STORY OF THE PROJECT
My name is Ava Burke and I'm an artist, designer, and graduate of the MFA Design + Technology program at Parsons School of Design, where One Part Per Million began as my thesis project.
I became interested in the issue of vinyl chloride when I was ten years old. My parents had gone out to dinner and, left to my own devices, I ended up watching a taped VHS copy of the Bill Moyers documentary Trade Secrets. The documentary traced the history of the chemical industry's decades-long cover-up of the adverse health effects of vinyl chloride in an effort to protect booming profits, even as workers died of cancer and their finger bones dissolved, and internal industry studies proved the chemical's carcinogenic effects.
This was the most concrete "loss of innocence" moment in my young life: I had never before considered that the objects that made up my world—the plastic toys I coveted, the pipes bringing water to my shower, even the VHS tape itself—might carry such a dire unseen cost. I was outraged (in that pure and fierce way we are often expected to lose as we get older) that people were capable of choosing to willingly harm millions of others for profit.
I've never forgotten what I saw that night, and ever since, the story of vinyl chloride has shaped how I see the world and approach my work as an artist, designer, and activist. The more I learn about our reliance on chemicals like vinyl chloride, the more I am convinced that although vinyl chloride itself is a synthetic substance, the issues it raises are fundamentally human. Exposure to vinyl chloride not only threatens individual lives, but the livelihood of entire communities.
My goal with this project is to take a seemingly impossibly small number—1 part per million—out of its abstract scientific context and transform it into something that can be seen and touched at a human scale.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
What does one part per million mean scientifically?
Scientists use parts per million (ppm) to measure the presence of chemicals in the environment at low concentrations. When a chemical is present at one part per million, it accounts for 1/1,000,000th of a measured sample of air, water, or soil.
I've chosen needlepoint as the medium for this project because I believe that in a world that is increasingly automated and digital, handcraft offers a unique space for contemplation and community. As an artist, I turn to methodical practices like needlepoint, embroidery, and hand-drawn animation to relieve stress and solve complex problems. I also love the imperfection and "human-ness" of an art form like needlepoint, which stands in direct contrast to the perfect replication made possible by plastics.
I don't live anywhere near a vinyl chloride plant. How does this affect me?
Although fenceline neighbors and workers in the vinyl chloride industry are disproportionately affected by vinyl chloride exposure, the ubiquity of PVC products in everyday products and buildings places us all at risk. New PVC products off-gas unpolymerized vinyl chloride gas, which can become trapped in the interiors of new cars and buildings and inhaled by inhabitants. 70% of all PVC is used in construction materials such as siding, pipes, and imitation-wood floors. In the event of a fire, vinyl chloride gas is released from these products at catastrophic concentrations of 8,000 ppm. On a broader scale, a baby born today will come into the world with over 200 synthetic chemicals already in their blood. Vinyl chloride is one of a handful of chemicals that have been proven a human health hazard, but it is one of over 85,000 synthetic chemicals on the market today. Little research has been done to study the interactions between the thousands of these chemicals we are routinely exposed to, so the true public health impact of our chemically-subsidized lifestyle remains largely unknown.
How can I take action?
While it is virtually impossible to avoid synthetic chemicals altogether, we do all have the power to advocate for a safer world for ourselves, our families, and our fellow humans. This can be done by choosing to use sustainable materials whenever possible, by volunteering with a non-profit committed to ending toxic chemical pollution, by contacting your local, state, and federal lawmakers about the importance of proper regulation of toxic chemicals like vinyl chloride…or even by picking up a needle and thread.