researched, imaginatively conceived, and empathetically written ethnographic study of lead poisoning and environmental justice activism in Montevideo, Uruguay. Renfrew argues that “lead poisoning took on the status of a publicly conscious, media-propelled event by linking up with larger stories affecting Uruguay and in this sense acted as a ‘prism’ and ‘social surrogate’ for broader social and political concerns” (4). The book’s six chapters substantiate this argument well. As Renfrew shows, the politics of lead poisoning in late 20th and early 21st century Uruguay were never just about environmental health. They were inextricably linked to broader social struggles over neoliberalism, democracy in the aftermath of dictatorship, urban poverty, and the authority and legitimacy of scientific knowledge. There is insufficient space here to do full justice to the book’s complex arguments and richly detailed narrative. Instead, I will only focus on a few major aspects of Life Without Lead: anti-lead campaigns, red-green alliances, the politics of “conflicted place attachment,” and “spectral science.”

The heart of the book is a detailed study of Uruguay’s anti-lead movement, led by the Comisión Vivir sin Plomo (CVSP). Building on a historical analysis of 20th century Uruguay’s “foundational myths,” Renfrew shows how the CVSP infused its anti-lead campaign with the discourse of Uruguayan exceptionalism. The cover of the book, based on a CVSP poster depicting lead figurines dressed as Uruguay’s national soccer team (alluding both to a 1950 World Cup victory over Brazil and to a lead poisoning epidemic associated with national decline and crisis), underscores the complexity of lead poisoning’s discursive resonance.

Renfrew also makes important connections between political economy and environmental politics. His account of the shift from Import-Substitution Industrialization to neoliberalism, and the relationship between FANCAP (the union representing state oil refinery workers) and the anti-lead movement is appropriately nuanced. The efforts by Julio López and other FANCAP officials to simultaneously protect jobs, prevent the privatization of the La Teja refinery, and build bridges with the anti-lead movement echo similar attempts to build “blue-green alliances” in Brazil, Italy, South Africa, South Korea, the U.S., and other countries (Räthzel and Uzell 2012, Barca 2014).

The most poignant sections of Life Without Lead describe the struggles of parents of lead-poisoned children, like Lucía and Victor in the Rodolfo Rincón squatter settlement. Renfrew’s sensitive but unsentimental descriptions of these families and their day-to-day challenges powerfully demonstrate the value of ethnographic research for environmental justice studies. His account of “conflicted place attachment” and the politics of relocation echoes similar case studies of toxic “fenceline” communities across the Global South and the Global North (Fortun 2001, Auyero and Swistun 2009, Perales 2010, Little 2014, Spears 2014, Voyles 2015, van Horssen 2016, Lora-Wainwright 2017, Hoover 2017, Pauli 2019). While the bulk of this literature has focused on the Global North (especially the United States), Life Without Lead adds to a small but growing literature by scholars such as Kim Fortun, Javier Auyero, and Anna Lora-Wainwright that begins to redress this imbalance. The book also makes an original analytical contribution by linking the granular empirical details of toxic contamination to the politics of national identity and histories of working-class struggle.

In Chapter 6, Renfrew introduces the concept of “spectral science,” which he defines as “science that has become spatially and temporally unmoored, disembodied from its source, fetishized, and translated selectively to fit locally disputed contexts” (189). As Renfrew makes clear, the international science of lead toxicology and epidemiology (including protocols from the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control) played an ambiguous role in Uruguayan environmental politics. State actors selectively appropriated some aspects of international science, while ignoring a great deal of inconvenient evidence to minimize financial responsibility and legal liability for contamination. This enabled them to rationalize extremely high lead poisoning thresholds, concealing the reality of widespread contamination and confining the problem to the most contaminated squatter settlements (where they could blame it on the poor themselves). Dr. Elena Queirolo’s use of international scientific evidence to argue for lower thresholds, which Renfrew describes in Chapter 6, is a fascinating case study in the contestation of scientific knowledge. Dr. Quierolo’s battle with hospital and state bureaucracies is an apt illustration of the book’s central argument, as she explicitly connected Montevideo’s lead poisoning epidemic to the fate of the nation (212-213).

Life Without Lead should inspire further research on the discursive framing of environmental health disasters, the complexities of red-green alliances, conflicted place attachment, and the politics of knowledge production in environmental health science. While Life Without Lead makes many novel contributions to environmental justice studies, they are sometimes implicit rather than explicit in the narrative. In a footnote, the author observes that Auyero and Swistun’s Flammable: Environmental Suffering in an Argentine Shantytown (2009) is the only other “book-length social-scientific analysis of lead poisoning in a developing world context” (227 n. 5). In addition to shifting focus from North to South, what new areas of inquiry should Life Without Lead inspire? This is less a criticism than an invitation for the author to elaborate further on the book’s contribution to environmental justice studies.

As a historian who has researched the politics of lead poisoning and urban environmental justice activism in Detroit, Michigan, I found many fascinating parallels to (and contrasts with) the North American context in this study of Montevideo. But this book also demonstrates the significance of local particularities (like murga culture) that global abstractions and generalizations cannot fully capture. This is why local studies based on painstaking archival and ethnographic research remain invaluable. Renfrew has succeeded in producing something much more than spectral social science: he has brought his subject to life.


Auyero, Javier and Débora Alejandra Swistun. 2009. Flammable: Environmental Suffering in An Argentine Shantytown. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Barca, Stefania. 2014. “Laboring the Earth: Transnational Reflections on the Environmental History of Work,” Environmental History Vol. 19 No. 1, 3–27.

Fortun, Kim. 2001. Advocacy After Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hoover, Elizabeth. 2017. The River is in Us: Fighting Toxics in a Mohawk Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Little, Peter C. 2014. Toxic Town: IBM, Pollution, and Industrial Risks. New York: New York University Press.

Lora-Wainwright, Anna. 2017. Resigned Activism: Living with Pollution in Rural China. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Pauli, Benjamin J. 2019. Flint Fights Back: Environmental Justice and Democracy in the Flint Water Crisis. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Perales, Monica. 2010. Smeltertown: Making and Remembering a Southwest Border Community. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Räthzel, Nora and David Uzzell, eds. 2012. Trade Unions in the Green Economy: Working for the Environment. New York: Routledge.

Spears, Ellen Griffith. 2014. Baptized in PCBs: A Story of Race, Pollution, and Justice in an All-American Town. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

van Horssen, Jessica. 2016. A Town Called Asbestos: Environmental Contamination, Health, and Resilience in a Resource Community. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Voyles, Traci Brynne. 2015. Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


Josiah Rector is an assistant professor of history at the University of Houston. His work focuses on the history of urban environmental inequality and the environmental justice movement in the United States. He is currently completing a manuscript entitled Toxic Debt: Racial Capitalism and the Struggle for Environmental Justice in Detroit (forthcoming from University of North Carolina Press).

One reply on “Bringing Social Science to Life”

[…] Bringing Social Science to LifeJosiah Rector University of HoustonWe All Have a Little Bit of Lead Elizabeth F.S. RobertsUniversity of Michigan Contamination, Crisis, and Hope in UruguayJavier AuyeroUniversity of Texas-Austin Sleeping Environmental Problems and Academic Work: The Space Between Knowledge Production and ActivismMariana AchugarUniversidad de la República, Uruguay Response to comments on Life without LeadDaniel RenfrewWest Virginia University […]

Comments are closed.