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Féron Aurélien

PhD student in History and Sociology of Science, EHESS

Postgraduate program: Health, Population, Social Policies, EHESS

Dissertation scholarship from the Île-de-France Region in the Major Interest Field Health, Environment, Toxicology (DIM SEnT)

Contact: aurelien.feron(at)ehess.fr

Dissertation title: The PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) problem in France from the 1960s to 2010: Social-historical investigation on a visible, massive, and lasting pollutant

Under the joint supervision of Jean-Paul Gaudillière (Cermes3) and Nathalie Jas (Ritme, Inra - Paris-Sud University

The term “PCB” covers a family of molecules that were massively synthesized between the 1930s and the 1970s and were mainly used in electrical appliances (transformers and condensers) but also in various products such as ink, paint, glue, etc. They were widely dispersed into the environment during these decades, but they do not break down in it, they “travel.” These molecules are thus found today on the entire surface of the globe, including in the tissue of living organisms (notably in the human body). Since the end of the 1960s, the scientific community revealed the risks of PCB for the ecosystems and human health, and social and public-policy mobilizations made these problems visible in the public space, in particular in the United States, but also in France. Ultimately, despite prohibitions to produce and market these molecules in the majority of industrialized countries in the 1980s, PCB still poses a problem today, both in terms of environmental pollution and in terms of contamination for living beings.

This dissertation aims to use the tools of the social and cultural history of science to analyze the trajectory of PCBs in France between 1960 and 2010, and to reconstruct the history of a form of contamination that seems increasingly unmanageable today and occupies a very specific place in the history of industrial pollution, of environmental health, and of public mobilizations.

Chemical pollution by PCBs is highly interesting as an object of study in the construction and circulation of an environmental health problem, given that the substance refers to various specific objects in environmental and health risks – Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), probably carcinogenic for humans, endocrine disrupter – and in France is a massive technical and policy problem, highly visible in the public space, which does not yet seem to be solved.