Environmental Health Perspectives  [Printer-friendly version]
August 1, 2005


Community Knowledge and Environmental Health Justice

By Julie Sze**

Review of Jason Corburn, Street Science: Community Knowledge and
Environmental Health Justice (2005. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA. ISBN:
0-262-53272-7; $24).

Jason Corburn's Street Science: Community Knowledge and Environmental
Health Justice is an important addition to the literature on the
science and politics of environmental health decision making. In clear
prose, Corburn provides a "descriptive, analytic, and prescriptive
understanding of local environmental-health knowledge" through what he
calls "street science" (p. 217). Street science is a framework that
joins local insights with professional scientific techniques, with
concurrent goals: to improve scientific inquiry and environmental
health policy and decision making.

At the heart of Street Science are four case studies from Greenpoint/
Williamsburg, in New York City, where diverse racial and ethnic, low-
income populations practice what Corburn calls "science on the streets
of Brooklyn." These studies were centered on complex environmental
health issues: subsistence fishing risks, asthma, childhood lead
poisoning, and small sources of air pollution. Some of the larger
issues addressed through these particular studies include the limits
of traditional risk assessment and the politics of mapping health and
environment risk.

Through these studies, Corburn provides a theoretical model for
understanding key characteristics of what he calls "local knowledge,"
its paradoxes, and contributions to environmental health policy.
Street science, at its best, identifies hazards and highlights
research questions that professionals may ignore, provides hard-to-
gather exposure data, involves difficult-to-reach populations, and
expands possibilities for interventions, resulting in "improved
science and democracy."

One of the strengths of this book is that it succeeds where most
studies of local knowledge fail, "scaling up" and providing
generalizations about the nature of local knowledge, how it is
acquired, the typical problems that occur when local and scientific
knowledge conflict and why.

Drawing from social science, particularly science and technology
studies, Corburn explicitly calls for environmental and public health
researchers, policy makers, and urban planners to become "reflective
practitioners." At the same time, he is careful to reject the idea
that street science is a panacea. It does not devalue, but rather
revalues science. He is not calling for a populism where the
"community" replaces "experts," but for a better understanding of how
knowledge "co-produced" among local and professional constituencies
can lead to better health, science, and politics.

The greatest strength of the book is in the details about the
particular interventions that street science made in these four

One of the stronger cases was in the story about subsistence fishing.
Local residents added to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Air Toxics Modeling and Cumulative Exposure project by contributing
local knowledge to the dietary exposure assessment. The U.S. EPA had
no idea that local residents consumed contaminated fish from the East
River, but as a result of community challenges to the U.S. EPA's risk
assessment models, the agency was able to conduct angler surveys and
to more accurately represent the real-life exposures that local
residents faced. Local knowledge was culturally sensitive, linked with
the environmental justice movement, successfully used intermediaries,
and was low-cost enough to be incorporated successfully into the U.S.
EPA's practices. Corburn does not claim that each example of street
science is successful or equivalent with one another. But even these
failures and limits are instructive. For policy makers and health
researchers who face hostile communities, his accounts of conflictive
public meetings in Greenpoint/ Williamsburg offer a good guide to
"what goes wrong and why."

Agencies such as the National Institute of Environmental Health
Sciences are increasingly recognizing community-based research and
environmental justice concerns [exemplified, for example, by
"Advancing Environmental Justice through Community-Based Participatory
Research," Environ Health Perspect 110(suppl 2)]. At the same time,
more focus and funding is being channeled into investigating and
eliminating health disparities. Corburn's Street Science is an
essential and critical investigation into the science and politics of
local knowledge and environmental health justice at this crucial


**Julie Sze is an assistant professor in American Studies at the
University of California, Davis. Her research examines race and urban
environmentalism, community-based planning and environmental health
research. Her forthcoming book from MIT Press looks at environmental
justice activism in New York City, asthma politics, and changes in
garbage and energy resulting from privatization and deregulation.