Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Historical Research Tools: Acquiring Samples

Historical Collection of  Dyes
Have you ever searched Ebay for sediment samples before? Ever queried craigslist for water samples? Ever dug into the archives of a science history museum for soils? It’s not often environmental professionals find themselves utilizing the same tools as collectors and bargain hunters, as well as archivists, conservation scientists, and curators. However in the fields of Environmental Forensics and Environmental Research you might find yourself looking to unconventional resources when the circumstances call for it. 

Our recent work exploring the origins of halogenated carbazoles brought us to such a circumstance, and a question: Where do you find industrial artifacts that have not been used in significant quantities for at least 50 years? Artifacts that had different trade names depending on the manufacturer; artifacts with an identification code that changed several times over the history of its production; artifacts with little consumer exposure, having principally been utilized in manufacturing operations. 

Not many places, as we soon found out. 

However, the efforts we made are an excellent example of using the written record to track down chemical evidence to connect environmental contaminants to a potential source. It is also an excellent example of the resourcefulness that goes into a research task such as this.

So where did we end up looking?

  • Textile Museums
  • Industrial,  Science, and/or Technology History Museums (domestic and international)
  • Historical Societies
  • Company Archives
  • University Collections
  • Foreign Governments – thanks Canada! 
  • Personal Acquisitions
  • Other researchers

In truth, the search was mostly an iterative process. Research directed us towards one source, and then individuals or representatives from the relevant institutions would direct us on to the next. But, there were also times when we were forced to try new angles. For example I contacted a colleague in art history for suggestions, who shared that many collections aren’t always fully displayed online. Similarly, after hitting a dead end, I took an image of a dye bottle and put it in google image search, which unexpectedly yielded a blog post by someone who had acquired General Aniline Dyes as a novelty as they were being thrown out from a former business. An awesome find, but unfortunately, no synthetic indigos.

However, it’s that kind of serendipity that often leads to breakthroughs in research.  While most of the time Ebay and Craigslist just yielded plenty of dyers formulas, photographs, advertisements, and invoices; who knows when someone will clear out personal acquisitions to sell to the odd antique collector or, in our case, scientist!

Though perhaps most environmental forensics investigations may not encounter such hurdles, or utilize such diverse sources, there is potential that such investigations may be needed if products once produced at a chemical manufacturing facility are no longer be there. Patents and technical literature will provide clues and perhaps even definitive answers to byproducts and the chemical fingerprints found onsite, or downstream or downwind.  How important is obtaining a sample of the former product? It will depend on the situation, and it could prove to be valuable in bolstering your conclusions. 

When looking to find industrial artifacts consider location, application, changes in product names, economic conditions during production (i.e. output fluxes and peak periods), likelihood of being retained today as a novelty or curiosity or important to archival collections, and finally don’t be afraid to reach out to those who are trained in such acquisition!

Photo Credit: Wikipedia, Technical University of Dresden Germany


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