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Print Editions Thursday September 28th, 2023

University researchers develop tool to identify areas of toxic waste contamination

Superfund Research Program creates contaminant detection algorithm, database

A team of two current and one former University researchers has designed a geospatial tool and database that can map and identify likely regions of toxic waste contamination in Rhode Island, with applications in transportation, ecology, policy-making and quality of life, among others.

The researchers, all members of the Superfund Research Program — an organization that aims to develop a better understanding of the effects of environmental contamination  on human health — studied how certain demographics can be disproportionately affected by their proximity to waste hazards, as well as how this disproportionate risk changes over time.

The team began by studying old manuscripts and directories, or what they called the “lost knowledge” of metropolitan Providence, to help regulatory agencies identify places where lingering contaminants remain. The researchers studied PFAS — Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances — a class of chemicals identified by the United States Environmental Protection Agency as an emerging contaminant. While the term “emerging contaminant” may suggest modernity in the chemicals, Scott Frickel, professor of environment and society and sociology, explained that the term actually refers to old chemicals that were used in the 1950s and are only now being recognized by the agency as posing real environmental health risks.

Some of those contaminants can be found in what used to make up Providence’s thriving industrial districts. For about a hundred years, Providence boasted a prominent jewelry industry, which used large amounts of harsh chemicals, many of which are biopersistent. Some of the information about these chemicals is available through the EPA’s toxic release database, but the team’s research uncovered a more detailed history of these sites and their waste.

Frickel modeled this project off his earlier research that tracked industrial hazards in four cities, as discussed in his book “Sites Unseen: Uncovering Hidden Hazards in American Cities.” Meanwhile, Tom Marlow GS, a PhD candidate in sociology, worked heavily with collaborators at the University’s Data Science Initiative to create the algorithm used by these researchers. Jennifer Guelfo, currently an assistant professor of civil, environmental and construction engineering at Texas Tech University, led the sampling effort and worked with Marlow to develop a risk index, which is the criteria for labeling different areas as high or low risk.

The algorithm created by the researchers allowed them to extract data from historical directories and use that information to map and obtain the longitude and latitude of toxic waste sites. This algorithm created high quality PDF scans of the book pages of the Rhode Island Directory of Manufacturers and converted those scans into Excel spreadsheets. Prior to this algorithm, undergraduate students would instead manually enter the data into spreadsheets. The algorithm, perhaps the first of its kind, was a key technological advancement from Frickel’s earlier work, since it greatly increased the speed of data recording.

The directories contain company information such as the name, standard industrial classification, number of employees and addresses, among others. The researchers used the information within these directories to infer the facilities’ locations and, “just as importantly, where they aren’t” located, Marlow said. The information helped the researchers understand how the geography of industries changes over time, where contaminants remain and how populations have changed to create inequitable environments. The Rhode Island Department of Health used this analysis and worked with the researchers to select sites to sample and test for PFAS contamination.

The idea of using geospatial tools to understand the effects of contamination on the environment is not specific to the University and has been in play since the 1990s. Steven Fleming, a professor of the practice of spatial sciences at the University of Southern California, used geospatial tools in an earlier project that aimed to remediate the effects of nuclear waste on the Savannah River.

Still, the future of geospatial design is uncertain. As Fleming noted, while the implications of this field on humanity are large, not enough people have developed interest. The University’s broad, liberal education granted by the Open Curriculum could help students become more suited for geospatial design, Fleming argued.

The researchers now intend to take this study beyond Rhode Island. Specifically, they plan to replicate the study in Ohio. They also plan to use their findings and work to inform the fields of politics and ecology, topography, hydrology and transportation. Additionally, the team hopes that policymakers and others will make use of this information to improve their work.



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