Citizen science may educate public on pharmaceutical water pollution, report suggests

Citizen science has become far more accessible in recent years through the advancement of technology, according to Pollution Probe. Credit: kurgu128, /Adobe Stock.

A new report examining pharmaceuticals found in the Great Lakes considers how citizen science initiatives could be developed to educate as well as fill gaps in data.

The Pollution Probe report, prepared for Environment and Climate Change Canada, was undertaken to explore the use of citizen science as a tool for engagement and a means of better understanding pharmaceutical pollution. The new report provides guidance on various sampling methods, shipment and storage, as well as chain of custody.

As citizen science gains popularity, the federal government has launched a portal to help provide guidance to people interested in learning how to do more with environmental monitoring. This ability to make more of a difference has led Pollution Probe, a charitable environmental organization that began in 1969, to believe that citizen science could be a new tool against pharmaceutical pollution.

“One of the most powerful aspects of this tool is its ability to provide unique opportunities for individuals and communities to generate their own questions, collect their own data and advocate for the change they wish to see,” the report states. “It allows for those involved to gain a deeper understanding of their natural surroundings, and contributes to building an informed public that can advocate more successfully for the protection of human health and the environment,” the report adds.

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Pharmaceuticals have been found in all of the Great Lakes, primarily in effluent or surface water downstream from wastewater treatment plants. However, compounds have also been detected in open waters, fish tissues and drinking water treatment plants, the report notes. Surface water concentrations of pharmaceuticals are often correlated with human population density in the drainage area.

Antidepressants, painkillers, birth control pills, antibiotics and endocrine disrupting compounds are often found entering the lakes through municipal wastewater, agriculture and fish farms. In terms of wastewater, medication can enter the Great Lakes from systems connected to homes, hospitals and healthcare facilities, landfill leachate and pharmaceutical manufacturers.

While wastewater treatment plants remove oxygen demand, suspended solids, nutrients, foreign materials, and microorganisms from the water, the removal rate or breaking down of the various compounds found in pharmaceuticals depends on the physical and chemical properties of each specific drug.

Often referred to as crowdsourced citizen science, the practice has become far more accessible in recent years through the advancement of technology, according to Pollution Probe.

“Environmental monitoring technologies and tools for sharing information allow citizen scientists to engage in the collection of data in new and innovative ways, and provide improved means for environmental agencies to use the data generated,” the report states.

Still, determinations often need to be made early, whether the intention of the citizen science effort is to provide credible information on water quality conditions to governments or academia, or to simply educate the public through opportunities for experiential learning.

“Consideration must be given to how those involved as participants will benefit, and to the complexity of the data gathering process and any associated costs,” the report states.

Another possible option for finding cost efficiencies is for citizen science groups to partner or complement existing monitoring programs.

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