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Citizen science projects can help gather information to address concerns about the safety and quality of soil in an area. There are many reasons why local residents may be concerned about the soil in their community. For example, residents may be concerned that soil at a former industrial facility being used as a park is contaminated, and what the exposure to these contaminants may be. Residents may also want to know if any soil contamination is affecting local ground or surface water or if soil quality is suitable for growing produce for human consumption.
Citizen scientists can become involved with soil projects in several ways. For example, local knowledge of an area can help determine both the need for, and the design of, an investigation. The citizen can share this concern with their community and perhaps find local researchers or environmental groups to partner with to address the concern. Volunteers can help collect data, continue to share information with the larger community, and reach out to local, state and federal partners to help effectively address their concerns.
One area where citizen scientists have been highly engaged with soil projects is in the development of community gardens on sites with an industrial history, and guidelines are available to inform the public about safe gardening practices in urban or former industrial areas. County soil and water conservation districts and university cooperative extension services can also help with these questions, potentially including laboratory analysis of soil samples. Click on the land grant university (Cornell and Rutgers) listed below for further information.
- Brownfields and Urban Agriculture: Interim Guidelines for Safe Gardening Practices
- Steps to Create a Garden or Expand Urban Agriculture
- Rutgers University Soil Testing Lab in New Jersey
- Cornell University Soil Health Webpage
Sampling and Methodologies
Collecting new data about soil quality often involves equipment and resources generally not available to the public, but there are several screening-level techniques that require only minimal training and are relatively low-cost that can be used as a first step. Some contaminants that are frequently found in high levels in urban/industrial soils are: metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), petroleum hydrocarbons and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Relatively inexpensive field testing kits are available for total petroleum hydrocarbons and total PCBs. Immunoassay kits are also available for PAHs and some metals, but these kits typically require the assistance of someone familiar with basic wet chemistry and/or environmental testing methods. Some sites providing information about these field tests as well as some more complicated options are listed below:
- Information about field test kits
- Information about the use of X-Ray fluorescence instruments
- Information on immunoassay and enzymatic assays
Beyond screening-level techniques, analysis of soil requires sending a sample to a laboratory. There are opportunities to partner with environmental organizations; and state, local and federal agencies are expanding opportunities to assist citizens in learning more about soil quality and helping them address their concerns. The following is a useful link to information about the range of sampling techniques available:
- New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Field Sampling Procedures Manual: Soil sampling is addressed in Section 6.2 within this manual
- NJDEP Soil Cleanup Criteria: Provides some tips on how to interpret the results of your soil sampling, and determine whether the concentrations found are typical for your region or are potentially of concern.
Brooklyn College Soil Testing
As part of his long-term research on soil contamination in New York City’s urban gardens, Dr. Joshua Cheng in Brooklyn College’s Department of Geology has established an affordable soil testing service in an effort to inform urban gardeners about the levels of contaminants in their soil so they can make better decisions to protect the health of themselves and their family. Dr. Cheng is also using the data obtained to map urban garden contamination levels throughout the City. Dr. Cheng’s lab analyzes samples for five toxic metals (lead, chromium, arsenic, cadmium and nickel ); major and micro nutrients including calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, manganese, copper, zinc and iron; soil pH; soluble salts; organic matter content; and soil texture. For more information about this service, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org; or visit http://testmysoil.brooklyn.edu/.
Other Useful Links:
- MyEnvironment – Great site that gathers data from EPA and other resources in an easily used platform for your area code – includes MyAir, MyWater, MyHealth, MyEnergy and MyCommunity
- Green Apps – List of available environmental apps for Apple, Android, Blackberry, Windows and web. User can filter for Topic, i.e. “soil”
- US EPA Region 2 Guidance for the Development of Quality Assurance Project Plans (QAPPs) for Citizen Science Projects [PDF 70 KB, 25 pp]