Materializing Exposure: Developing an Indexical Method to Visualize Health Hazards Related to Fossil Fuel Extraction

  • Sara Wylie Northeastern University
  • Elisabeth Wilder Northeastern University
  • Lourdes Vera Northeastern University
  • Deborah Thomas
  • Megan McLaughlin
Keywords: fracking, oil, natural gas, citizen science, civic science, open source hardware


How can STS researchers collaborate with communities to design environmental monitoring devices that more effectively express their experiences and address gaps in regulation? This paper describes and shows the results of a novel method of visualizing environmental emissions of corrosive gases such as hydrogen sulfide (H2S) exposure using photographic paper. H2S is a neurotoxic and flammable gas that smells like rotten eggs and is frequently associated with oil and natural gas extraction. Communities living with oil and gas development in Wyoming report odors of rotten eggs and describe symptoms of H2S exposure. H2S is recognized as an acute and chronic threat to human and environmental health and oil and gas companies are required to have plans in place to prevent and respond to accidental, high concentration releases of H2S. They are not, however, required to monitor, report or prevent routine daily emissions. Yet 15-25% of the oil and gas wells in the US are predicted to contain H2S, and some communities surrounded by multiple wells report chronic, routine exposure. Chronic exposure is difficult to represent with current tools for monitoring H2S because they are designed to measure acute workplace exposure. Informed by STS theories of black boxes and regimes of imperceptibility that focus on the need to revise not only regulations but also material tools of science, this paper describes the development of an indexical approach to visualizing this hazard. In indexical design, the reactive sensing element of a scientific instrument is brought to the foreground. The silver in the photopaper is an index as it tarnishes with H2S exposure. Discolored tests strips can be arranged together to form data-rich maps of the exposure landscape where this discoloration both represents how the gas spreads through a space and is a physical trace of the gas. Preliminary results in the form of data-rich maps show that regulating H2S emissions as primarily accidental is inappropriate and fails to adequately protect human health. 

Author Biographies

Sara Wylie, Northeastern University
Assistant Professor of Sociology/Anthropology and Health Sciences
Elisabeth Wilder, Northeastern University
Graduate Student
Lourdes Vera, Northeastern University
Graduate Student
Deborah Thomas,
Community Organizer
28 Sep 2017
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