University of Nebraska Medical Center

Citizen Scientists Help Monitor Water Quality

Public Health Practice – Ever wonder what’s in your water? The Center for Environmental Health and Toxicology (CEHT), in partnership with UNO’s Nebraska Watershed Network, has been working together on projects that specifically focus on the nation’s water quality.

One such project was Lil’ Miss Atrazine. Atrazine is an herbicide used primarily on corn, and during rain storms, atrazine is transported, along with other chemicals, into surface waters throughout the Midwestern United States. In most areas, these waters eventually reach the Mississippi River, where they are carried downstream to the Gulf of Mexico. Given the capacity for agricultural chemicals to travel great distances in river water, assessing the environmental health associated with these chemicals becomes a wicked problem.

Wicked problems are difficult to solve due to incomplete, contradictory, or changing information, and the occurrence of agrichemicals in the Mississippi River basin is clearly one. Problems such as these may benefit from the use of unconventional tactics; therefore, we looked to use an unconventional work force, the citizen scientist, to help with a basin-wide water sampling effort.

Armed with atrazine test strips, legions of citizen scientists were set loose across the Mississippi River, from New Orleans to Lake Itasca. These individuals were able to use the strip, generate a result (a positive or negative at the US EPA drinking water standard), then send it back to us. Data retrieval was accomplished via Twitter feeds, Instagram, text messaging, email and good old fashion US mail postcards. On June 7, over 210 data points were collected on one day.

Interestingly, the northern reaches of the watershed (Minnesota) were clean, probably because the atrazine had already moved downstream by the time of assessment. Likewise the southern reach of the watershed (New Orleans) was equally clean, possibly due to a dilution effect cause by the massive volumes of water. The middle reach of the river from St. Louis to Minnesota, was a checkerboard of negative and positive hits, some in rural watersheds, some in urban.

Lil’ Miss Atrazine was a proof-of-concept experiment, and demonstrated the utility of an empowered citizenry. The UNMC College of Public Health can tap into this power and use these volunteers to collect information not only on water quality, but on environmental health as well. The CEHT is dedicated to interdisciplinary and cross-cutting research, therefore if you have collaborative ideas relative to this project, contact the CEHT and share your ideas.

This article was written by Alan S. Kolok, PhD, professor in the UNMC COPH Department of Environmental, Agricultural, and Occupational Health, and interim director of the UNMC COPH Center for Environmental Health and Toxicology.

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