Is citizen science the key to environmental justice?

With the EPA under siege and industrial regulation in full retreat, the work of health science professor Sara Wylie has become more relevant than ever.

Wylie, who has a joint appointment at Bouvé and the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, is a pioneer in the field of citizen science, a movement dedicated to empowering ordinary citizens to conduct environmental monitoring in their communities. As co-founder of Public Lab and ExtrAct, Wylie is a key player in the effort to develop low-cost tools for people to gather the data needed to protect their communities from environmental harm.

For example, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana in 2010, British Petroleum blocked media access to the area, and the Federal Aviation Administration declared a no-fly zone, essentially cutting off information about the magnitude of the spill. Public Lab responded by devising an ingeniously simple way for citizens to gather their own information, organizing teams of volunteers to attach GPS cameras to low-flying weather balloons and send them out over the disaster site.

That effort produced more than 100,000 aerial photographs that were stitched together into a high-resolution map of the spill that was used by news outlets, including The New York Times and the BBC. The map documented a spill that pumping 134 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over the course of 87 days. It was the largest marine oil spill in history.

Since then, Public Lab has developed a host of low-cost devices, including spectrometers made from ordinary cells phones that can test for chemical pollution in water, infrared cameras that can detect crop damage and $1 canisters that can sense dangerous chemicals in the air.

“The government doesn’t have the capacity to monitor all the polluters,” said Wylie. “This is why citizen science is so important now.”

 Sarah Wylie, Bouvé College of Health Sciences, Northeastern University. Photo credit Mariah Tauger

Professor Sarah Wylie, Bouvé College of Health Sciences, Northeastern University

To frack or not to frack…

Wylie’s interest in citizen science developed from her ethnographic work with communities affected by fracking, a controversial method for extracting oil and gas from shale and other deposits buried deep below the earth’s surface.

To proponents, fracking is the answer to the nation’s dependence on foreign oil. By opening up previously inaccessible reserves, they say, fracking will boost the economy, improve national security, and function as a bridge to a future based on renewable energy.

But to opponents, fracking is an environmental nightmare that poses major health risks to the 17.6 million Americans in 32 states who live within a mile of fracking wells. They also contend that the fracking boom has diverted research money from renewable energy while depressing oil prices and spurring increased consumption.

Fracking explanation - Bouve College of Health Sciences

Here’s how hydraulic fracking works: Oil and gas companies drill a vertical well more than a mile below the surface, then turn the drill 90 degrees to bore a mile-long horizontal well through the shale deposit. The shale holds oil and gas like a sponge. To release it, the mining companies create millions of fractures in the subterranean rock by shooting chemical-laden fluid into the wells with a force 40 times greater than a firehose. This water—millions of gallons per well—must then be pumped out, stored, and decontaminated.

Is hydraulic fracturing responsible for the increased number of earthquakes in several states or the strange ailments suffered by nearby residents? The problem is, no one knows.

Fracking was exempted from key provisions in the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005, and the continued rollback of existing regulations means there isn’t enough data to determine its impact on the environment or human health, according to Wylie.

The need for data is the central premise of her new book, Fractivism: Corporate Bodies and Chemical Bonds, a call to action for expanded citizen science, academic research, and government funding.


Wylie’s work on fracking began in 2005 in Colorado, where residents were complaining of unusual illnesses. She describes several people who lived near the town of Silt, where the Divide Creek began bubbling with methane released by nearby fracking operations.

Laura Amos, for example, developed a rare form of adrenal cancer after her domestic water well blew up during a fracking operation in 2001. Rick Roles experienced an array of strange symptoms, including numbness in his extremities, while his livestock suffered an alarming rate of miscarriages. He recently passed away.

But the oddest story involved Chris Mobaldi, who developed an illness known as “foreign language syndrome,” that causes people to talk in strange foreign accents. Mobaldi’s thinking became muddled, she required oxygen, and she eventually died of a pituitary tumor in 2010.

“The burden on these people is to prove fracking is harmful at the same time their lives have been turned upside down,” said Wylie. “They should be the focus of research, rather than sidelined and denounced. It’s a classic example of blaming the victim.”

Red flag

Wylie is currently leading a team of scientists from Northeastern and Harvard universities, recruited by a consortium of Canadian media outlets to studying fracking the health effects of fracking in Saskatchewan, Canada.

In the spirit of citizen science, she has devised a $1 device that residents can use to test the air for hydrogen sulfide, a neurotoxin that can cause fatigue, dizziness, altered moods, and in high doses, death.

A plastic canister contains a circle of photographic paper the size of a quarter that, when exposed to hazardous chemicals, changes colors—the darker the color the greater the exposure. Wylie distributed these canisters to residents near Saskatchewan fracking wells, and the preliminary results were unsettling

On some ranches, the readings were off the charts,” she told the Canadian media group. And the highest reading was on one rancher’s front porch.

Although the kit is not precise enough to establish positive ties between fracking and local illnesses, it does serve as a red flag, according to Wylie.

“When the readings are high and there are health problems in the community, that combination should indicate that the government needs to investigate,” she said. “Citizen science can’t replace the more expensive monitoring, but it can guide where we focus our resources.”

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