As an anthropologist studying expertise and knowledge production, I am committed to understanding how scientists (and other experts) disseminate knowledge about risk and environmental harm across a public, and how a public, in turn, consciously begins to consider and mobilize against environmental risk and harm. In this project on lead poisoning in Southern California, I explore how lead exposure risk is made visible to the public either through the intervention of public health officials and environmental health scientists or through personal experiences of toxicity and toxic exposure. Lead poisoning is often unknown to a person until they present with symptoms. As a result, their body becomes a vector for knowledge of the spaces in which they live, but how can awareness be raised beforehand? A key question that propels my research project is how do communities and the scientists involved in those communities come to view lead poisoning as a risk in the region? Alternatively, what are the causes that lead some communities to ignore lead exposure risks? A main component of this research involves maps and infographics, particularly interactive maps that show potentials for lead poisoning and infographics made by health officials and scientists containing information on lead risk and poisoning. These visuals make visible the potential for lead poisoning in Southern California. It is crucial to understand who is producing them, to whom they are produced for, how decisions are made on what information to include, and how the public responds to such information. Coming to a better understanding of visuals meant to inform the public and how those visuals are perceived by the public can help us better create informational distribution channels and networks.
Caption: Lead risk map from Vox (working with the Washington State Department of Health). The researchers used the age of houses (lead paint) and poverty to estimate risk. Lead risk hotspots tend to be concentrated in urban areas (see LA and San Diego), particularly old industrial areas. States with large swaths of rural areas are also more vulnerable to exposure. Maps like this are very rarely created because cities and states are not required to report data on lead poisoning. As a result, there is a gap in knowledge and data. This map attempts to solve this issue by making visible places that are potentially at risk for lead and thus, in need of intervention.
Design Statement: Maps like this are very rarely created because cities and states are not required to report data on lead poisoning. As a result, there is a gap in knowledge and data. This map attempts to solve this issue by making visible places that are potentially at risk for lead and thus, in need of intervention. California, in 2017, passed landmark legislation requiring all health care providers and labaratories to report all results of lead poisoning tests to the California Department of Public Health. Rectifying this gap in data is crucial to raising awareness on lead poisoning as more resources can be distributed to places with more instances in lead poisoning. However, at the current moment, there is no nationwide mandate to report and as a result, healthcare providers and the public are not aware of the amount of instances of lead poisoning and even the risk for being exposed to lead in their own communities.
Caption: The left three images are taken from the World Health Organization (WHO) website on lead poisoning. The photo on the bottom is the main photo on the website. The one on the top left is the cover for a booklet on lead poisoning published by WHO and the photo in top middle is from a photoseries on environmental health from WHO. All three point to a particular population, mainly brown and black and in a third world country, as being the most susceptible to lead poisoning even though a study done by scientists at Simon Fraser University estimates that lead exposure contributes to 400,000 deaths per year in the US. Result of study is on the right.
Design Statement: I juxtaposed these 4 images (the three from WHO and one from a study done by Simon Fraser) because the three from WHO point to a particular population, mainly brown and black and in a third world country, as being the most susceptible to lead poisoning even though the study from Simon Fraser, as well as recent events such as Flint, Michigan, point to unsafe drinking water and poor infrastructures in the US as well. Representations of potential victims of lead poisoning or other enviromental health hazards influence perceptions of risk and who is most likely to be at risk. As a result, little attention is paid to the risks and hazards experienced daily by many Americans.
Caption: Two infographics on lead exposure and common sources of lead exposure, the left is from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the right is from WHO. The information in these two infographics points to lack of knowledge in the public on lead risk and lead poisoning. How much lead exposure is safe? Where are the sources of lead?
Design Statement: I am interested in infographics because they index potential knowledge gaps between the public and scientists or government officials. These two infographics on lead poisoning are indicative of what the employees and volunteers non-profit organizations and governing bodies deem to be missing information among the public.
Infographics are also an important form of communication between different social and cultural groups as their purpose is for experts to distill large amounts of often complicated information into easily digestible information for a broader public. Thus, it is crucial to understand the avenues through which expert knowledge travels, what type of information is picked to be disseminated, and how that knowledge is formed and transformed through various mediums, platforms, and people.