Toxic Gaslighting: On the Ins and Outs of Pollution

Liza Grandia


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.


carpet; air pollution; indoor air quality; citizen science; environmental justice

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