Toxic Layering Through Three Disciplinary Lenses: Childhood Poisoning and Street Pesticide use in Cape Town South Africa

by Alison Swartz, Susan Levine, Hanna-Andrea Rother and Fritha Langerman

In this article by Swartz, Levine, Rother and Langerman, we see the devastating effects of a hidden killer. Agricultural pesticides repurposed to kill rats and other unwanted pests have led to episodes of child poisoning. While on one hand, the pesticides are used to safeguard homes from pests in an attempt to “protect” children, particularly from rodent bites and vector borne diseases—the very means of protection itself becomes hazardous. Swartz et al consider the social injustice and economic inequality of these poisonings in the Western Cape, and do so from three disciplinary perspectives: public health, medical anthropology and fine art. While these approaches may seem disparate, they help us to see the complex relationship between the political economy of sanitation, waste removal and insecure housing, and the proliferation of rodents and other pests in urban townships. The authors call this “toxic layering” and analyse the layers one by one. The public health perspective focuses on the circulation of illegal street pesticides, the anthropologists upon the experiences of victims, and the fine artist centres the rat within a broader environmental context. The work concludes with reflections on change; while non-toxic methods to eliminate rats and household pests are perhaps the first order, longer term structural changes, through environmental and human rights activism, are necessary. The paper helpfully bridges any divide between science and the humanities through collaborative research efforts, engaging in conversation and dialogue in the face of health crises.

In the clip below, Alison Swartz and Susan Levine discuss thier article:

Read the full article on the Medical Humanities Journal website.

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