Imaging the Invisible: Translations of Environmental Risk into Public Information

Environmental Health (Public Health); Environmental Health; History of Art, Architecture and Archaeology; Modern Art and Architecture

This project collects examples of how toxicity and health risks in the air, water, soil, and building materials have been graphically communicated to the affected publics.

Research Interests
  • Risk and Decision Analysis
  • Environmental influences on chronic lung diseases
  • environmental health
  • Air pollution
  • building technology
  • environmental justice

From toxic substances in our water and air, to carcinogenic compounds in our building materials, to plumes of petrochemicals and heavy metals in our soils -- environmental risks are deeply embedded in our cities and homes. The health implications of these exposures are understood in new and more nuanced ways every year, but even amidst this uncertainty there is a mandate to translate these scientific understandings into publicly accessible information. 

This practice of depicting risk, of translating complex scientific findings into understandable formats that support or dissuade public action, has a deep history--one that links social movements and scientific knowledge. Public information and graphic depictions of environmental risk and toxicity enable, and have historically enabled, public action, advocacy, and grass-roots, information-rich environmental justice initiatives. 

This project proposes an ambitious, multidisciplinary, and wide-ranging collection effort, resulting in a searchable, sortable database of digitized images. This database will have a general focus on public information campaigns associated with environmental risk, and will have a specific eye toward the ways that toxicity in the air, water, soil, and building materials have been graphically communicated to the affected publics. The initial focus will be on the United States, from the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1963 until the present. However, as collection methods evolve and student researchers come upon additional information, we will be open to broadening this geographic and temporal frame.

Collected, collated, and viewed in aggregate, these depictions of risk would serve as a crucial index of how these types of scientific knowledge have been brought into the public realm. These translations, communications, and simplifications constitute a missing database that exists at the nexus of the histories of design, social justice, and environmental science -- and a robust collection of these graphic translations would enable social, environmental, urban, and architectural histories of toxicity in the built environment to draw from a rich database of annotated images. 

Furthermore, this collection will be grounded in developing contemporary resources for the team’s research and next grant applications. Alongside the development of the database, we will produce a collection of current environmental health data sources and accompanying literature reviews documenting the known links between specific toxins and health outcomes. This internal research will help aim our future scholarship and funding applications toward communicating present-day and ongoing health impacts through well-designed public information about environmental risk. Ultimately, this collection will support further work for the research team in the form of publications, additional grant proposals, conference papers, and hopefully an exhibition. More importantly, we fundamentally believe that the publicly accessible image database will catalyze a range of transformative scholarship and public action within UVA and beyond.

Desired outcomes

The primary outcome of this work will be a robust, ambitious, and multidisciplinary database of images. The collection will also be presented at an architectural and/or environmental history conference in Spring of 2022, and will be further developed in a co-authored essay.

Additionally, within the funding period, this work will also result in at least two more grant proposals, which in themselves demonstrate the innovative interdisciplinarity of this initiative:

1 - National Endowment for the Humanities -- Digital Humanities Advancement Grant (DHAG): This project is an excellent fit for a DHAG grant, which would be used to translate the database compiled by the research team into a publicly accessible resource. In addition to adding more contributing scholars to the project, a DHAG grant would enable us to tailor and augment the database to geographically specific searches and additions, enabling researchers and activists to find historical information specific to their communities. 

2 - National Science Foundation -- Program in Science and Technology Studies (STS): The NSF-STS Program (under SBES) supports research that uses historical methods to expand our understanding of scientific disciplines in their “intellectual, material, and social facets.” Its focus on historical issues of ethics and equity make it another excellent fit for this work. An NSF-STS grant would support the development of more targeted scholarship, investigating the history of toxicity in building materials, and the historical relationship of this to campaigns of public information and environmental justice.

As part of the collection process, student and faculty researchers will also be searching for additional funding opportunities and partnerships, large and small. We imagine these findings might make an excellent exhibition, support an interdisciplinary seminar, or result in a final symposium or roundtable.