Fire crew digging a fire line
A fire crew digs line on a training fire in the Deschutes National Forest in June 2016. Photo courtesy Alissa Cordner.

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Alissa Cordner, assistant professor of sociology, thinks a lot about the problems of risk, such as flame retardants, environmental health and wildfire management.

In her new book, Toxic Safety: Flame Retardants, Chemical Controversies, and Environmental Health, Assistant Professor of Sociology Alissa Cordner examines how environmental health risks are defined and contested in the face of unavoidable scientific uncertainty and competing, powerful stakeholders. With a close qualitative analysis of how flame retardant chemicals are produced, regulated, studied and contested, her book answers two far-reaching questions: How do stakeholders develop different definitions of risk and different interpretations of science, and why do these differences matter? Whitman Magazine talked to Cordner about environmental health and sociology, and her newest project on wildfire risk management.

Whitman Magazine: You teach in both the sociology and environmental studies departments at Whitman. How are two disciplines connected?

Alissa Cordner: The natural environment shapes a lot of things about how we live—what resources we have to draw on, how we organize our cities, all the products that we use. They’re all connected to the environment and natural resources in some way. And then social organization tends to have a really significant impact on the environment. That impact tends to be negative—we tend to cause more environmental damage than we are able to create environmental benefits—but there’s an interplay, and environmental sociology focuses on seeing how society can influence the environment and how the environment influences society. It also tries to break down the firm dichotomy between those two, to say that the things that we think about as being natural or being wilderness or pristine are a societal construction. What makes Ankeny part of the built environment but makes a similar size meadow up in the Blues nature or the natural world?

WM: Toxic Safety focuses on flame retardants. Why did you choose that subject, and why are these chemicals so controversial?

AC: I focused on flame retardants because they are really widely used in products that we come into contact with every day. The chair that you’re sitting on has flame retardants, the padding under the carpet that we’re standing on has flame retardants, the recorder that you’re using has flame retardants.

Some research out of Northern Europe, where they have really great long-term biomonitoring programs which test for the presence and levels of chemicals in the human body, found dramatically increasing levels of a certain type of flame retardant called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs. As those results started to come out of the scientific literature, a few environmental health advocacy organizations and a few folks who we might call scientist-advocates became aware of this class of chemicals as something that’s really concerning, because they’re associated with things like decreased IQ in children or negative reproductive outcomes for women. They’re also very persistent and very bioaccumulative, so they don’t break down in the human body and they stick around for a long time.

WM: When were these PBDEs first developed? Were there other environmental health issues before then?

AC: We think that PBDEs have been in use since the ’70s. Flame retardants have been used since well before the preindustrial age in really specific capacities—asbestos was a flame retardant. It’s really fire resistant, but it’s incredibly toxic. More recently, after World War II, you had this confluence where you still had a lot of folks heating with wood in their homes, heating with coal, heating with oil, but you also had this rise of really flammable materials. So you saw, for example, children’s pajamas made out of a really flammable type of polyester or furniture being cushioned with polyurethane foam derived from petroleum products, as opposed to being filled with horsehair or some other natural material. So the home environment became more flammable while there were still a lot of fire sources in the home. As a result of those two factors, plus lots of folks still smoking in the home, people pushed for flammability standards for furniture and things like children’s clothing.

WM: One of the core concepts in the book is “strategic science translation.” What does that mean?

AC: It’s the idea that all stakeholders are going to take pieces of scientific evidence and research and strategically translate it for specific audiences, for the purposes of achieving goals that we think of as being outside of the scientific arena. So there’s certainly a scientific investigation process that happens when researchers are analyzing their data, for example, but strategic science translation is really focused on what happens once the science is produced, once the paper is written or the report has been published. How do other stakeholders use that information to make claims?

The tobacco industry is a clear example: For a long time they supported the production of science that worked against making the link between smoking and health outcomes, or they distorted the evidence that was in existence, and in some cases they just flat out lied about it. So what strategic science translation tries to do is explain how that process happens and how industry stakeholders are going to strategically manipulate scientific evidence in order to protect market share, in order to maintain support for their products, keep their products on the market longer.

WM: How does all this work in the flame retardant industry?

AC: One way that this happens in the flame retardant arena is around the issue of risk assessment and hazard assessment. Traditional risk assessment looks at a combination of information around how dangerous something is and how likely it is to occur. So to evaluate the risk of a chemical in general, you would do some sort of a toxicological examination, you would look for exposure information about how much people are actually exposed to this chemical, and you would put that information into some sort of combination of a dose-response relationship.

The typical industry argument is: you have to look at dose-response relationship. We’re going to be exposed to chemicals, they’re everywhere, and so what matters is not whether a chemical is out there—it’s whether it’s out there in high enough levels that we need to worry about it.

WM: What about hazard assessment?

AC: The hazard assessment approach focuses just on the inherent dangers of the compound; so to take the example of lead, the hazard assessment approach would say: we know lead is a neurotoxicant, we know it can cause significant harm and there doesn’t seem to be a safe level of exposure for children’s brain development. The hazard assessment approach would say: if something is so dangerous, we’re going to focus on that inherent hazard and that that can be grounds for regulation on its own, or for taking action on its own. This is an area where the flame retardant industry has been very active in pushing for a risk assessment model rather than a hazard assessment model, and some of the claims that they’ve made about hazard assessment are not necessarily accurate.

WM: Are social activists tackling this issue at all?

AC: Even though flame retardants sound like a pretty obscure class of chemicals, there’s been a tremendous amount of social movement organizing around it. Environmental organizing today is really broad-based. It cuts across traditional silos of organizing and it also targets some really unusual targets. When we think about social movements, typically we think about an organization that’s a nonprofit—it’s a non-governmental organization [NGO] targeting the state or targeting the federal government in some capacity. What we see in the case of flame retardants and in the case of most contemporary environmental movements is actually that the base of folks making social movement claims does come from the nonprofit and NGO sectors, but they also come from academia and from progressive agencies within state organizations. They come from industry, from supply-chain manufacturers, from environmentally motivated companies. And they’re not just targeting the federal government. They’re targeting state governments, they’re targeting research organizations, they’re targeting individual companies, they’re targeting trade associations, they’re targeting standards-setting organizations—things like the National Fire Protection Association that writes fire codes. What the activists find is that it’s not enough to just go for federal regulation, because that is a slow and burdensome process, so they diversify.

WM: You’ve also written about the civic imagination—the ways in which people understand their own involvement with their communities. That seems like a concept that would appeal to a lot of Whitties.

Alissa CordnerAC: What we were interested in in this project is this huge base of the public that cares about their world, is interested in getting involved, but is pretty skeptical of traditional political processes. There’s a lot of what we call “political disavowal,” where folks simultaneously say that their work is not political, that they’re not targeting politics. They’re doing that even as they’re doing things that directly engage in policymaking, in some cases directly engage with policymakers, and sometimes it is even those same people who are politicians and are saying that they hate politics.

So we wanted to understand how that is possible—how are people able to do both of these things at the same time? We looked at a few different “types” of imaginations. One that I’m sure a lot of Whitman students can find parallels with or can see themselves in is the civic innovator model, where the idea is we need better systems and we need more transparency. There’s often a lot of faith in technology as a great equalizer. The innovator model has a lot of strengths in terms of breaking down some traditional boundaries or silos in how people do things—certainly transparency has a lot of benefits—but a challenge with civic innovation is that innovators tend to focus on technology, on transparency, on openness, and there’s often a lack of attention to structural power, to issues like racism and classism.

WM: What do you hope students get out this kind of engagement with sociology and environmental issues?

AC: One of the things I try to do in my classes is give them tools to be critical of information, to critically evaluate data, to take science off its pedestal a little bit and to be able to investigate the power relationships that underpin the research that we do. Why is it that we know lots about certain topics and not about others? It’s often tied to issues of inequality—who is funding the research, what are their goals, what topics are just not on the radar for academic researchers or government researchers?

At the same time, I want them to have the tools to recognize the importance of science and recognize the importance of systematic, rigorous research that is focused on either expanding knowledge for the sake of knowledge, or expanding knowledge for the sake of improving the world in some measureable way.

WM: One of your new projects involves wildfire risk management and its social impacts in the Pacific Northwest. How did that come about?

AC: Wildfire had been on my radar for a few reasons. One is that I knew I wanted my next project to engage with climate change in a pretty direct way. And when I was doing the flame retardant research, I also came across news stories and a good number of articles about the retardants used in wildland fire.

I put out some feelers to Forest Service folks in the north Cascades and also around Central Oregon. Both of those have really large areas of public lands that are managed for a variety of resource benefits, so managed for timber and for recreation and for habitat, and they both get a lot of wildfire. I was able to connect with some really wonderful and supportive people in Central Oregon who are managing wildfire for a pretty large region, who coordinate what’s called an Interagency Fire Management Team. I was able to spend a sabbatical semester down in Central Oregon shadowing firefighters and fire crews and fire managers at all levels in the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) hierarchy.

WM: How up close and personal did you get with wildfires?

AC: Very up close with small fires. Especially this last summer, I was able to spend a lot more time with fire crews and spend the day going out with the hand crew or going out with a fire engine. When those small fires happened, I was able to be there with them shadowing their incident commander—the person who was in charge of that fire. They would make sure that I was not putting myself in danger and not putting any of them in danger. But I was able to be right there to ask questions about their decision-making, see how they actually approach the fire. I went through the weeklong training for new wildland firefighters that’s put on by the Forest Service and the BLM, so I have all of the skills and qualifications to be a basic level firefighter.

I’m also able through these contacts to shadow one of these large fire management teams. These are the folks that are assigned by regional and national offices to go to major fire incidents when they happen. So when the Blue Creek fire happened outside of Walla Walla, it had an Incident Management Team that was here in Walla Walla camping at the community college.

WM: Are the fire teams getting increasingly worried each year?

AC: Absolutely. They’re really concerned for a lot of reasons. Folks have told me we’re in a “new normal,” where the conditions are more severe through a combination of factors. Starting in the early 1900s, the official policy was full suppression all the time. Fire, which is part of our natural landscape, is also something that most of the species in those fire-dependent landscapes have evolved in coordination with. They need fire. So you have this really tremendous buildup of fuels on most landscapes, meaning that fires can get hotter and bigger, faster. Along with that, with climate change, you have summers that are hotter and drier, you have less moisture in the mountains, and so you have more chance for ignitions earlier in the season. The fire season for hotshot crews is over two months longer now than it used to be.

On top of all those things, you have a public which increasingly lives in the wildland-urban interface, the area where wildland zones like national forests or state forests come right up against people. That means that wildland firefighters are increasingly charged with protecting people’s homes, which is not supposed to be part of their job.

WM: I know you’re an avid climber. You must think about risk a lot when you’re up there.

AC: Oh, it’s true. I have this dream that at some point, I’ll do a project on risk and rock climbers, because I think that would be so much fun. I think one of the reasons I love studying risk is that I personally think about risk all the time. I tend to do a lot of risky things but I manage a lot of those risks as effectively as possible.