Project Overview

A Shared Toxic History: Communities of Exposure in Rural America

Faculty Sponsor

Heather Roller (




This project examines how people conceive of past exposures to toxic substances—whether in relation to themselves, their families, or their communities—and how these exposures link them to other people and places. Focusing on the history of agrichemical use in the United States from the 1970s to the present, we will consider how people in rural communities have experienced and understood the contamination of their bodies, fields, and water over the course of the last half century. How have different kinds of people living in proximity to industrial agriculture thought about their ecological roots and framed their own histories of exposure to pesticides? What environmental transformations have rural residents—including farmers—noticed and connected to pesticide use? Although the focus of the project is on the US, we will also look at parallel cases in other countries where agrichemical use is embedded in rural life, such as Brazil.
Our approach to this topic will be interdisciplinary, integrating research by historians, anthropologists, ecologists, and geographers, among others. We will also excavate primary materials relevant to this topic, which may include oral histories, memoirs, and other first-person accounts; documents produced by environmental activist groups; internal documents of corporations involved in agrichemical production; legal cases; and government documents. Ultimately we will consider how history can help people in their reckonings with this type of toxicity, and whether historians might have a role to play in the dissemination of knowledge between affected communities.

Student Qualifications

Experience identifying relevant scholarly literature, especially in the fields of Environmental Studies, History, or Anthropology; ability to concisely summarize academic articles and books; facility with reading and interpreting historical documents from the mid to late twentieth century; ability to navigate digital archives; ability to synthesize different kinds of sources; familiarity with creating spreadsheets in Excel.

Number of Student Researchers

2 students

Project Length

8 weeks

Applications open on 01/03/2022 and close on 02/04/2022

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If you have questions, please contact Karyn Belanger (