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Participatory testing and reporting in an environmental-justice community of Worcester, Massachusetts: a pilot project

Timothy J Downs12*, Laurie Ross3, Danielle Mucciarone1, Maria-Camila Calvache1, Octavia Taylor2 and Robert Goble12

Author Affiliations

1 Environmental Science and Policy Program, Clark University, 950 Main Street, Worcester, Massachusetts 01610, USA

2 George Perkins Marsh Research Institute, Clark University, 950 Main Street, Worcester, Massachusetts 01610, USA

3 Community Development and Planning Program, Clark University, 950 Main Street, Worcester, Massachusetts 01610, USA

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Environmental Health 2010, 9:34  doi:10.1186/1476-069X-9-34

Published: 6 July 2010



Despite indoor home environments being where people spend most time, involving residents in testing those environments has been very limited, especially in marginalized communities. We piloted participatory testing and reporting that combined relatively simple tests with actionable reporting to empower residents in Main South/Piedmont neighborhoods of Worcester, Massachusetts. We answered: 1) How do we design and implement the approach for neighborhood and household environments using participatory methods? 2) What do pilot tests reveal? 3) How does our experience inform testing practice?


The approach was designed and implemented with community partners using community-based participatory research. Residents and researchers tested fourteen homes for: lead in dust indoors, soil outdoors, paint indoors and drinking water; radon in basement air; PM2.5 in indoor air; mold spores in indoor/outdoor air; and drinking water quality. Monitoring of neighborhood particulates by residents and researchers used real-time data to stimulate dialogue.


Given the newness of our partnership and unforeseen conflicts, we achieved moderate-high success overall based on process and outcome criteria: methods, test results, reporting, lessons learned. The conflict burden we experienced may be attributable less to generic university-community differences in interests/culture, and more to territoriality and interpersonal issues. Lead-in-paint touch-swab results were poor proxies for lead-in-dust. Of eight units tested in summer, three had very high lead-in-dust (>1000 μg/ft2), six exceeded at least one USEPA standard for lead-in-dust and/or soil. Tap water tests showed no significant exposures. Monitoring of neighborhood particulates raised awareness of environmental health risks, especially asthma.


Timely reporting back home-toxics' results to residents is ethical but it must be empowering. Future work should fund the active participation of a few motivated residents as representatives of the target population. Although difficult and demanding in time and effort, the approach can educate residents and inform exposure assessment. It should be considered as a core ingredient of comprehensive household toxics' testing, and has potential to improve participant retention and the overall positive impact of long-term environmental health research efforts.