Industrial and Environmental History

Alexandre Elsig heads a research group that’s studying the long history of toxic substances, including how industrialization caused them to proliferate into the environment and throughout communities, how they have been regulated – on a regional and national level since the end of the 19th century and on a supranational level since the 1950s – and how their use has been challenged by agricultural, environmental and revolutionary movements.

In the current Anthropocene epoch, toxic substances form a bond from the past to the present: some pollutants, even after they are banned, continue to affect the environment and people’s physical and mental health. Polluters can therefore be held accountable for past actions, especially since, under the polluter pays principle, efforts to remediate contaminated sites and provide compensation for occupational diseases can bring serious legal and financial consequences.

Elsig has been conducting research at EPFL’s College of Humanities since 2020 under an Ambizione Grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation. His work looks at the contentious issue of setting exposure limits for toxic substances, on both an international level (at organizations like the OECD, ILO and WHO) and a national and regional level within Switzerland. He examines case studies on topics such as fluoride emissions from the aluminum industry, mercury emissions from the electrochemical industry, and the PCBs used in electronic engineering.


At EPFL, Elsig teaches Introduction to Environmental History, a Bachelor’s-level class that’s part of the Social and Human Sciences program (HUM-393). He is currently President of Association d’Etude de l’Histoire du Mouvement Ouvrier (“Association for the Study of the History of the Workers’ Movement”), and sits on the editorial board of traverse. His open-access publications are available here.

Another member the research group, Fabien Moll-François, is studying asbestos exposure and the history of dioxin exposure in Switzerland from the 1970s to present day. He is working primarily on an unpublished collection of documents by François Iselin (1940–2022), an architect, former EPFL professor, and asbestos expert and activist.

Elsig’s research group will take part in the 2023 CROSS program with a cross-disciplinary study on dioxin contamination in central Lausanne. They will work alongside Aurélie Berthet (Health, Work and Environment Department, Unisanté, UNIL), Florian Breider (Central Environmental Laboratory, EPFL), Céline Mavrot (Institute of Social Sciences, UNIL), and two Lausanne-based associations: Association de Quartier du Vallon (“Vallon Neighborhood Association”) and Amis de la Cité (“Friends of the City”).

Anyone interested in working with the research group can send an email to Alexandre Elsig

Projet en cours:

Audiovisual links

  • Silence, on pollue (“Silence is environmental violence”), Prise de Terre radio program, RTS-La Première, 26 March 2022.
    > Podcast available online
  • Talk by Alexandre Elsig, Mort aux vaches, aux abricots, aux forêts… Les guerres du fluor dans le Fricktal, en Valais et en Maurienne” (The death of cows, apricots, forests… Fluorine challenges in Fricktal, Valais and Maurienne), Musée de Saxon, 12 October 2021.