Wageningen University & Research: ERC Advanced Grant for Embodied Ecologies

The Knowledge, Technology and Innovation Group (KTI) at Wageningen University & Research congratulates chairholder Anita Hardon on receiving an ERC Advanced Grant for her multi-sited interdisciplinary project: Embodied Ecologies: a collaborative inquiry into how people sense, know, and act to reduce chemical exposures in everyday urban life. This project was imagined as a continuation and expansion of her previous ERC Advanced Grant, ChemicalYouth, which explored the interaction between young people and chemicals.

During that project, she identified the need for further study of how chemical exposures via environments and consumer products add up, noting also that regulation is sorely lacking. Embodied Ecologies is a groundbreaking and thoroughly novel research project addressing key planetary health problems that have been chronically overlooked and require urgent attention through collaborative and interdisciplinary research.

The accelerating mass-production of chemicals has led to the accumulation of 350,000 “novel entities” in the environment, which according to Persson et al.’s (2022) recent review of the scientific literature exceeds the “planetary boundary” for chemical pollution, meaning it is and will continue to disrupt the operation of ecological systems and have major impacts on human health.

Indeed, in our everyday lives we encounter and are exposed to a dizzying array of chemicals – through the air we breathe, water we drink, food we eat, products we buy, work we do, and environments we move through. While these exposures and the resulting health effects areexperienced unevenly, the mass-produced chemicals dispersed in the environment have led to “near universal human exposure”. The problem, in other words, is not so much a matter of single toxic entities and exposure pathways, but considering and acting uponthe cumulativetoxicities of everyday life.

However, very little is known about how the majority of these chemicals impact environmental and human health, much less the effects of overlapping, intermixing, and cumulative exposure.

State of the art
With this collaborative study Hardon aims to investigate the growing use of chemicals that accumulate in our bodies. Building on emerging social science scholarship, Embodied Ecologies seeks to understand how people sustain life in toxic worlds and how they might reduce harm and create paths for regeneration.

Methodically, this project mobilizes fine-grained ethnographic and cartographic approaches to develop multi-scalar understandings of cumulative toxicities. Theoretically, the project integrates understandings and seeks to forge relationships between anthropology, political ecology, environmental health and experimental governance to develop new frameworks and concepts for studying how we sustain ourselves in a permanently polluted world.

Such interdisciplinary work is necessary, Anita explains, because “We do not know the effects of these exposures which makes establishing causal relationships between exposure and health effects impossible.” In this way, Embodied Ecologies, seeks to bring to light the multiple pathways, both visible and invisible, through which humans are exposed to all manner of chemicals and toxicities in their everyday lives.