A Citizen Science Effort to Investigate Indoor Air Quality in Northeast Denver

By August 24th, 2015 at 1:58 pm | Comment 1

A Denver community/scientist partnership is launching a citizen science project to investigate local indoor air quality and new sampling methods. Read on to learn more, and check out the project page on SciStarter!

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Image Credit: US Army / Flickr

I never anticipated a career in science, let alone engineering. I began with dreams of being a professional ballet dancer and dedicated most of my young life to this goal. Now here I am, a first year PhD student in an Environmental Engineering program and I have found work that is truly engaging and meaningful in the way I had always hoped.

My research falls under the topic of air quality. To be more specific I work on testing low-cost sensors and examining their usefulness in research. I’m also interested in how new technologies can be used to further education, outreach and citizen science. I believe that communities and scientists must work together on appropriate methods, study design, and determining precisely how the data will be used. Our project which aims to study indoor air quality in Northeast Denver is designed to achieve these goals. It provides us the opportunity to both explore low-cost sampling methods and also understand how to effectively engage in community/science partnerships.

In implementing this project, I’m collaborating with Taking Neighborhood Health to Heart, a Denver nonprofit, that has a history of successful projects looking at health and nutrition within their community and the American Geophysical Union’s Thriving Earth Exchange which not only provides funding but also supports us through their expertise in community-science.

Community-Driven Air Quality Project

This project began when residents of this Northeast Denver community saw examples of spills of perchloroethylene (PERC), a solvent commonly used in dry cleaning, potentially endangering health in other Denver neighborhoods. One resident for example observed, the vacant space left by a local dry cleaner who had been in business for over 30 was next to door to a Boys and Girls club. This observation then led the community to question, “could PERC be a problem for us too?”

Working with TNH2H and members of the community, we have designed a plan to collect data on perchloroethylene and radon levels in homes. Radon is another hazardous gas-phase pollutant, common across Colorado and considered the second leading cause of lung cancer. While these types of pollutants may not pose immediate threats, long-term exposure to low levels of pollutants like PERC and radon can lead to chronic health impacts.

An example of a low-cost air sampler (Credit: Hannigan Research Lab)

An example of a low-cost air sampler (Credit: Hannigan Research Lab)

As part of our effort each participating home will be provided with an Air Quality Test Kit containing the sampling devices (a high-quality PERC test, a low-cost PERC test, and a certified radon test), instructions, data sheets, surveys, and background info. Participants will sample in their own homes with the help of community coordinators and the data will be reported back to TNH2H.

Why Get Involved

Perhaps it is because I grew up outside of science, but I feel strongly about making the methods and tools of science more accessible so more individuals can collect meaningful data from which they can learn and possibly even take action to improve their communities.

Data that we collect on the two pollutants will be provided to project participants along with assistance understanding what the data means and advice regarding remediation actions where appropriate.  Our team will also analyze the data spatially to look for hot-spots or perhaps particular types of homes that might be the most at risk. Overall results will then be disseminated throughout the entire community.

These community/science partnerships that we hope to establish are valuable because together these teams can share knowledge and tailor research and solutions that will have the greatest impact as the local level, leading to more sustainable changes. In addition to the local impacts, other communities, researchers, and possibly even regulators could benefit from both the new PERC sampling method and what we have learned about how to facilitate community/scientist partnerships.

How Can You Help?

Testing for PERC is currently costly and not very accessible. We will use field and lab data to test a low-cost method for PERC detection. If successful, the new PERC detection method would take the cost of a sample from $100 per sample to $8 per sample. There will be lower accuracy with the new method, but it could serve as a powerful screening method that could more quickly identify homes with PERC well above the level of concern.

Radon tests, on the other hand, are simple to use and relatively low-cost. However, not everyone is aware of the importance of testing your home, we hope to provide education and raise awareness through this project.

If you happen to live in Northeast Denver, you may be able to participate in the data collection. Check out the project page on SciStarter for more information!

Otherwise, please consider joining us through our crowdfunding campaign, where you can support the project, stay updated on our progress, and be among the first to see the results of our collaboration. Be sure to check it out soon, the campaign ends at 11:59 pm PDT on 8/26!


Ashley CollierAshley Collier is a PhD candidate in Environmental Engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder and works in an air quality lab. Her work includes using low-cost technologies for research and education/outreach.

Categories: Citizen Science

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  1. I think that the best part about this project is how community based it is. Often, communities feel as though they don’t have the power to make tangible change. This air quality project stands as a testament against that notion.

    T.C.

    26 Aug 15 at 10:31 am

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