Measuring historical pollution: natural history collections as tools for public health and environmental justice research

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Shane DuBay, Brian C Weeks, Pamela E Davis-Kean, Carl Fuldner, Nyeema C Harris, Sara Hughes, Bruce O'Brien, Marie Perkins, Cheryl Weyant


Through the industrial era, environmental pollution has been unevenly distributed in the environment, disproportionately impacting disenfranchised communities. The distribution of pollution is thus a question of environmental justice and public health that requires policy solutions. However, we lack robust quantitative data on pollutants for many locations and time periods because environmental monitoring is largely reactive—i.e., pollutants are monitored only after they are recognized as harmful and circulating in the environment at elevated levels. Without comprehensive historical pollution data, it is difficult to understand the full, intergenerational determinants and consequences of pollutants on environmental and human health. Here, we promote the use of biological specimens in natural history collections as an underutilized source of quantitative pollution data for tracking environmental change over nearly two centuries and for informing justice-centered policy solutions.

First, we discuss the need for quantitative pollution data in environmental research and its implications for public health and policy. We then examine the capacity of biological specimens to serve as tools for tracking environmental pollutants through space and time. We then present a framework for how pollution datasets from specimens can be paired with spatially and temporally matched human health datasets to inform and evaluate public policy. Finally, we identify challenges and research directions associated with the use of quantitative pollution datasets.

Biological specimens present a unique opportunity to fill critical gaps in the environmental record—and to generate historical data for emerging pollutants—to engage public health and policy questions that we have previously lacked data to address. This work demands diverse expertise and partnerships across the sciences, and between researchers and communities affected by pollution, to connect data generated from specimens with urgent questions about environmental health and justice, and to find solutions to some of the most pressing environmental challenges of the twenty-first century.



Biodiversity, Environmental Health Life Sciences, Environmental Monitoring, Environmental Policy, Environmental Public Health, Environmental Studies, Health Policy, Inequality and Stratification, Nature and Society Relations, Public Policy, Urban Studies and Planning


spatial sampling, environmental justice, health disparities, exposure risk, natural history collections, temporal sampling, One Health


Published: 2023-07-03 16:31


CC-By Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International

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