Citizen science study tests air quality near gas extraction sites
July 02, 2019
Academic-community partnership with residents formed to address environmental concerns
When residents of Guernsey County, Ohio, approached researchers to assess air and water quality near natural gas extraction (NGE) sites, Dr. Erin Haynes, professor and chair of Epidemiology at the University of Kentucky College of Public Health saw it as a great potential academic-community partnership.
What resulted was a baseline air quality sampling assessment conducted in 10 sites across Muskingum, Guernsey, Noble and Belmont counties in Ohio. The research is published online in the journal Progress in Community Health Partnerships.
Haynes, lead author of the study, was approached by Guernsey County local officials and residents in 2016, while she was a faculty member at the University of Cincinnati (UC), regarding their concerns over the rapid expansion of the NGE waste sites. NGE activity, also referred to as hydraulic fracturing, has increased in the Appalachian Ohio region in recent years, and is a potential source of air and water contamination.
Haynes and a UC team used a community-based participatory research approach, partnering with the Guernsey County community to conduct a pilot research study in October and November 2016 to assess baseline air quality near proposed and active NGE sites and develop a citizen science water quality test kit.
Community partners were actively involved throughout the small-scale study, Haynes says. “The community was critical in the identification of sampling locations, obtaining participation of landowners and conducting the sampling,” she adds. “Their concern for their community fueled our work.”
Image: Rusty Roberts, a longtime resident of Guernsey County, places a VOC air sampler
The team also worked with teachers from six area school districts to develop a citizen science water quality test kit for use in the classroom. The test kits were used in local middle school and high school classrooms as a classroom activity to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and to provide guidance on the collection of water from streams, ponds and the tap.
The air quality study sampled air at 10 locations for 63 different Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Seven of these ten locations had no NGE activity within 300 meters, which allowed the collection of baseline measurements. The results showed low levels of VOCs across the 10 test sites; however, the samples detected as many as 19 unique VOCs, with one compound (trichloroethene) above the recommended exposure level. The findings from the study were then reported back to local officials and community members.
“VOCs are released by both man-made and natural sources, so it can be common for certain types and levels of VOCs to be present in the air,” says Haynes. “Many VOCs have recommended exposure levels, which are measurements set by federal agencies that specify the acceptable level of human exposure. When measuring air quality, it is important to analyze both the type of VOCs found and the levels detected.”
Says Haynes of the baseline findings, “This research is very valuable in that it responded to community concern about capturing baseline air quality prior to an increase in NGE industrial operations. We were able to provide the commissioners with baseline air quality measurements. Additional air monitoring should be done to examine changes over time.”
“The classroom teachers and students were critical in the development of the water quality test kits, she adds. “Their role in developing the kits will provide a citizen science tool for water quality assessment for use across the globe.”
This research was supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS - P30 ES006096). The researchers cite no conflicts of interest.
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