The New York Times said that your book was for people “who are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore.” What impact did it have?
In terms of contributing to my field, shaping a new way of looking at environmental activism and environmental health more generally, I felt like I was building some new arena of work that I wanted to spread.
You shifted away from the field of mental health after your work in Woburn.
Once I wrote the book, I was hooked. I completely changed my focus. I stopped teaching most of my mental health classes at Brown and began working on a mix of medical and environmental sociology, environmental justice, contested illnesses—that is, illnesses whose environmental causes are contested.
How do you define your work?
It’s multidisciplinary. You have to understand the sociology of a place, the political science, the toxicology, the epidemiology. You have to have the facilities to do the lab research, to take the samples, to run the analytical studies on them. So all the things that I’m doing and my colleagues are doing are multidisciplinary. That’s really what makes it very exciting. And there are always community organizations and individuals who are very involved with this.
In your role as a sociologist, isn’t there a conflict in helping the people whom you’re studying?
I understand not everybody is going to be comfortable with it. Not all sociologists have to do that. And I know that for someone who is a junior faculty member without tenure it may seem risky.
Do you see yourself as both scientist and advocate?
Yes, it has to be seen as a back-and-forth, because there are things that we know that the community doesn’t know. They know that there’s contamination. They don’t know how to measure it. But we can teach them with very high-tech scientific equipment how to do that. Then they can say, “All right, here are the samples. You send them to the lab.” The lab sends it back to us as the scientists. We can analyze it, then tell the people, “We found this many parts per million” or “This is 12 times higher than we’ve ever measured” or “It’s 100 times higher than it’s ever been seen. What do you think? What are you going to do about it?”
So they’re coming up with ideas, and they’re also pointing out new ways to interpret it. That’s what all of my colleagues who do this kind of work find—that they learn so much scientifically.
Who are the naysayers?
The chemical companies and some parts of state and federal public health agencies. They don’t want to be flooded with requests to do these studies. They are getting requests by the hundreds from people who are concerned about cancer clusters and, increasingly, people concerned about other diseases—autisms, Lou Gehrig’s disease, clusters of lupus. The more you look, the more you are finding this.
How do corporations respond to popular epidemiology?
They argue that scientists are being led by the nose by citizens and that when you have ordinary people formulating research questions and hypothesizing or being involved in the study, it makes it illegitimate, it takes away the good science.
What’s to stop “popular epidemiologists” from skewing their research to support the findings they want?
They are not collecting data alone but doing it in partnership with scientists. And the kind of scientists involved in such collaborations have a high degree of ethics. Further, they are highly visible as allies of the activists and residents, and that visibility makes them an easy target; hence, they won’t fake data or let laypeople do so. They realize that failure to be honest and transparent would jeopardize the individual case, the broader social movement, and their own careers.
Who are the advocates?
Increasingly more groups around the country are doing studies of their own. Sometimes they are doing health studies and trying to correlate health problems with exposures…trying to find what they think is a plausible outcome. At Hanford [a decommissioned nuclear production facility in Washington State] they did something called dose reconstruction, where they looked at releases of radiation and the wind patterns and how the wind might have traveled. That’s hard to do for citizen groups.
Another example is the Drift Catcher Project. Using air sampling buckets, people are finding wide drifts of pesticides beyond the spraying fields. They are doing that in California and in other states. It’s become a very big thing. These citizen alliances are very, very powerful.
Tell me about Tiverton, Rhode Island. It’s close to your home and Brown University.
The town was putting new sewer lines in, and as they were digging they found a lot of blue soil, which immediately looked really weird and dangerous. They called in the Department of Environmental Management (DEM), and they learned it was very heavily contaminated with arsenic, with a lot of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and with other things contained in waste from a manufactured gas plant.
It was such severe contamination that the town government said, “You are not allowed to dig here. You can’t garden. You can’t add on to your house. You can’t fix a basement. You can’t do anything. You can’t put a fence post in the ground.”
How large an area is it?
It’s about 120 homes. It’s a neighborhood in the north part of Tiverton, the Bay Street neighborhood, sloping down to the bay.
They were really in bad shape, because if you couldn’t dig and it was known that you had this problem, well, there was no way that you’d ever be able to sell your house. And they couldn’t even get a home equity loan. That was one of the first things that struck me. These are really very hard-working, working-class people, and this is like the only equity they have in their lives.
So they came up to me at this meeting and they said, “We heard that you’re from Brown and maybe you could help us.” I put them onto a colleague of mine…and [he and his students] worked with them and helped to get together some of the history of their problems and their efforts to get the gas company to remediate, and to get the state to clean it up.