Polluted soil threatens the environment and human health in communities worldwide, yet soil contamination has not been the focus of many public health interventions, and people who encounter heavy metals in soil are rarely aware of their presence or the harms they can cause. This project responds to this problem with a “citizen science” approach to studying soil, focusing on urban soil. The work is funded by the National Science Foundation for the years 2019-2022.

Citizen science involves the public in scientific research; in this case, testing soil for heavy metal contaminants, exploring the sources of contamination, and envisioning strategies for protecting public health. A shortcoming of many citizen science projects is that they attempt to reproduce narrow disciplinary approaches to a research topic, rather than grappling with the multifaceted ways that people interact with their environments. In contrast, this project assembles a multidisciplinary team, including sociologists, a chemical engineer, an environmental scientist, a geographer, and an artist, to create a Community Soil Study Toolkit that guides citizen scientists to study soil contamination from multiple perspectives that are relevant to their lives.

In addition to the environmental knowledge yielded by creating and implementing this Toolkit, this project provides a unique case study of collaborative citizen science to address complex socio-environmental problems. The research therefore helps to answer a central question in science and technology studies (STS): what kinds of practices are effective for bringing attention to society and culture into scientific work?

The first objective of the study was to complete a sociological analysis of the research and policy field surrounding soil contamination in the United States. The results of this part of the study were published in the journal Environmental Science and Policy.

Abstract  Community-engaged soil testing projects fill gaps in an environmental regulatory system that does not meet the needs of people facing lead pollution in the United States. Lead has long been recognized as toxic, and soil is one source of lead exposure. However, in the U.S., systematic testing and monitoring of soil lead levels can be described as “undone science”—research in the public interest that is systematically neglected. Interviews with thirty community-engaged soil researchers across the country offer insights into the production and contestation of undone science surrounding soil lead. First, industrial interests resist the adoption of screening levels that offer higher levels of protection and environmental scrutiny. Second, the regulatory system focuses on legal action against identifiable polluters at industrial sites rather than broader actions to protect health. Third, soil testing is generally voluntary and there are deterrents to identifying contaminated soil. Fourth, while government programs for environmental testing are increasingly offloaded to academic researchers, research funding for “routine monitoring” is difficult to obtain. Fifth, straightforward exposure prevention is possible, but it requires funding and maintenance. Finally, the perceived lack of value or invisibility of soil may hinder public pressure on public agencies to direct research towards areas of undone science. Community-engaged researchers are challenging these mechanisms that produce undone science, creating new opportunities to protect health and the environment. The results of this study suggest that learning from community-engaged soil researchers could help to align lead mitigation policies with lived realities.

The second objective of the project is to develop “do-it-yourself” lead and arsenic field test kits with our international and interdisciplinary team. Our collaborators in Santiago, Chile made important strides in designing a soil testing toolkit that they have used with communities affected by pollution from the mining industry. We further developed a field test for arsenic in the soil science laboratory of Ramírez-Andreotta at the University of Arizona. We also developed a field test for lead based on one previously reported by Landes et al. from the van Geen research group at Columbia University. Our research has focused on comparing the accuracy of these colorimetric field-based methods to conventional laboratory methods for the detection of lead and arsenic in soil, as well as improving the design and ease of use of the kits.

Our third objective is to conduct a pilot studies using our Community Soil Study Toolkits in Troy, NY and Arica, Chile. These pilot studies, completed in 2021, enable us to improve the kits to increase public engagement and impact. Through this work we have helped participants identify contaminated soils near their homes, workplaces, and recreational areas, while also learning what kinds of engagement practices work best in different social and environmental contexts.

Throughout the course of the project, we have been collecting sociological data about our work process, public interactions, and broader 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.