Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty

Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers

Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty

Book Pages: 264 Illustrations: 21 Illustrations Published: February 2006

Author: Michelle Murphy

Environmental Studies, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, Science and Technology Studies

Before 1980, sick building syndrome did not exist. By the 1990s, it was among the most commonly investigated occupational health problems in the United States. Afflicted by headaches, rashes, and immune system disorders, office workers—mostly women—protested that their workplaces were filled with toxic hazards; yet federal investigators could detect no chemical cause. This richly detailed history tells the story of how sick building syndrome came into being: how indoor exposures to chemicals wafting from synthetic carpet, ink, adhesive, solvents, and so on became something that relatively privileged Americans worried over, felt, and ultimately sought to do something about. As Michelle Murphy shows, sick building syndrome provides a window into how environmental politics moved indoors.

Sick building syndrome embodied a politics of uncertainty that continues to characterize contemporary American environmental debates. Michelle Murphy explores the production of uncertainty by juxtaposing multiple histories, each of which explains how an expert or lay tradition made chemical exposures perceptible or imperceptible, existent or nonexistent. She shows how uncertainty emerged from a complex confluence of feminist activism, office worker protests, ventilation engineering, toxicology, popular epidemiology, corporate science, and ecology. In an illuminating case study, she reflects on EPA scientists’ efforts to have their headquarters recognized as a sick building. Murphy brings all of these histories together in what is not only a thorough account of an environmental health problem but also a much deeper exploration of the relationship between history, materiality, and uncertainty.


“[A] provocative and superbly written account which lies within the intersection of medical and labour history. It has much of interest within it for the social historian of medicine and adds to a vibrant genre of research in the occupational and environmental health history field which is growing on both sides of the Atlantic. . . . [T]his is an outstanding book that successfully redirects our attention to the health impacts of the modern indoor working environment and encourages the reader to reflect upon the processes through which occupational diseases are made visible, and to question the claims of much contemporary science that the office is a benign and healthy place in which to toil. Social historians of medicine will find this book a challenging and stimulating read.” — Arthur McIvor, Social History of Medicine

“[Murphy’s] first two chapters on ventilation engineering and labor management provide the necessary historical background for the emergence of sick building syndrome, but it is the remaining five chapters that rivet one’s attention and display her considerable skills.” — Gail Cooper, American Historical Review

“[P]resents a fresh and challenging approach to prevailing understandings of the nature and production
of occupational and environmental illness and disease. I certainly see the field very differently having read this book. . . . Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty significantly expands the realm of possibility for social intervention and change in occupational and environmental illness. I recommend it to fellow travelers.” — Toni Schofield, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health

“[The book] includes valuable information regarding the evolution of office work spaces, gender in the workplace, the tension between scientists and nonscientists, and changing definitions of environmental impact.” — Katherine G. Aiken, Technology and Culture

“In Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty, Michelle Murphy deftly navigates a course that winds through the emergence and evolution of this mysterious illness, using the journey as an opportunity to highlight and expand our understanding of environmental justice and the politics of uncertainty in a synthetic world.” — Jody Roberts, Chemical Heritage

“Like the problem itself, this book is complex. Murphy handles the complexity well and the book is detailed, rich and unfolds nicely. The engaging prose made me think about lurking bacteria, moulds and insects and had me questioning the bright yellow asbestos warning stickers on the walls of my office.” — Stephanie C. Roy, Atlantis

“Michelle Murphy’s Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty: Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers is an excellent addition to feminist science studies, environmental and occupational health history, and the history of science and technology—specifically, of building and ventilation engineering.” — Julie Sze, ISIS

“This book is a valuable read for students of OH&S, gender, race, industrial relations and scientific ethics. I recommend it highly.” — Suzanne Jamieson, Metascience

“This book should be on the shelf in workplace and public libraries, both as a resource for people affected by sick building syndrome and those who want to raise their awareness of the possibility that their work or home environment may be at risk of indoor pollution. The book is valuable to people studying social health movements and social epidemiology . . . . The reader-friendly format leads the way to further studies in the area of indoor air quality, gender-biased organization of tasks in the modern workplace, and the intricate relations between government and corporations in decision on our everyday environment.” — Marilyn Thorlakson, Labour/Le Travail

“This is a fascinating book that seeks to move the history of occupational and environmental health together into a common space. . . . This is a well researched and carefully crafted history. It deserves serious attention by the academic community.” — David Rosner J, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences

Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty is all at once about the women’s health movement, ventilation, cybernetics, virology, and chemical toxicity. It is labor history and medical history wrapped into a fiercely disputed knot. Unraveling that tangle, and using the Syndrome to tell us about who we were at the turn of the millennium, Michelle Murphy has written a remarkable, insightful book.” — Peter Galison, author of Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps: Empires of Time

“How does an illness come into being? In this provocative study, Michelle Murphy takes us on a journey into the making of an environmental illness, into the spaces of the modern office building, gendered labor practices, and workers’ bodies to reveal what is perceived and what is invisible in the built environment where many Americans spend their working days. How sick buildings and indoor air pollution became visible problems in environmental health is a story that takes us far beyond the architectural history of office buildings. It takes us deep into the architecture of reality: into how we know and what we know about environmental exposures and the uncertainties they pose both to knowledge and human health.” — Gregg Mitman, author of The State of Nature: Ecology, Community, and American Social Thought, 1900–1950


Availability: In stock
Price: $26.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Michelle Murphy is Assistant Professor in the History Department and the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1. Man in a Box: Building-Machines and the Science of Comfort 19

2. Building Ladies into the Office Machine 35

3. Feminism, Surveys, and Toxic Details 57

4. Indoor Pollution at the Encounter of Toxicology and Popular Epidemiology 81

5. Uncertainty, Race, and Activism at the EPA 111

6. Building Ecologies, Tobacco, and the Politics of Multiplicity 131

7. How to Build Yourself a Body in a Safe Space 151

Epilogue 179

Bibliography 181

Notes 213

Index 241
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Winner, 2008 Ludwik Fleck Prize

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3671-6 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3659-4
Publicity material