We envision this project largely progressing through three stages to satisfy our objectives:

Sociological Analysis of Soil Contamination Research and Policy

The first objective is to complete a sociological analysis of the research and policy field surrounding soil contamination. When we look at regulations on lead, for example, it is clear that policymakers have focused their attention on household sources of lead, such as old paint and pipes. We need to understand the historical and sociological reasons for this policy gap. We are also investigating the reasons for gaps in the development of new technologies for citizen science. There are numerous new tools and methods for do-it-yourself testing of air and water, but simple tools for testing soil remain elusive. Of course, laboratory techniques and equipment exist for quantifying the presence of lead, arsenic, mercury, and other heavy metals in soil. But for communities without sufficient resources or connections to university researchers, access to laboratory testing is often out of reach. So it is a bit puzzling that do-it-yourself citizen soil monitoring simply does not exist. Our research seeks an explanation for this situation, with the aim of making scientific and public policy interventions.

Community Soil Study Toolkit

The second objective is to develop “do-it-yourself” lead and arsenic field test kits with our international and interdisciplinary team. Our collaborators in Santiago, Chile have made important strides in designing a soil testing toolkit that they have used with communities affected by pollution from the mining industry. Further development of a field test for arsenic is underway in the soil science laboratory of Ramírez-Andreotta at the University of Arizona, where Walls will also develop a field test for lead based on one previously reported by Landes et al. from the van Geen research group at Columbia University. Ramírez-Andreotta (U. Arizona) and Engel-Di Mauro (SUNY New Paltz) have extensive experience with soils and heavy metals, and Walls (RPI) is trained as a chemical engineer. Our team also includes Rensselaer artist Kathy High (RPI), who will bring an artistic perspective to our approach and design of the Toolkit and engagement with Toolkit users. Sociologists Kinchy (RPI) and Ureta (U. Alberto Hurtado) will bring attention to the social structures and relationships that enable these Toolkits to function. We are confident that a Toolkit is technically feasible at a low price, roughly $5 per analysis. Our challenge is to develop a procedure that engages and educates users in order to strengthen public engagement and action on the issue of soil pollution.

Pilot Study using the Toolkit

Our third objective is to conduct a pilot study using Community Soil Study Toolkits in Troy, where lead contamination in soil is a significant problem in our neighborhoods. For instance, this summer, students doing soil testing in a vacant lot in North Troy found an extremely high concentration of lead, where it appears that someone long ago dumped a can of lead paint. We are going to conduct a parallel pilot study in northern Chile, which represents a very different ecosystem, where heavy metal contamination can mainly be traced to the mining industry. These pilot studies will help us to improve the kits to increase public engagement and impact. And we will learn what kinds of engagement practices work best in different social and environmental contexts.

Continual Self-Study

Throughout the course of the project, we will be collecting sociological data about our work process, public interactions, and policy impacts. Few people have studied the institutional conditions that allow collaboration in citizen science projects to flourish, and comparative studies of citizen science are rare. We will be able address this gap in knowledge by studying our own process of interdisciplinary collaboration and comparing the implementation of the project in the US and Chile.