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.