Previously, my research has focused on stress and the interaction between vertebrates and environmental contaminants. However, recently I have become more interested in public health. When I was studying stress I would have told you I was interested in public health but I was much more focused on basic research. Now while I love basic research and think it is needed to inform our policies and decision making, I’m also much more keenly interested in how the public views and understands science.
Pesticides are an interesting study topic because they are toxic chemicals we purposely spread through the environment. My current research plan under development involves a citizen science project that incorporates the questions that many people have about the safety of their food. I am organizing a Dinner Plate Study which will assess pesticide residues in foods submitted from humans in the wild.
In the United States, the USDA1 and the FDA2 both monitor our food supply for foods grown domestically and foods imported from other countries. I’m interested in adding to that data set with foods that people actually eat and the way they actually eat them. We know from the existing data you can find pesticides on various fruits, vegetables, meat, and milk products however, what we have not seen is very much reporting on the foods as as cooked, as peeled or chopped, as processed, and fried or deep-fried, or twice baked. We know that pesticides break down under a variety of different conditions like temperature and acidity changes so it’s entirely plausible that it’s the pesticides on your produce might change when you cook them. They might change when you wash them. They might change when you peel them. They might change simply because they waited so patiently in your larder!
I secretly harbor a love of hearing a story of a family reminiscing about the time mom’s lasagna was donated to science.
I anticipate that this will have to be a crowd funded and grant funded project because the analytical costs are complex samples like this will be large. I imagine a website portal by which people can sign up and pay and then be delivered a sample collection kit with an initial information packet that goes beyond how to collect the sample. Samples would be sent to a certified/accredited lab for analysis. Lab results would be posted online with a description of the of the foods consumed.
Results, ideally, would be mapped so that people could see where the other samples were coming from. And I believe one of the most important follow-up pieces to this is that after the lab returns the sample values that the person whose data were processed would receive an explanation providing a deeper understanding of what pesticides were found and how that relates environmental health and human health in the larger picture.
This project is motivated as a tool for communicating the safety of our food supply. It has secondary agenda items that increase the public’s awareness of data collection and how science works. My intent is to run this locally in my home state so that I can build a local community of people interested in these results. Additionally, the focus on my home state will help fill a data gap as the USDA and FDA programs frequently do not include samples from Maine.
I started talking about this research idea to those around me and I am delighted to say that today, about one week later, I found an article3 in one of the Nature journals that tested exactly the way I’m interested in testing. Okay, not exactly, but I’m so happy to see how similar this research is focused! The publication of that paper will allow me to have a standing with a similar experimental protocol that has been verified acceptable. I very much look forward to this growing body of literature that looks at the foods we actually as we actually eat them.
I am looking for collaborators.
I am looking to develop a group of people who would be interested in tackling a project like this. Since public outreach and risk communication are high on my list of motivations but pretty far down on my list of training and experience I could very much use the help of interested parties.
My current scholarly interests are summarized by saying I interested in helping people understand the true risks of chemicals in their environment. There are true risks and there are some true hazards that will never actually happen to us and I believe knowing the difference between those two concepts will go a long way in making many people feel a lot safer and comfortable.
3Marsha K. Morgan, Denise K. MacMillan, Dan Zehr and Jon R. Sobus. Pyrethroid insecticides and their environmental degradates in repeated duplicate-diet solid food samples of 50 adults Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology (2018) 28, 40–45.
Contact Pam at: pam /dot/ bryer at-sign ronininstitute “dot” org