Popular Epidemiology and Community-Based Citizen Science: Using a Bio-Indicator for Toxic Air Pollution


Researchers are encouraged to innovate new methods, but the novelty of the method may undermine the impact findings have upon enforcement agencies that residents rely upon to protect public health. Involving students in the process may further complicate faculty implementation of innovative methods if what students learn is that evidence can be ignored and democratic engagement may be impotent even when positive solutions are presented that offer benefits to all parties involved. In this case study, citizen science was used to address toxic air emissions from a steel recycling plant located in an impoverished urban setting. Six residential samples and three control samples were collected for analysis. Popular epidemiology provided the sole source of air emissions data to governing bodies responsible for regulation. Moss was used as a bio-indicator of air quality to identify elevated residential exposure to heavy metals emanating from recycling plant operations. Evidence influenced the recycling plant to implement a dust control program. The state regulatory agency assigned an air quality case number to the monitoring process, and local government officials made promises to include residents as stakeholders in compliance governance. But the state agency did not actually test the air with their calibrated machines and local government officials did not follow-through on their promises. The scientific evidence had limited legal impact, in part, because the method was innovative. Moss findings are not yet calibrated, so the evidence is not legally actionable by regulatory authorities. Residents could possibly file suit, but toxic tort law has frequently ruled that scientific evidence obtained using innovative methods should not be admissible in court. Legally actionable evidence is exceedingly expensive and beyond the financial means of residents and researchers. Students have struggled with the outcomes. The purpose of this case study is to share the lessons learned from our research experience and provide a set of practical guidelines for setting realistic expectations about the impact of innovative methods on regulatory outcomes.

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