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Faculty & Staff Honors

Faculty & Staff Honors

Columbia Professors Receive NSF Grant to Expand ToxicDocs Project

Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health professors Dr. David Rosner and Dr. Merlin Chowkwanyun in the department of sociomedical sciences were awarded a grant of $457,649 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for support of their ongoing ToxicDocs project. The dataset and website, officially launched in spring 2018, contain millions of pages of previously secret documents about toxic substances including unpublished scientific studies, and expert witness reports that emerged in toxic tort litigation. The new grant, earmarked for research infrastructure, started August 1, 2018 and ends July 31, 2021. has a simple but sophisticated user interface for navigating through the site, which allows visitors to retrieve documents quickly and sort through material using full-text searches. This latest grant award will allow for this search tool to expand and add inductive search tools to make document location even more intuitive and easy to use. It also will help to improve community engagement via social media posts and other means of dissemination.

“We’re constantly adding material from lawsuits involving lead, asbestos, silica, and PCBs, among other dangerous substances,” said Dr. Rosner. “Innovations in parallel and cloud computing have made conversion of these documents into machine-readable, searchable text a far faster process than would have been the case just a decade ago.”

Dr. Rosner’s interest in the documentary history of toxic agents began in the 1980s when he and his co-originator Dr. Gerald Markowitz, Mailman School adjunct professor of sociomedical sciences and Distinguished Professor of history at CUNY, discovered a collection of documents at the U.S. National Archives that detailed the history of the fuel additive tetraethyl lead and the controversy that surrounded its introduction into gasoline in the 1920s. Rosner and Markowitz described their findings in a 1985 article published in the American Journal of Public Health. Over the next two decades, millions of pages of internal corporate documents overwhelmed their academic offices in New York.

Dr. Merlin Chowkwanyun who joined the Mailman School Sociomedical Sciences department in 2015 (ck), explored how computer search engines could aid scholars facing the huge amounts of data that were becoming available. Dr. Chowkwanyun led the effort to digitize and index the papers and helped create the website where one could post a cache of documents so that historians could evaluate the accuracy of their analysis. Millions of pages became machine-readable and searchable by a keyword, and out of expansion emerged the new Mailman School database: It remains a free resource open to investigative journalists, toxicologists, policymakers, public health historians, environmental justice advocates, and the general public, anywhere in the world.

Read more about Project Toxidocs

More information about February 2018 article in Journal of Public Health Policy

Read an essay by Drs. Rosner, Markowitz, and Chowkwanyun

[Photo: Dr. Merlin Chowkwanyun]