Industrial Fluorosis: An Environmental and/or An Occupational Health Issue?

Since the beginning of its mass production in the 1880s and up to the 1980s, the primary aluminum smelting industry in Europe has been at the center of heavy debates about the damages caused by its gas and dust emissions on natural resources (Asdal, 2007; Chatterji, 2017). But the hydrogen fluoride leaking from the electrolytic cells not only affected livestock, crops, forests, or water nearby. It was first inhaled by the lungs of potroom workers and it accumulated slowly in their bones, causing, after long exposure, incapacitating damages to the movability of their skeletons (Neuhaus, 2019).

This paper will look at the scientific and political debates surrounding industrial fluorosis. Throughout the 20th century, fluorosis stayed a controversial issue, from the definition of the symptoms of the disease to the methods of measures in the factory atmosphere up to its recognition, compensation, and prevention (mainly through limit values, technical abatement measures, medical control, and turnover of the workers).

The paper will start from the local point of view of the primary aluminum plant in Chippis, Switzerland, where industrial fluorosis was first described on cattle pasturing nearby in the 1920s (Schwery, 2007). It will then move to the transnational circulation of knowledge about workers’ health. In the 1930s, fluorosis was outlined on the bones of cryolite workers in Denmark and then on those of aluminum workers in Scotland, Germany, or the United States, leading the International Labour Organization to recommend its recognition as an occupational disease in 1955. Finally, the analysis will come back to the Swiss Alps to understand how international guidelines were implemented by national agencies and negotiated by local players. It will help to understand why, despite a common chemical and industrial root (the emission of fluorine compounds), fluorosis was not treated both as an environmental and an occupational health problem.