Brown Bag Lecture:  “Defining Pollution in the Early Twentieth Century: Allowable Limits and Natural Thresholds”

Brown Bag Lecture icon
Date: February 19, 2013
Time: 12:00 to 1:00 p.m.

315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106

Event Type: Open to the Public
Fee: Free
RSVP Online: No Registration Required

A talk by Max Liboiron

In the early twentieth century, as most American municipal governments created sewage systems that terminated in rivers where they, or neighboring cities, drew their drinking water, how to determine if a waterway was polluted, and to what extent, was a pressing concern. The argument in sanitation policy centered around whether all sewage effluents should be purified before being dumped, or whether just drinking water needed to be filtered.  By 1917 this was resolved in favor of the more economic practice, where “economic practices” included both cost-saving practices that processed as little pollutant as possible, as well as the favoritism of industry allies and their profits. Thus, within policy circles, the task of defining pollution became narrowly focused on determining acceptable limits of pollution, since government and industrial infrastructure caused pollution. The ability for waterways to absorb some pollution was termed its assimilative capacity. This presentation covers the rise of assimilative capacity as a hallmark of pollution definition and thus of pollution control, and how it has lead to certain concepts of nature.

Max Liboiron is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University with the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing. She is currently researching theories of scale in relation to environmental action. Her dissertation, “Redefining Pollution: Plastics in the Wild,” investigates scientific and advocate definitions of plastic pollution given that plastics are challenging centuries-old concepts of pollution as well as norms of pollution control, environmental advocacy, and concepts of contamination. Her work has been published in the Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest, and the Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage. She writes for the Discard Studies Blog and is a trash artist and activist. Visit

About Brown Bag Lectures

Brown Bag Lectures (BBLs) are a series of weekly informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by local scholars for an audience of CHF staff and fellows and interested members of the public.

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