After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a nonprofit created citizen science kits to take matters into their own hands.
A citizen using a water testing kit. Image: Matej Vakula/Public Lab CC Share-alike
The incoming Donald Trump administration is not poised to protect the environment. The president-elect's pick for Secretary of State was CEO of fossil fuel giant ExxonMobil for the past decade; the pick for the Department of Energy pledged (and famously couldn't remember the name of it) to shut the agency down during his own presidential run. And the nominees to head both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Interior are climate-change deniers.
Meanwhile, reports of widespread lead contamination continue to pour in following the Flint water problem, and recent investigations of metal-processing plants and glass factories have placed industrial air emissions under the microscope across the US. With our air, water and land at stake, both the government and concerned citizens have decided that ordinary people now need to monitor and collect data about the environment.
Groups such as Public Lab are helping everyday people understand their surroundings, empowering them to test and measure the pollutants around them. I talked to Mathew Lippincott, director of production at Public Lab's Portland, Oregon outpost over the dust and din of a neighboring construction site. He said that the environmental nonprofit exists, "…to support community groups in collecting data about their own environment, specifically so that they could take control of the narrative about their environment."
Public Lab is run by a dozen staffers. A cluster are based in New Orleans, a few more are scattered throughout the east coast, while the systems administrator lives in Peru. Lippincott and two others share a third-floor office of exposed brick and bare walls with a noisy heater dangling from the ceiling. They're partnered with more than 60 community organizers around the world.
The scrappy workshop evolved from Public Lab's DIY founding during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. No one knew how much crude was spilling from the blown-out well or where it was going, so aerial photography and mapping enthusiasts descended upon the Gulf Coast with kites and balloons to document and map the spreading oil. Those who couldn't make the trip like Lippincott mailed whatever gear they could build, shared their knowledge, and processed the data pouring in from the field.
Collaborative monitoring of the BP oil spill led to the creation of Public Lab and the very first Public Lab kits. At the facility, environmental monitoring kits are packaged and shipped out to order. These kits, a small representation of Public Lab's, are designed by academics and tech-geeks using the organization's website as a place to exchange ideas and to collaborate. Everything is open-source and cheap—making it easy to build the tools at home.
Neatly organized shelves are packed with aerial photography gear: Parafoil mini-kites to fly small cameras; Balloons that provide a 1000-foot vantage point to shoot photos that can be matched to maps; 3D printed dual camera rigs. The first thing Lippincott wanted to show off were 30-foot carp fishing poles imported wholesale from the UK that people mount cameras.
Camera rigs aren't sexy, but Lippincott says that the most effective way to get authorities to investigate a potentially polluting facility is old fashioned photographic evidence. He wants people to have verifiable data to back up any claims of pollution but doesn't think that citizen science data alone will get results.
"If you have turbidity measurements of a runoff event from a construction area, you can say 'The stream had a turbidity moment and there must have been a runoff of topsoil from this site'. You're not going to get very far with it," he says. "But if you have a photo of it, 'Here, check out this brown mess running into the stream'. You can get immediate regulatory action on it."
Some kits get released to spur innovation—the Desktop Spectrometry Kit is an effort to see whether environmental monitoring can be performed with repurposed cameras and some open-source analytical software. Even kids can use them to visualize metal salt line emissions or to see the chemical difference between fluorescent and sodium vapor light bulbs.
Other DIY monitoring kits come with a variety of operational protocols and yield real results. The WheeStat can detect levels of conductive elements such as arsenic, lead and mercury in water by analyzing chemical reactions. Lippincott claims that the potentiostat provides accurate readings but after Flint, when a lot of people contacted Public Lab about water testing kits, they directed everyone to their local environmental testing agencies.
"Lead causes permanent brain damage," he says. "I don't want to sell someone a kit that they may learn to trust untrustworthy water with. That's a pretty scary thing to take on."
The truth is that environmental monitoring is difficult. Public Lab tries to offer cheap alternatives, but regulatory agencies like the EPA have very strict standards when it comes to equipment and how it's used. There's a lot of money at stake, so regulatory bodies need bulletproof data before they can issue fines or shut a facility down.
Lippincott understands the need for rigorous scientific standards. An EPA field worker has been trained to follow strict guidelines when collecting data to avoid sample contamination, just as lab workers are trained to process samples cleanly. That's why he's working on creating a system of documenting monitoring operations for citizen scientists that mirror professional standards.
"How do we set up systems where we have actual data verification?" he says. "A video record of someone calibrating a piece of equipment, photographic evidence of the field collection procedure."
The EPA isn't ready to accept just anyone's spreadsheet of data but they are working with community groups, such as a pilot program in Newark, NJ, by providing volunteers with their own air monitors to measure nitrogen dioxide and fine particulate matter. Environmentalists all seem to see value in citizen science, but the framework for how that can one day work in concert with regulatory agencies is just now being sketched out.
Until there are EPA-certified, low-cost and easy to use pollution monitors out there, and until there's a presidential administration dedicated to environmental health over corporate profits, being aware of what's happening to the air, water and land is going to be everyone's responsibility.
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