Confronting legacy lead in soils in the United States: Community-engaged researchers doing undone science

Dan Walls, Abby Kinchy, Tal Margalit, Mónica D. Ramírez-Andreotta, Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Community-engaged soil testing projects fill gaps in an environmental regulatory system that does not meet the needs of people facing lead pollution in the United States. Lead has long been recognized as toxic, and soil is one source of lead exposure. However, in the U.S., systematic testing and monitoring of soil lead levels can be described as “undone science”—research in the public interest that is systematically neglected. Interviews with thirty community-engaged soil researchers across the country offer insights into the production and contestation of undone science surrounding soil lead. First, industrial interests resist the adoption of screening levels that offer higher levels of protection and environmental scrutiny. Second, the regulatory system focuses on legal action against identifiable polluters at industrial sites rather than broader actions to protect health. Third, soil testing is generally voluntary and there are deterrents to identifying contaminated soil. Fourth, while government programs for environmental testing are increasingly offloaded to academic researchers, research funding for “routine monitoring” is difficult to obtain. Fifth, straightforward exposure prevention is possible, but it requires funding and maintenance. Finally, the perceived lack of value or invisibility of soil may hinder public pressure on public agencies to direct research towards areas of undone science. Community-engaged researchers are challenging these mechanisms that produce undone science, creating new opportunities to protect health and the environment. The results of this study suggest that learning from community-engaged soil researchers could help to align lead mitigation policies with lived realities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)165-174
Number of pages10
JournalEnvironmental Science and Policy
StatePublished - Feb 2022


  • Childhood lead poisoning
  • Community-engaged research
  • Environmental regulation
  • Soil contamination
  • Soil lead
  • Undone science

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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