The Philadelphia Health and Environment Ethnography Lab (PHEEL) is based out of Drexel’s Center for Science, Technology, and Society and is led by Ali Kenner, an assistant professor in the Department of Politics. PHEEL began in early 2013 when Kenner and co-PIs Igor Burstyn (Drexel School of Public Health) and John Lee (Clean Air Council) received a small seed grant for a project titled, “Mapping Perceptions of Environmental Health Risk.” Today, many different projects and activities are run through PHEEL — community-based workshops on climate change and health, an investigation of state capacity for indoor air testing, projects on late industrial infrastructure and community health impacts, and exploratory research on  user participation in energy culture. PHEEL involves students, faculty, and collaborators from a number of Philadelphia organizations. We document and analyze environmental health problems using different prompts, forums, and tools, and work to collaborate with community partners, residents, and experts in our work.

Environmental health problems are notoriously complex; they often involve the interaction of multiple systems, materials, and cultural dynamics. For example, studying how combinations of chemicals impact human health, at the time of the exposure and over longer periods, requires the support of large grants and a study cohort that can be tracked consistently. Knowing what chemicals people are exposed to in daily life is near impossible, and not everyone is impacted by toxics in the same way. Adding socioeconomic factors, genetics, and cultural stressors to analysis also increases complexity. Environmental health policy is similarly challenging. Designing appropriate regulations around pollution sources or consumer products is tricky amid financial, community, health, and consumer trade-offs. How do we make sense of the layered dynamics that produce these problems; why are established scientific and regulatory channels unfit to address them; and how do new combinations of people, knowledge, and technology intervene to shift this problem space? As social scientists, our aim is to document and analyze these dynamics, barriers, and interventions by focusing on a few specific contexts, and leveraging new media tools.

PHEEL is currently organized around three problem areas:

  1. The U.S. Asthma Epidemic
  2. Industrial Legacies and Redevelopment in Philadelphia
  3. Climate Change and Health

PHEEL collaborators are particularly interested in how environmental health problems and their interventions work on human perception and sensation. Public communication about environmental health problems increasingly involves new media. Maps have become common currency over the last decade, and emerging modes of data visualizations are geared to bolster public literacy. The dominant mode of representation is, of course, still visual, but there is also a trend towards cultivating experience through sustainable design projects.

PHEEL works in the tradition of experimental ethnography. Experimental ethnography emphasizes collaboration, problem-posing research design, and the use of dynamic analytic tools and forums. PHEEL is modeled off of many other ethnographic projects including The Asthma Files and Platforms for Experimental and Collaborative Ethnography, an initiative spearheaded by Kim Fortun and Mike Fortun at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Part.Lab; Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research; Ethnography Studio; CoLED; and The Ethnography Studio. 

PHEEL has been supported by several Drexel University initiatives (a Social Science Research Council grant; an Urban Sustainability Initiative fellowship; and a College of Arts and Science Humanities Fellowship), three Climate and Urban Systems Partnership mini-grants, and the NSF Environmental Health Governance in Six Cities grant.