SSEHRI welcomes new core faculty Sharon Harlan, formerly Professor of Sociology at Arizona State University, now Professor of Sociology and Health Sciences at Northeastern University. For more about Sharon and her work, check out our SSEHRI Members page.

Toxic Expertise

This international project includes SSEHRI director Phil Brown on its Advisory Board. We hope visitors to our website will explore the Toxic Expertise website and perhaps find ways to link up with their projects.

 This ERC funded, 5 year research project at the University of Warwick offers the first systematic sociological analysis of the global petrochemical industry in relation to corporate social responsibility and environmental justice. Examining different claims about the health impacts of toxic pollution, this is a highly topical, interdisciplinary project.

We are surrounded by toxics in our everyday lives. Toxics are found not only in synthetic products but also in the natural environment. But just what can be considered toxic to human health, and at what levels of exposure? This is difficult to quantify and the subject of much debate, both scientifically and politically. Toxic Expertise refers to expertise – scientific, legal, economic, and lay- about the ‘toxic’. Debates about toxic expertise do not always fit within dichotomies: corporations versus communities, science versus anecdotal evidence, or corporate versus civil rights law. There are competing interests across jobs, prosperity, and health, and different approaches to risk and uncertainty. This project examines different forms of knowledge and expertise about how to measure, assess, mitigate, and regulate toxic substances. We aim to facilitate dialogue between wider publics and the academy about important questions of corporate social responsibility and the democratization of science.

The mission of the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute (SSEHRI) is to conduct social science-oriented research, teaching, community engagement, and policy work in the area of environmental health.

Conceptualizing, studying, and addressing environmental health problems such as toxic chemicals, climate change, air pollution, biodiversity, and environmental justice requires creative collaborations across disciplines. As a hub for collaborative environmental health learning and interest on campus the Institute trains graduate students and postdocs for community based participatory research aimed at transforming and improving environmental health. At the same time, it provides faculty with a resource to further their existing efforts in those approaches. Integrating basic science, health science, sociology, science studies, and community organizations we aim to develop novel approaches to studying environmental health questions, communication of environmental health data and conceptualization of environmental health socially, politically, and scientifically.

The Institute works on the following areas (Click for More Information):

Creating Collaborations between Life Scientists and Social Scientists
  • This extends the work done in the Contested Illnesses Research Group at Brown University since 2000, through creating a similar research group of faculty, postdocs, and graduate students. This research lab serves as a incubator for interdisciplinary collaboration on writing new research proposals, producing publications, and preparing young scholars for careers in social science-environmental health science collaborations.Central to improving environmental health is the development of basic sciences able to capably build connections between biology, chemistry, sociology, anthropology and politics. Health as we’ve come to conceive it in the 21st century is shaped by complex combinations of genetics, our environments, our everyday exposures, and our industrial, social and cultural histories. Collaborations between social sciences and life sciences are beginning to reveal how we can rethink disease models, bench research, and social science to better identify and tackle pressing environmental health concerns. This research institute aims to build a thriving space for collaborations between life sciences and social sciences that focus on training scholars for interdisciplinary collaborations that effectively improve the study and remediation of environmental health questions.
  • Conduct the NSF-funded “Research Training Program – New Directions in Environmental Ethics: Emerging Contaminants, Emerging Technologies, and Beyond.” This provides specialized training for graduate students and postdoctoral research associates.
  • Develop a T-32 training grant, in collaboration with Silent Spring Institute, which will extend the NSF Training Grant to incorporate more specific environmental health training.
  • Bring social scientists to relevant environmental health conferences, and to lab tours on- and off-campus.
  • Develop new mini-courses on environmental health for social scientists, to be offered here and to be exported via website and CDs.
    Develop new mini-courses on environmental social science for environmental health scientists, to be offered here and to be exported via website and CDs.
  • Conduct research on researchers’ experience of social science-life science collaboration.

Integrating Comprehensive Doctoral training in Environmental Sociology with the Sociology and Anthropology Department

  • The above training activities work together with the large environmental sociology faculty team that is one of the nation’s largest environmental sociology faculties. We train graduate students, train postdocs, and provide learning and community engagement activities for undergraduates and professional degree students. In addition to director Phil Brown, the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute has hired Sara Wylie and will hire 3 additional faculty members. Existing, newly-hired, and planned hiring of environmental sociologists cover many areas of the discipline. In addition to environmental health, there is strength in environmental justice, community-based monitoring, energy and natural resources, environmental social movements, and urban sustainability issues.

Networking Environmental Health Communities with Faculty and Students for Research and Internships

  • Build on prior connections with Silent Spring Institute, Toxics Action Center, Commonweal (Bolinas CA), Communities for a Better Environment (Oakland CA), Alaska Community Action on Toxics, West Harlem Environmental Action (NY)

Expanding Biomonitoring and Air/dust monitoring, including innovative methods of reporting individual data to participants

  • This continues long-standing collaboration with Silent Spring Institute in Newton, MA, with which we have long-standing collaborations.

Developing and Studying the use of Low-cost Tools for Community-based Environmental Monitoring

  • Coordinate with Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (publiclaboratory.org), a Cambridge-based organization with collaborators and projects across the US and the world. Public Lab works with environmentally-impacted communities to conduct balloon mapping, remote sensing, spectral imaging, robotic indoor air and dust collection, and other low-cost, participatory projects.
  • Coordinate with Silent Spring Institute, which is developing low-cost household exposure techniques to expand its pioneering work in biomonitoring and exposure science.

Becoming A Campus-wide Resource for the Teaching Research Ethics, Cultural Competence, and Community-based Participatory Research

  • Present ethics training sessions through the Northeast Ethics Education Partnership for Research Ethics (NEEP), presently based at Brown University and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (Syracuse)
    Please see the NEEP website for further details: http://brown.edu/research/research-ethics/neep

Host Speakers Designed to Integrate Environmental Health Interests Across Campus


  • Involve the Superfund Research Program, Ethics Institute, Law School, Bouvé College of Health Sciences, Sociology/Anthropology, Public Policy, Environmental Justice Collaborative, Engineering, Environmental Science


Working with Health Care for All

  • Based on the creation of Hospitals for a Healthy Environment in Rhode Island (H2ERI), which we modeled after Maryland Hospitals for a Healthy Environment, we will work with Health Care Without Harm, Practice Greenhealth, and H2ERI to carryout similar work in hospitals, professional associations, unions, food organizations, state and local government agencies, green architecture and building groups, and others. This process will be an ideal learning laboratory for many students at Northeastern, and an excellent teaching opportunity for faculty. Pharmacy students may be particularly interested in the pharmaceutical take-back campaign that is a new and growing part of healthy hospital work. Nursing students may be interested in a large number of the projects, especially given the support for this by the American Nurses Association and its state affiliates. Indeed, the spur for us to start H2ERI was the initiative of the Nurse Manager of the NICU at Women and Infant’s Hospital in Providence to remove phthalate and PVC supplies and replace them with safer substitutes.

The Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute is jointly supported by the Bouvé College of Health Sciences and the College of Social Sciences and Humanities.