Toxic Gaslighting: On the Ins and Outs of Pollution

  • Liza Grandia University of California, Davis
Keywords: carpet, air pollution, indoor air quality, citizen science, environmental justice


Outdoor images predominate in cultural conceptions of “air pollution,” whilst indoor air quality (IAQ) is typically tenfold more contaminated.  Recent nonprofit research revealed that “green label” carpet contains up to 44 hazardous substances.  How and why do school administrators not know this?  When people speak colloquially about “toxic” schools, they typically refer to social environments whose power dynamics are manipulated by difficult people (bullies, narcissists, gaslighters, etc.). In this article, I borrow the cultural concept of gaslighting to query how and why the literal off-gassing of banal objects like carpet have escaped scientific inquiry.  In dialogue with recent innovative air studies in California that blur the boundaries of in/outdoor pollution, this auto-ethnographic paper chronicles a carpet controversy at “Beacon” Elementary, a bilingual school in the Central Valley.  Even as outdoor smoke from California wildfires in 2017 pushed PM2.5 levels past red into unprecedented magenta alerts, children were sickened inside school classrooms after new carpets were laid in 2017.  By “outing” internal school board communication through repeated public records requests, Beacon mothers discovered how a chemical risk manager on the board manipulated confusion about patterns of pollution to dismiss the mothers’ citizen science of the chemical abuse of their children.  When pollution occurs out-of-sight (in locked classrooms) or affects groups rarely studied in exposure (minors), institutions can easily deploy gaslighting techniques of doubt, denial, and disavowal of the chemical abuse of children.  Given the slow (Nixon 2011), delayed, incremental, and “gaslighted” nature of modern chemical violence, even those harmed by chronic pollution may misrecognize the symptoms; those that do recognize the symptoms may be perceived or portrayed as delusional in stories worthy of Hollywood noir.

Author Biography

Liza Grandia, University of California, Davis

Liza Grandia, cultural anthropologist, is an Associate Professor of Native American Studies at University of California-Davis.  She is the author of several books and monographs on threats to Q’eqchi’ territory and autonomy in the northern Maya lowlands into which she is layering a new line of research on pesticides, agroecology, and environmental justice. Making intellectual lemonade from life’s lemons, she is pursuing a number of projects about cultural perceptions on toxics in everyday life.  


Abramson, K. 2014. “Turning up the Lights on Gaslighting.” Philosphical Perspectives 28:1-30.

Adams, C., P. Brown, R. Morello-Frosch, J. G. Brody, R. Rudel, A. Zota, S. Dunnagan, J. Tovar, and S. Patton. 2011. “Disentangling the Exposure Experience: The Roles of Community Context and Report-back of Environmental Exposure Data.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 52(2):180-96.

Ahmann, C. 2018. “It’s Exhausting to Create an Event Out of Nothing”: Slow Violence and the Manipulation of Time. Cultural Anthropology 33(1):142–171.

Allen, J. G., and J. D. Macomber. 2020. Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Anderson, J. H. 1997. “Reactions to Carpet Emissions: A Case Series.” Journal of Nutritional & Environmental Medicine 7(3):177–186.

Ansell, N. 2009. “Childhood and the Politics of Scale: Descaling Children’s Geographies?” 33(2) :190–209.

Babiak, P., and R. D. Hare. 2006. Snakes in Suits: Understanding and Surviving the Psychopaths in Your Office. New York: HarperCollins.

Barton, R., and J.A. Whitehead. 1969. “The Gas-Light Phenomenon.” The Lancet:1258-60.

Beamish, T. 2001. “Environmental Hazard and Institutional Betrayal: Lay-Public Perceptions of Risk in the San Luis Obispo County Oil Spill.” Organization and Environment 14:5-33.

Berry, M. A., and D. A. Rondinelli. 2000. “When Business and Government Clash: Environmental Crisis Management in the Carpet Industry.” Environmental Quality Management 9(4):13–36.

Berry, M. A. 1990. “A Report on EPA’s Indoor Air Research Program 1986-1990.” Deputy Directorship of the Environmental Criteria and Assessment Office. Washington, DC: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Research and Development.

-----. 2002. Healthy School Environment and Enhanced Educational Performance: The Case of Charles Young Elementary School, Washington, D.C.: Prepared for the Carpet and Rug Institute, January 12.

-----. 2003. Carpet in the Modern Indoor Environment: Summary of a Science-Based Assessment of Carpet. Conference proceedings of a review panel, July 29-30, at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

-----. 2010. Science as it Relates to (OS1). In Fifth Annual Benchmarking Best Practices Symposium. Midway, Utah, July 26, 2006. Accessed July 25, 2020.

-----. 2011. “Eight Green Cleaning Myths to Consider.” Cleanfax Magazine. Accessed July 25, 2020.

Biehler, D. D., and G. L. Simon. 2010. “The Great Indoors: Research Frontiers on Indoor Environments as Active Political-Ecological Spaces.” Progress in Human Geography 35(2):172–192.

Boudia, S., Angela N. H. Creager, Scott Frickel, Emmanuel Henry, Nathalie Jas, Carsten Reinhardt, and Jody A. Roberts. 2018. “Residues: Rethinking Chemical Environments.” Engaging Science, Technology, and Society 4:165-78.

Bourdieu, P. 1980. The Logic of Practice. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Brody, J. G., R. Morello-Frosch, A. Zota, P. Brown, C. Pérez, and R. A. Rudel. 2009. “Linking Exposure Assessment Science with Policy Objectives for Environmental Justice and Breast Cancer Advocacy: The Northern California Household Exposure Study.” American Journal of Public Health 99(S3):6000-6012.

Bryson, M. A. 2001. “It’s Worth the Risk: Science and Autobiography in Sandra Steingraber’s” Living Downstream.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 29:170–182.

Bjerstedt, R. 2016. “Dear White America: Can We Please Stop Gaslighting our Black Friends and Family?” Medium, November 17.

Carswell, C. 2018. “Household Chemicals Rival Vehicles as Smog Source.” Nature. Accessed 19 February 2018.

Changing Markets Foundation. 2018. Testing Carpet for Toxics: Chemicals Affecting Human Health and Hindering the Circular Economy. Accessed 19 December 2018.

Choy, T., and J. Zee. 2015. “Condition—Suspension.” Cultural Anthropology 30(2):210–223.

Conant J. and P. Faden. 2008. A Community Guide to Environmental Health. Berkeley: Hesperian Foundation.

Congress, 107th. 2002. “Green Schools: Environmental Standards for Schools.” Senate hearing organized by Committee on Environment and Public Works, October 1. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Davis, A. M., and R. Ernst. 2019. “Racial Gaslighting.” Politics, Groups, and Identities 7 (4):761-74.

Dickson, R. B. 1994. “Regulation of Indoor Air Quality: The Last Frontier of Environmental Regulation.” Natural Resources and Environment 9(1):20–22 & 55.

Douglas, M. 1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Routledge.

Duehring, C. 1994. The Human Consequences of the Chemical Problem. Chemical Injury Information Network, White Sulphur Springs, MT.

EPA. 1991. Indoor Air Quality and Work Environment Series, EPA Headquarters Buildings. Relating Employee Responses to the Follow-Up Questionnaire with Environmental Measurements of Indoor Air Quality. Research Triangle Park, NC. Volume 3:321 pages.

Fortun, K. 2012. “Ethnography in Late Industrialism.” Cultural Anthropology 27(3):446-464.

-----. 2014. “From Latour to Late Industrialism.” Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4(1):309-29.

Frickel, S., S. Gibbon, J. Howard, J. Kempner, G. Ottinger, and D. J. Hess. 2010. “Undone Science: Charting Social Movement and Civil Society Challenges to Research Agenda Setting.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 35(4):444–473.

Garnett, E. 2016. “Developing a Feeling for Error: Practices of Monitoring and Modeling Air Pollution Data.” Big Data & Society (July-December):1-12.

Grandia, L. 2020. “Carpet Bombings: A Drama of Chemical Injury in Three Acts.” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience 6(1): 1-8.

-----. Forthcoming. “Sickly Green: Carpet and the EPA.”

Hirzy, J. W., and R. Morison. 1991. “Carpet / 4-Phenylcyclohexene Toxicity: The EPA Headquarters Case.” in The Analysis, Communication, and Perception of Risk, edited by Garrick, B. J., and W. C. Gekler, 51-61. New York: Springer (Plenum Press).

Hoover, E. 2017. The River Is In Us: Fighting Toxics in a Mohawk Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Jackson, D. 2011. Scents of Place: The Dysplacement of a First Nations Community in Canada. American Anthropologist 113 (4):606-18.

Janis, I. L. 1982. Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. Second ed. Boston: Wadsworth.

Johnson, A. 2008. Amputated Lives: Coping With Chemical Sensitivity. Brunswick, Me.: Cumberland Press.

Lawson, L. 1993. Staying Well in a Toxic World: Understanding Environmental Illness, Multiple Chemical Sensitivities, Chemical Injuries, Sick Building Syndrome. Chicago: Noble Press, Inc.

Lent, T. 2012. “From The Smokestack To Your Floor, Post Consumer Fly Ash?” October. Accessed 7 October 2018.

Lewis, A. C. 2018. “The Changing Face of Urban Air Pollution.” Science 359(6377):744–745.

Liboiron, M., M. Tironi, and N. Calvillo. 2018. “Toxic Politics: Acting in a Permanently Polluted World.” Social Studies of Science 48 (3):331-49.

McDonald, B. C., J. A. de Gouw, J. B. Gilman, S. H. Jathar, A. Akherati, C. D. Cappa, J. L. Jimenez, J. Lee-Taylor, P. L. Hayes, and S. A. McKeen. 2018. “Volatile Chemical Products Emerging as Largest Petrochemical Source of Urban Organic Emissions.” Science 359(6377):760–764.

Michaels, D. 2008. Doubt is Their Product. New York: Oxford University Press.

Miller, C. 1997. “Toxicant-Induced Lack of Tolerance: An Emerging Theory of Disease?” Environmental Health Perspectives 105 (2):445-53.

Murphy, M. 2004. “Uncertain Exposures and the Privilege of Imperception: Activist Scientists and Race at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.” Osiris, 2nd series 19:266–282.

-----. 2006. Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Nader, L. 1996. “Controlling Processes—Tracing the Dynamic Components of Power.” Current Anthropology 38 (5):97-937.

Nading, A. M. 2020. “Living in a Toxic World.” Annual Review of Anthropology 49:209-24.

Nixon, R. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press.

Norbäck, D. and M. Torgen. 1989. “A Longitudinal Study Relating Carpeting with Sick Building Syndrome.” Environment International 15(1-6):129–135.

Perrow, C. 1984. Normal Accidents. New York: Basic Books.

Randolph, T. G. 1962. Human Ecology and Susceptibility to the Chemical Environment. Springfield, Il.: CC Thomas.

Rapp, D. 1997. Is This Your Child's World?: How You Can Fix the Schools and Homes That Are Making Your Children Sick. New York: Bantam Press.

Rather, D. with E. Hayes. 1992. New Carpeting May Be the Cause of Illness. CBS evening news. October 29.

Rondinelli, D. A., and M. A. Berry. 1998. “Strategic and Environmental Management in the Corporate Value Chain at Shaw Industries.” National Productivity Review (Summer):17-26.

Rudestam, K., P. Brown, C. Zarcadoolas, and C. Mansell. 2004. “Children’s Asthma Experience and the Importance of Place.” health: An Interdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Health, Illness and Medicine 8(4):423-444.

Schulte, B. 2014. Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. New York: Sarah Crichton Books.

Shapiro, N. 2014. “Un-knowing Exposure: Toxic Emergency Housing, Strategic Inconclusivity and Governance in the US Gulf South.” In Knowledge, Technology, and Law, edited by E. Cloatre and M. Pickersgill. New York: Routledge.

Smith, R. and B. Lourie. 2009. Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things. Berkeley, Ca.: Counterpoint.

Soviero, M. M. 1992. “Can Your House Make You Sick?” Popular Science, July, 80-2 & 90-1.

Spear, A. D. 2018. “Gaslighting, Confabulation, and Epistemic Innocence.” Topoi 39:229-41.

Stauber, J. C., and S. Rampton. 1995. Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies, and the Public ... Monroe, Me.: Common Courage Press.

Sundell, J. 2004. “On the History of Indoor Air Quality and Health.” Indoor Air 14(7):51–58.

Sweet, P. L. 2019. “The Sociology of Gaslighting.” American Sociological Review 84 (5):851-75.

Szasz, A. 1994. Ecopopulism: Toxic Waste and the Movement for Environmental Justice. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Tarr, J. 2004. “Afterword.” In Smoke and Mirrors: The Politics and Culture of Air Pollution, edited by E. M. DuPuis. New York: New York University Press. 337-41.

Thompson, B. 2000. Indoor Air Quality: Tools for Schools, IAQ Coordinator’s Guide. Washington, DC: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Tironi, M. 2018. “Hypo-interventions: Intimate Activism in Toxic Environments." Social Studies of Science 48 (3):438-55.

Tomory, L. 2012. “The Environmental History of the Early British Gas Industry, 1812-30.” Environmental History 17 (1):29-54.

Twilley, N. 2019. “The Hidden Air Pollution in our Homes.” New Yorker April 1. Accessed 8 April 2019.

Vallette, J., R. Stamm, and T. Lent. 2017. Eliminating Toxics in Carpet: Lessons for the Future of Recycling. Healthy Building Network, October. Accessed 10 December 2017.

Waldman, K. 2016. “From Theater to Therapy to Twitter, the Eerie History of Gaslighting.” Slate, April 18. Accessed 6 July 2020.

Wallace, L. A. 1991. “Comparison of Risks from Outdoor and Indoor Exposure to Toxic Chemicals.” Environmental Health Perspectives 95:7–13.

Yeginsu, C. 2018. “How’s the Air in London? ‘We Should be Worried’.” New York Times, April 22. Accessed 23 April 2018.

10 Nov 2020
Thematic Collections