Mexican Exposures (MEXPOS) is a collaborative project that brings together medical anthropologists and environmental health scientists to create a bioethnographic research platform. This platform combines data gathered through both ethnographic and bioscience methods to arrive at a better understanding of the larger histories, life circumstances, and environments that shape health, disease, and inequality. Our bioethnographic platform joins two different methodological bundles—ethnographic observation and biochemical sampling—in a synthetic, symmetrical analysis that understands environment-body interactions as always relational, contingent, and constructed phenomena (see recent publications). The current iteration of our bioethnographic platform includes 1) ongoing collaboration between anthropologists and researchers from the longitudinal environmental health project ELEMENT (Early Life Exposures in Mexico to ENvironmental Toxicants), where we combine previously gathered ethnographic and environmental health data, and now, 2) an ethnographic coding lab, and 3) efforts to pose new research questions that could not be answered through only one form of methodological expertise alone.
In 1994, a team of U.S.-based environmental health researchers partnered with public health investigators in Mexico to form ELEMENT. The project aimed to study the effects of chemical exposures, particularly lead, on fetal and childhood growth and neurological development in the city then designated by the United Nations as the most polluted city on earth. Since then, ELEMENT project staff have collected samples of blood, urine, hair, toenails, breast milk, and teeth for ongoing molecular analysis from nearly 2,000 participants, mostly working-class mother-child pairs recruited through public clinics in Mexico City. Under the direction of PI Karen Petersen ELEMENT has expanded its focus to collect data on additional toxicants (e.g., bisphenol A, mercury, fluoride, phthalates), and new health concerns, especially those related to high rates of diabetes and obesity and premature sexual maturation, using new methods (metabolomics, GWAS, epigenetics).
In the fall of 2012, Mexican Exposures Project P.I. Elizabeth Roberts began working with ELEMENT researchers at the University of Michigan and project participants and staff in Mexico City. In 2014–2015 Roberts began an intensive ethnographic study of six ELEMENT participant families living in two geographically distinct working-class neighborhoods in Mexico City, focusing on household and neighborhood environments and geopolitical processes relevant to the production of bodily states. The ethnographic data from this longitudinal study forms the basis for Roberts and her anthropological team’s bioethnographic collaboration with ELEMENT researchers, through both a data coding lab where undergraduates train in qualitative methods by coding project materials, and formulation of new bioethnographic research questions in collaboration with ELEMENT researchers and the six participant families.
Mexican Exposures is the umbrella title for several ongoing bioethnographic projects combining ELEMENT biological data and ethnographic data in Mexico City. Currently we are focused on three projects with several more in the planning stages.