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What happens when the authority of your senses contradicts scientific authority? In January 2014, 5,000 gallons of industrial chemicals leaked into the water supply for Charleston, West Virginia. Long after government officials and scientific instruments declared the substance gone, residents claimed to smell and taste the chemical in their water. Using this spill as a case study, I examine how perceptible materials and perceiving bodies get tangled up in the politics of knowledge making. Through interviews, participant observation, and documents related to the crisis, I explore how the chemical continued to shape relationships between inhabitants, the built environment, and governing bodies, even as it disappeared. I propose that conceptualization of these ongoing effects as “shadows,” rather than simply physiological events, better accounts for the ways that sensory experience can persist into the future and invigorate — or erase — connections to the past.
Dr. Christy Spackman thinks, researches, practices, and writes about how experiences of smelling and tasting shape and are shaped by science and technology. Trained in molecular biology, food chemistry, the culinary arts, and food studies, she is currently the Hixon-Riggs Early Career Fellow in Science, Technology, and Society at Harvey Mudd College, and co-chair of the SSRC Scholarly Borderlands “Bodies of Water” project