The Untapped Promise of Citizen Science for Environmental Policy

Posted on Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Author: Gwen Ottinger

2022 Fulbright Research Chair, ISSP, uOttawa


It’s 2 am. An African-American resident of a small Louisiana town is awakened by light flooding the room. A flare at the neighboring petrochemical facility has turned the sky bright as day. A sulfurous odor begins to penetrate her home. She goes to the hall closet and pulls out her bucket: a homemade air sampler equipped with a plastic sampling bag. She sets up the instrument in her front yard, pumps out the air inside, and opens a valve to let the polluted air rush in. In the morning, she sends the sampling bag to a laboratory and soon has measurements of the toxic chemicals that her community was breathing that night.

Episodes like this—a composite of real incidents in the United States, Canada, South Africa, and many other countries where petrochemical plants operate in close proximity to residential communities—are often characterized as examples of “citizen science.” A worldwide movement, citizen science is a phenomenon in which people without formal scientific credentials participate in scientific investigation. Citizen science is becoming important to environmental policy, because data collected by ordinary people can extend science’s field of vision to places and times that scientists would not be able to cover. It can increase the frequency of measurements and observations. It can speed up large-scale, labor-intensive tasks that computers don’t do a good job of, like identifying animals in images. These extensions of science can bolster the knowledge base of environmental science and make it possible for environmental agencies to make better decisions.

Bucket sampling in communities burdened by petrochemical pollution certainly does extend environmental science in important ways. In the U.S., air monitors are typically not sited in the neighbourhoods closest to industry. They usually don’t take measurements around the clock, and they often take measurements in a way that would average out the effects of a flare that lasted minutes or hours rather than days. That resident’s middle-of-the-night bucket sample offers valuable insight into environmental conditions that regulatory monitoring would miss. In an ideal world, it could be part of an evidentiary base for more protective regulations.

However, understanding bucket monitoring—and citizen science more generally—as only an extension of science misses the much greater contributions that ordinary people could be making to understanding environmental problems. Buckets are, in fact, an innovation that addresses the shortcomings of environmental science and regulation, especially in the U.S. where they originated. If environmental policy is truly to be improved by citizen science, regulators need to recognize and embrace innovations like these.

Communities adjacent to petrochemical facilities are accustomed to intrusive chemical odors. They can take a person’s breath away, or cause a sudden sore throat. There may or may not be a visible cause, like a flare. For some of the possible causes, regulators have ways to hold facilities accountable. But for the variety of intrusive, breath-taking odors that communities experience, there is not even a category in environmental regulation. Nor are there scientific studies that investigate the aggregate health effects of these irregular but still consequential exposures.

When buckets were developed in the 1990s, their creators developed a variation on existing technology that helped to coalesce intrusive odors as a new category of environmental harm. Previous grab sampling technology—the devices that regulators use to capture samples of the ambient air, like the bucket does—took samples over only a few seconds, or were outfitted with special pumps that packed many hours’ worth of air into a single sample. The bucket was designed to take several minutes to fill, because community members and activists knew from experience that that was a long enough period not to run the risk that a fluke change in the wind would carry away the odor, and a short enough period to capture peak pollution levels without diluting them. Community members developed a rating system for odors in order to determine when to take a sample: if an odor rated at least a 7 out of 10, compared to full range of odors they had experienced, it was worth taking a sample; otherwise, chemical levels were probably too low to be detected by a laboratory analysis. Finally, bucket users compared their results to published health-based screening levels for long-term exposure, even though their data represented snapshots of air quality over only a few minutes. They did so because they saw the repeated nature of exposures as a chronic condition, and because there were no standards that took into account the long-term health effects of this category of exposure.

The innovations involved in this example of citizen science are significant: the creation of a new category of environmental harm, the development of an instrument well suited to making knowledge about that phenomenon, and a strategy for interpretation that repurposed the (limited) tools available for understanding short-term air quality data in residential settings. These innovations create additional resources that regulators could adopt and potentially improve upon, in order to better protect communities from industrial pollution. They form the basis for additional research that could create more appropriate tools for interpreting data: if short-term samplers like the buckets were used to learn more about the phenomenon of odors, health researchers could perhaps tailor new standards to this kind of exposure.

Environmental regulators in the U.S. have not recognized these innovations as such. Instead, locked in a view of citizen science as an extension of science, they have devoted themselves to educating people interested in investigating the pollution they experience in how to do science the “right” way. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency held training sessions and released a toolkit for citizen scientists, in which they made the agency’s scientific methods and standards available to non-credentialed people without ever acknowledging the ways that those methods and standards made some environmental harms invisible and left communities dealing with petrochemical pollution without scientific resources to bring them to light.

Buckets are one example that conveys a larger message. If environmental policy is going to fully benefit from citizen science, regulators and scientists need to stop viewing citizen science as only a useful extension of their existing practices. They need to recognize that ordinary people are creating new, scientifically fruitful, concepts and methods. They need to acknowledge the shortcomings of existing environmental science that give rise to these innovations. They need to follow the lead of citizen scientists in advancing innovation that addresses those shortcomings. Only then will environmental regulators and other champions of citizen science be able to claim that they are embracing its potential to better protect people and the environment.

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