When a tree is affected by a gas leak, it starts to die in a characteristic way, losing leaves from the top down.
“Once you start to look at it, you see it everywhere and you think, ‘Oh my God, the ecological crisis is all around us,’” says Lerman-Sinkoff. “But we’re not trained to recognize it.”
Though not a tree physiologist, Lerman-Sinkoff is a human environment geographer interested in people’s relationships with their environments.
Lerman-Sinkoff is working on three papers, one of which focuses on testing low-cost monitors to see if they can pick up the presence of gas, part of an effort to develop monitoring and scientific techniques that are useful to hold corporate utility companies accountable for leaks.
The larger context, says Lerman-Sinkoff, is about social movements and social action.
Lerman-Sinkoff coordinated research through a community-based partnership between Mothers Out Front Worcester, the Wylie Environmental Data Justice lab at Northeastern University’s Social Science Environmental Health Institute, and the Civic Science for Environmental Futures Collaborative at Arizona State University. Their dissertation advisor at Clark, geography Professor John Rogan, also co-directs Clark’s Human Environment Research Observatory (HERO). Together, they developed a curriculum that allows people to detect gas leaks in their neighborhood and learn about how such leaks threaten the climate, hurt vulnerable people, and damage trees. The curriculum also offers strategies for taking action once leaks are discovered.
The curriculum is available online featuring illustrations from Worcester-based artist Hana Lasell. Funding for the project came from JPB Foundation for Environmental Health Fellowship, the Sussman Foundation, and the Marsh Institute’s Geller Fund at Clark University.
Lerman-Sinkoff and Mothers Out Front Worcester have been coordinating community walks to hunt for gas leaks in local neighborhoods and teach city residents how to use basic tools to measure for leaks. The goal is to build a base of knowledge among residents so they can diagnose problems and call for greater public investment in finding alternatives. “If knowledge only resides in a few experts, how do you have trust,” says Lerman-Sinkoff.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made the public more aware of issues with air quality and ventilation, while new technologies for heating, like ground source and air source heat pumps, have become more commonplace.
Lerman-Sinkoff is concerned that as wealthier households move toward cleaner power sources, others will be left “holding the bill” for less healthy, less efficient fuels. Widespread citizen involvement, supported by community advocate groups, is critical “if we’re going to transition our city in a way that’s equitable,” says Lerman-Sinkoff.