SNSF-funded research to target industrial pollution, past and present

Alexandre Elsig's research will focus on industrial pollutants including mercury, fluorine, and PCBs © iStock

Alexandre Elsig's research will focus on industrial pollutants including mercury, fluorine, and PCBs © iStock

University of Lausanne (UNIL) postdoctoral researcher Alexandre Elsig has won a Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) Ambizione grant to study the history and sociology of industrial pollution at the EPFL College of Humanities (CDH).

Alexandre Elsig is currently a researcher at UNIL’s Interdisciplinary Mountain Research Centre (CIRM) based in Sion. A historian by training, Elsig’s postdoctoral research focuses on the history of industrial pollution in Switzerland, and on the role of different social actors in environmental conflicts.

At the end of August, Elsig was announced as one of the 78 recipients of a 2019 Ambizione grant from the SNSF. On average, grant recipients receive CHF 750,000 to do early-career, independent research at a Swiss university over a maximum of four years. Elsig will start working at EPFL in the fall of 2020.

Mercury, fluorine, and PCBs

Through the study of historical archives, Elsig’s research project at CDH will focus on the measurement, control and criticism of industrial pollution in the 20th century.

“The goal is to understand how toxic substances proliferated in the 20th century, because we often think that it is through ignorance of risk or impact that these substances spread,” he explains. “I want to demonstrate how these processes are actually much more complex, and how the production of knowledge but also of ignorance is done at the intersection of scientific, economic and industrial interests.”

Specifically, Elsig will investigate the regulation of three pollutants that have shaped Switzerland’s secondary economic sector: the heavy metal mercury, the chemical element fluorine, and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs), a persistent pollutant of organic matter. The research will target the Swiss chlorine, petrochemical, aluminum and electrotechnical industries, as well as efforts to standardize and control these substances on a global scale by organizations like the International Labour Organization (ILO), World Health Organization (WHO), and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

He will also look at the impacts of industrial pollutants on workers and communities, as effects may persist long after the toxicants are banned.

“This historical work will also touch on the present, because soil contamination can continue to pollute, so it’s important to look backward to understand the mechanisms behind toxicity,” he says.

The project will benefit from the interdisciplinary perspective offered by CDH. In addition to studying Swiss federal archives on the subject, Elsig also plans to work with EPFL geological and ecotoxicological experts.