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Citizens at work

May 11, 2016

On April 27, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection announced plans to expand air-quality monitoring near shale-gas compressor stations. The announcement came just five days after the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) published a report on the results of EPA air monitoring around a Williams Central natural gas compressor station in Brooklyn Township, Susquehanna County. ATSDR concluded that fine particulate matter (PM2.5) had been found at levels that could result in health damage to the general public from long-term exposure, and that short-term exposure could harm the health of vulnerable populations such as the elderly, children and those with respiratory or heart disease.

The back story is that the push to secure the EPA’s air monitoring began with a citizen science initiative led by the UK non-profit Citizen Sense, which helped Susquehanna residents acquire the skills and equipment to collect air samples after state and federal agencies ignored their symptoms and concerns for more than five years.

Citizen science is all around us and increasing in importance as we face growing environmental threats.

While the Internet and GIS mapping have transformed the way data is reported and analyzed, the heart of the process remains the dedication of motivated individuals to learn appropriate scientific protocols and share their observations with professional researchers in ways that advance knowledge and shape policy. One of the oldest examples is the American Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, which has grown since its founding in 1900 to more than 50,000 citizen science participants whose observations have led to important policy changes, such as the ban on DDT in 1972. More recently, the annual count has documented the effect of climate change on habitat and identified 314 species that are in danger of losing their climatic range.