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Army of citizen scientists help sample hundreds of miles of waterways


Researchers at the University of Hull have mobilised a team of citizen scientists to help monitor the quality of waterways across the UK.

The scheme is part of a €4.4m Europe-wide project led by the University of Hull which aims to discover more information about the presence and impact of harmful chemicals which are found in our waterways.

The project, called Sullied Sediments, looks at what are termed ‘watch list’ chemicals, which are those which have been identified by the EU as potentially harmful and in need of careful monitoring.

Some of these compounds can be found in everyday household products including toothpaste, soaps and common drugs, putting waterways at risk.

Researchers are recruiting an army of volunteers to test the UK’s waterways, particularly in the Humber catchment. 

The volunteers are being armed with paper analytical devices (PADs), developed by researchers at the University of Hull. These PADs are like ‘litmus paper’ for pollutants, changing colour as they react with the compounds in the water.  Accompanying the PADs is a mobile app that allows volunteers to records their results and return them to the researchers.

The first PAD device to be rolled out can be used to monitor phosphate levels in water samples. Phosphate is a nutrient which ends up in the waterways and fertilises weed growth. It creates blankets of green weed across the waterways which block out the light and deoxygenate the water which means that organisms cannot live underneath.

Mark Lorch, Professor of Science Communication at the University of Hull, said: “Phosphates are very easy to identify and it’s really obvious how they affects rivers, so they are a good starting point. But we are also developing ways to monitor ‘watch list’ chemicals which are much harder to measure because they are often present in vanishingly small concentrations.

“For example, many medications end up in your urine and from there pass into the waterways, or if they aren’t used people flush them down the toilet or throw them away where they end up in landfill waste and then seep into the water system.”

Samantha Richardson, a PhD Chemistry student at the University of Hull developed the dip test device for phosphate.

She said: “People should care about their local waterways the same way they are caring about plastics in the oceans. You can see the effects the pollutants are having on our local waterways and this is a really great way for people to be able to contribute and enable citizens to help measure these waterways and help contribute to the science which will eventually help clean them up as well.

“We are using everything we have learned from the phosphate test to develop more devices for these ‘watch list’ chemicals. The main difference is that for phosphate you can use chemistry which has already been developed.

“With a lot of these new chemicals, the analytical methods for detecting them in a normal way is not there, so at the moment we’re trying to develop something similar, but it is more complex and a lot more research needs to be done back in the lab.”

Volunteers are already sampling for phosphate in a number of areas including Selby, Doncaster, Leeds, and Pocklington.

They simply dip the provided paper device into the water for three minutes, photograph the pad, location, time and add the details to a mobile app which has been specifically designed for this project.

The data will then be analysed back at the University of Hull, where a map of the results is being built up. 

Samantha said: “The great thing about the PADs is that anybody can take them, dip them in the water and use the app developed to record results. We are building up this fabulous picture of the phosphate levels in the waterways over seasons and into the future.


“People should care about their local waterways the same way they are caring about plastics in the oceans.”

Samantha Richardson, a PhD Chemistry student at the University of Hull 

 “Getting enough data is a big problem in environmental science, so to have these volunteers go out there is really important to help us build up this map of evidence.

“It wouldn’t be possible to accomplish what we are doing without the input and help of the volunteers.”

So far, volunteers have been trained from the Canal and River Trust’s Towpath Taskforce and Pocklington Canal Amenity Society. They regularly collect data from the East Riding's Pocklington Canal and from other sites in the Humber catchment including Leeds, Sheffield, Selby, Rotherham and Mexborough.

The team have also worked with young people who are part of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s ‘Tomorrow’s Natural Leaders’ programme and members of the Yorkshire Derwent Catchment Partnership.

There are plans to work with other groups who will be trained and able to take part in the sampling campaign over the summer and autumn."

One such volunteer is Tim Charlson.

He said: “I’m interested in wildlife and ecology so I wanted to get involved. I have probably carried out around 20 samples all around the Pocklington Canal. It’s really easy, I spend a couple of hours just wandering up and down. It’s absolutely brilliant. It’s really straight forward, you do it on your mobile phone and it is very easy to use.”

This call to action is part of a wider project the University of Hull is undertaking, which aims to identify and eradicate these emergent chemicals from our waterways.

Professor Lorch said: “This is just one part of the project, the other parts are also looking at what’s in the sediments, because as we dredge the waterways we pull up the sediments and we have to know what to do with them and if these sediments are contaminated with those compounds, we don’t want to be just dumping them on fields or anywhere else for that matter. We have to think about how we actually dispose of them in a responsible manner.

“The third part of the project is actually coming up with new ways of cleaning the waterways and we have a fabulous green chemistry project which is taking plant spores and using them to absorb various compounds in the waterways to help clean up the system.”

East Riding of Yorkshire Council is a contributing partner to this project and has been involved in developing the volunteer sampling programme. Being part of this project means that the cutting-edge research and practices that Sullied Sediments is producing are being shared and rolled out in the East Riding for the benefit of local communities, businesses and the environment.



Three ways people can help reduce the amount of chemicals going into the waterways: 

It’s easy to associate river pollution with large factories and heavy industry, but we too play a part by going about our everyday lives. Simple small changes could make a real difference to the water quality of your local river and it’s so easy to do with a few simple changes to your everyday habits.

1. Ditch the slug pellets

Slug pellets contain the toxic compound Metaldehyde. The pellets are washed into drains and ditches, and from there they wind their way into river systems, affecting animals much larger than slugs or snails.

Alternatives to Metaldehyde include copper strips, said to deter slugs, or parasitic nematode worms which naturally kill slugs and snails. Or you could simply encourage predators such as hedgehogs and frogs into your garden.

2. Do less laundry

Every time you wash synthetic fibres, small parts of the material will fragment away and wash into the water system, leaching toxic materials as they break down into their original components. These toxic products have been linked to neurological, fertility and immune health problems.

So the next time you go to wash the fleece that you only wore for ten minutes a couple of weekends ago, think: is this really necessary?

3. Don’t flush those meds

Pharmaceutical products are another cause for concern as even in very small quantities they may be considered toxic. You can help by making sure old pills are disposed of properly. Many people flush them down the loo, or chuck them in the bin when really they should be returned to a pharmacy where they can be properly disposed of. 



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