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Visual Culture and Health Posters

Environmental Health

[Visual Culture and Health Posters Environmental Health collage]. 19 November 2003.
"Visual culture is new precisely because of its focus on the visual as a place where meanings are created and contested... Just as cultural studies has sought to understand the ways in which people create meaning from the consumption of mass culture, so does visual culture prioritize the everyday experience of the visual, from the snapshot to the VCR and even the blockbuster art exhibition."
--Nicholas Mirzoeff, An Introduction to Visual Culture


This section of the exhibit on environmental health examines the role of public health posters in addressing threats created by voluntary and involuntary exposure to toxic substances. Environmental hazards addressed here include lead toxicity, asbestos-related diseases, harmful effects of air pollutants, and risks associated with chemical exposure. These posters offer a variety of strategies for protecting citizens, including a combination of science and technology, litigation, governmental regulation, and environmental education. The images predominantly appeal to a sense of individual, corporate, and social responsibility.

The role of the environment in health and disease has been a central concern throughout the history of public health. Waste disposal problems and the protection of food and water supplies were key components in the nineteenth-century sanitary movement that helped institutionalize public health work itself. During the twentieth century, improvements in sanitation and hygiene, preventive procedures, vaccines, and antibiotics greatly reduced the risks of infectious diseases and focused more attention on environmental factors that contribute to chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Difficulties associated with managing and curing these diseases have challenged the confidence created by the successes of medical science. As the industrial economy rapidly expanded, the environmental consequences of continued growth became increasingly evident.

The history of the twentieth century is riddled with disasters resulting from the same dangerous industrial products that have been central to the expansion of the American economy. Lead, asbestos, tobacco, and various chemicals were widely used in the first half of the twentieth century partly because scientific studies could not prove with certainty that these substances caused harm. In the realm of environmental health, in many cases, it has only been clear that a particular substance causes a particular health problem after systematic studies have been completed following decades of observation and statistical corroboration. Historians Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner suggest that disputes over the danger of many products have reflected a broader struggle over the responsibilities of industry and government to protect public health.

Lead Poisoning

The first reports of lead poisoning were published over a century ago. Delayed adoption of meaningful regulation, however, ultimately had terrible environmental and health consequences for the generations that followed. Early twentieth century reformers including Dr. Alice Hamilton, who is often considered the founder of the field of industrial hygiene in America, documented the extent of lead poisoning among the workforce and advocated cleanup measures. Unfortunately, adding to the massive quantities of lead used in paints, the introduction of tetraethyl lead in gasoline in the early 1920s made lead nearly ubiquitous in the environment. Following terrifying rumors about the deadliness of tetraethyl lead in 1924, the Surgeon General recommended temporarily suspending the production and sale of leaded gasoline the following year. The Coolidge Administration appointed an industry-dominated investigatory committee, but with only seven months to design, run, and analyze its tests the panel ruled that there were no grounds for prohibiting the use of leaded gas. Until mid-century, lead industry-sponsored research dominated the scientific literature on the origins of lead poisoning and consistently understated or ignored the threat posed by lead. It was not until the 1960s that a corps of scientists and physicians led by Clair Patterson, J. Julian Chisolm, and Herbert Needleman mobilized public concern about lead levels by focusing on a series of well-publicized cases. Long-term, low level effects of lead poisoning can result in problems with speech, learning, attention, behavior, and mental processing, and chronic high levels of lead exposure can lead to anemia, visible tooth damage, changes in kidney function, and nervous system damage resulting in seizures, comas, and death. The posters in this section represent this knowledge as well as new public health campaigns and advocacy groups that have developed warnings and information about prevention and testing.


Asbestos was once known as the "magic mineral" due to its ability to withstand flames. Asbestos fibers are also extremely fine, resist the elements and chemicals, remain flexible under pressure, and have great powers to absorb and filter. Also the only mineral that can be woven into cloth, asbestos became widely popular as a building material in the late nineteenth century and has subsequently been used in the construction of factories, office buildings, schools, shipyards, and homes. It has been used in literally thousands of products such as toasters, dryers, and ironing boards.

The first clear case of death due to asbestosis--the disease caused by the inhalation of the fine fibers and particles of asbestos--appeared in the medical literature in the 1920s. In the 1930s, scientific articles linked asbestos to cancer, and the first damage lawsuits were brought against asbestos manufacturers. Industry leaders subsequently denied the asbestos hazard for more than forty years. The result has been a national public health disaster of unparalleled magnitude. Over twenty million unsuspecting workers have been exposed to dangerously high levels of asbestos dust and it is suspected that millions will continue to suffer the ill effects for years to come. An advocacy group for asbestos victims created the posters relating to this section of the exhibit.

Air Pollution

During the 1960s, environmental issues began moving to the forefront of the policy-making agenda. Responding to scientific studies linking air pollution to health issues, public opinion moved Congress into action. Starting with the Clean Air Act of 1963, Congress began funding research programs on air quality problems. In 1967, the Air Quality Control Act established a system for defining standards that limited emissions, setting the stage for a larger federal role in air quality management. The Clean Air Act of 1970 allowed the newly created Environmental Protection Agency to set and enforce national air quality standards. Twice amended in 1977 and 1990, it has become one of the most complex and ambitious pieces of federal legislation dealing with any environmental issue. Its primary goal is the protection of public health from pollutants that find their way into the atmosphere. The American Lung Association (ALA), the oldest voluntary health organization in the United States, created the posters relating to this section as part of a series of broad campaigns against the health effects of air pollution. Originally founded in 1904 to fight tuberculosis, the ALA today fights lung disease in all its forms. The ALA still creates a number of extensive poster campaigns targeting environmental health, asthma, and tobacco control.

Chemical Exposure

Following the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson's landmark book Silent Spring, environmental toxicity captured the public's attention as a primary health threat. Carson warned people about the deadly effects of chemical pollution and her book became the catalyst for federal laws banning DDT and other harmful chemicals. In 1970, the first Earth Day and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency set the stage for a plethora of environmental legislation on both federal and state levels. Congress approved a series of sweeping legislative measures, including the Clean Air Act (1970), the Water Pollution Control Act (1972), and the Environmental Pesticide Control Act (1972), each designed to clean up hundreds of chemicals in the environment and preclude further irreparable damage.

Hazardous chemicals also took center stage for a number of international organizations in the 1970s and 1980s. The International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS), for example, was established in 1980 as a joint program of three cooperating organizations--the International Labor Organization, the United Nations Environmental Programme, and the World Health Organization--to carry out and disseminate evaluations of the risk to human health and the environment from exposure to chemicals. The IPCS evaluates the risk to human health and the environment from exposure to chemicals, provides an intergovernmental mechanism for chemical risk assessment and management, establishes the scientific basis for the safe use of chemicals, and strengthens national capabilities and capacities for chemical safety. Additionally, the IPCS designs promotional materials, some of which are featured in this exhibit, which illustrate the relationship between toxic chemicals, health, and the environment as part of their educational division.