Drowning in Data: Monitoring the Chemical Content of the Air near Chemical Plants Provides Valuable Data, but It Becomes Useful Only When It Is Paired with Epidemiological Data about the Local Population

By Ottinger, Gwen; Zurer, Rachel | Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Drowning in Data: Monitoring the Chemical Content of the Air near Chemical Plants Provides Valuable Data, but It Becomes Useful Only When It Is Paired with Epidemiological Data about the Local Population


Ottinger, Gwen, Zurer, Rachel, Issues in Science and Technology


I was at the most undignified moment of moving into my new office--barefoot and on tiptoes on my desk, arranging books on a high shelf--when one of my fellow professors at the University of Washington-Bothell walked in to introduce himself. Pulling my shirt firmly over my waistband, I clambered down to shake his hand and exchange the vital information that begins academic acquaintanceships: Where had I come from? What kind of research did I do?

I felt my shoulders tense, bracing for the question I knew was probably coming next. I explained that I studied communities living next to oil refineries, especially how residents and refinery experts make claims about the effects of chemical emissions on people's health. My colleague replied with what I'd been hoping he wouldn't: "But is it really the emissions from the refineries that are making those people sick?"

An important question, to be sure--essential, even, to policymakers deciding how refineries and petrochemical plants ought to be sited and regulated. So it's hardly a surprise that in the decade since I started my research, I've been asked The Question scores of times, in settings that range from conference presentations to New Orleans dive bars. Yet it's a vexed question, and I have always been frustrated and often struck dumb with my inability to answer it. "There's a lot of controversy over that," I explained to my colleague in my best anthropologist-of-science manner. "The truth is that we don't really know enough to say for sure."

But as I returned to the solitary work of shelving books, I sought refuge in a place that had recently become my favorite environmental fantasy: A brown, windswept hill at the edge of a refinery in the San Francisco Bay area, topped by a small white trailer the size of a backyard tool shed. In my imagination, the trailer glows in the California sun as the state-of-the-art monitoring instruments inside it hum and flash, measuring minute by minute what's in the air. In my imagination, a cadre of scientists peers at computer screens to turn these data into a more satisfying answer to The Question, an answer that matches real-time chemical concentrations with the health concerns of people living nearby.

My fantasy is set in a real place, though I've never seen it. The hill of my imagination overlooks the town of Benicia, a bedroom community of 30,000, where people who drive tight-lipped to San Francisco jobs all week stroll past the antique shops to First Street for scones and lattes on Saturday morning. It's a charming place, yet Benicia's industrial past persists; a slim smokestack pokes up like a flagpole beyond the trailer, its white plume meandering off toward the Carquinez Strait. Benicia is home to one of the 150 or so oil refineries that feed the nations appetite for energy. Less than a mile from downtown, an Oz of tanks and towers on 800 acres churns away day and night, turning up to 170,000 barrels of oil per day into gasoline, asphalt, jet fuel, and other petroleum products. The Valero facility is the town's biggest employer and the major denizen of Benicia's industrial park. The trailer sits on its southern edge.

Most of the communities I have studied are clustered in the South and are smaller, poorer, and more economically dependent on their refineries than is Benicia. For them, the trailer and the data it offers are even more urgent than they are for Benicia residents. These "fenceline communities" are places where people cough. Where they carry asthma inhalers. Where every resident has a handful of neighbors who have died of cancer. Where refinery and government officials insist that chemicals in the air don't harm them, and residents are sure that they know better. These communities are places where conflict lingers in the air along with the smell of sulfur.

Data that can show how chemical exposures are related to health symptoms could help these communities. It could suggest the lands of protection they need, could show the real extent of emissions reductions necessary on the part of the refineries, could point the way to improved environmental policies. …

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