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.
- Air pollution
- building technology
- Risk and Decision Analysis
- environmental health
- Environmental influences on chronic lung diseases
- 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.
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.
This project revolves around research completed by an interdisciplinary group of students from design, design history, and environmental science, done with faculty mentorship, input, and oversight. This guided research experience will expose students to expertise from the three involved fields, while allowing them to exchange and share information and research methods across and between disciplines. The student-faculty research team will have regular full-group meetings, sharing findings, methods, and insights.
To this end, the bulk of this funding will be used to hire a team of student researchers. We will also make allowances to cover copyright image permissions, travel for archival research and image scanning, and/or data processing fees as needed.
Beyond the initial research period of this grant, the information collected and the interdisciplinary research methods developed will have ongoing impacts on how these topics are taught within and between design and environmental science. The proposed research not only addresses a lacuna in the extant scholarship, but one in our available coursework as well. This project would provide the foundation and catalyst for future--and necessary--courses in environmental risk, toxicity, and justice within the University.