From the start our main objective was to investigate how we could leverage technology to promote more responsible chemical use. Our initial idea was to develop biotechnologies that enable consumers to identify toxins in their environment. The motivation was simple: if people had a device that let them “see” the hazards around them, they might be compelled to reduce the abundance of these chemicals. We decided to test our idea on the commonly used antimicrobial triclosan. However we soon discovered that realizing our good intentions would not be so straightforward.
Through our research we talked with various chemical industry experts, professors, instructors, and members of non-profit civic engagement institutes. We soon realized that any device we built for the detection of triclosan would be but one node in a complex web of social, political and industrial interactions. This network included: chemical producers, manufacturers of consumer goods, water treatment facilities, consumers and the broader public, government regulatory agencies like the EPA, legislators, educational institutions, and of course the environment.
We realized that a measurement tool alone would not drive change in responsible chemical use. The tool could be one critical element but we would need to think carefully about where this tool might be most effective and what additional resources would be needed to complement it.
Selecting the target: Triclosan
Triclosan is an antimicrobial compound that is found in a myriad of consumer products. It is touted as a value added product, however its benefits are largely outweighed by its negative environmental impact and potential human health risks. In recent years major companies have been phasing triclosan out of their products in response to negative media attention. We decided to develop biotechnology tools for triclosan because it is a chemical that is very much in the public eye.
The importance of legislation: How do you encourage chemical monitoring if it is not required?
We first approached Michael Fan, the manager of the UC Davis wastewater treatment plant to explore the potential use of a biosensor at his and other wastewater treatment facilities. After all, wastewater treatment plants handle most household and city runoff in urban areas where triclosan use is thought to be highest. This engineered chokepoint in the release of triclosan into the broader environment seemed like an ideal place to intervene. And Michael Fan was interested in exploring the idea. What we ultimately learned, however, shifted our focus and some of our design criteria.
In essence, Michael Fan said “no legislation, no market”. Almost no waste water treatment plants are currently required to measure triclosan in their effluent and none are likely to do so until it is required through legislation.
This discovery further highlighted the complexity of the core issue. Targeting just one node in this interconnected network of players would not suffice in resolving the issue; however some players appear to have more influence on the network. In the context of chemical regulation, legislative bodies seem to carry more clout; and strategically targeting this node seemed like a more fruitful course of action.
The importance of public awareness
To understand how we could apply pressure to the network to influence policy, we studied famous chemical regulation case studies to see what we might learn from the past. We also reached out to experts to figure out what is and still needs to be done to address the issue presently.
From this exploration, we identified public awareness as an effective catalyst for change. We then studied previous civic engagement initiatives and identified factors that contributed to their success. Successful civic engagement initiatives seemed to foster a sense of individual and collective responsibility and provided a sense of agency that's grounded in reality. We kept these ideas in mind as we developed our approach.
We were particularly inspired by Greg Neimeyer’s Black Cloud initiative, which effectively inspired a new cohort of environmental stewards at L.A.'s Manual Arts High School. As a result, we decided to focus our efforts on high school students as well.
A hands on lesson seemed like an appropriate means of delivering our message. To aid in our development of a lesson plan, we reached out to Community Resources for Science LINK, an organization that works with scientists to bring their work into the classroom. Though we are excited to share our project with students in our area, delivering the instructions ourselves somewhat limits our scope. Ultimately we want to reach students around the nation. To better understand how we would need to refine our lesson plan to allow for wider distribution, we spoke with Ann Moriarty, an AP Biology/biotechnology teacher at Davis Senior High School and Dr. Chris Pagliarulo, the Associate Director of Instruction and Assessment at the Office of Undergraduate Assessment.
We then took a step back to assess the possible implications of our lesson plan. We harkened back to Bruce Hammock’s warning about playing into consumer fears and Arlene Blum’s sentiment about the futile cycle of replacing one toxic chemical with another. Cognizant of these two points, we developed an, “Antimicrobial Footprint App,” that prompts users to think deeper about their consumer choices—not to eschew the use of chemicals altogether.
Summary: Understanding the complexities of our problem space helped refine our objectives and define our solutions
While our initial aspirations of developing a biotechnology tool to promote more responsible chemical use was noble, it wasn’t until we began researching our problem space that we were able to identify a set of specific problems, a strategy, and individual solutions that we thought could be addressed over the summer.
We explored our problem space by learning about the history of chemical regulation, studying ‘landmark’ chemical regulation case studies, and talking to experts. Our understanding of the complexities of the problem informed each step of our overall strategy and the design process for each component. In short:
understanding that new measurement tools weren’t enough (even in places like wastewater treatment plants where the adoption of new tools might make intuitive sense), regulation and enforcement were also critical led us to refocus our strategy and instead target parts of the network that could lead to change
understanding the complicated network of interconnected players helped us identify areas we could push on productively to influence policy
identifying civic engagement led us to recognize students as a critical target audience for our technologies and led us to think hard about how to most effectively reach out to them
the engineering of a hands-on learning activity (complete with assessments to gauge its effectiveness) stimulated us to think about how to disseminate these lessons more broadly and to extend the lessons beyond triclosan, leading to the creation of our “Antimicrobial Footprint” app
Our awareness of the complex policy and practice relationships that might influence our project helped us shape the technologies we developed (the triclosan biosensor, hands-on lesson plan, and chemical footprint app) into part of an integrated solution to a bigger policy and practice problem.