John Libbey Eurotext

Environnement, Risques & Santé


Microscopic and macroscopic: conflicting disciplinary views on pesticides and occupational health Volume 19, issue 2, March-April 2020

Centre de sociologie des organisations
CNRS-Sciences Po
19, rue Amélie
75007 Paris
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This article, based on a qualitative sociological survey, aims to describe the historical construction of the conflicting disciplinary perspectives on the links between pesticides and occupational health in agriculture. It shows how toxicology, by producing hazard and exposure data at the microscopic scale of active substances, has structured the procedures for the pre-market risk assessment of pesticides since World War II. By identifying, for each pesticide, an acceptable dose of occupational exposure and the means of not exceeding it — in particular through the use of protective clothing and hygiene measures — this source of knowledge has legitimized the notion of safe use of these products. The article also shows how the collection of epidemiologic data highlighting the excess incidence of some chronic cancers and neurodegenerative diseases among the exposed agricultural workforce has raised questions about the reliability of risk assessment procedures since the end of the last century. However, since most epidemiologic studies produce macroscopic data on the effect of farmers’ exposure to pesticides in general, they remain difficult to integrate into the public policy instruments that make marketing authorisations their main risk management tool. The article emphasizes that the measurement of occupational exposure to pesticides is at the heart of the political and epistemic conflicts generated by this contrast between microscopic and macroscopic views of the effects of pesticides on the health of the agricultural workforce.