How to Help with the BP Spill: Send in a Water Sample

Gulf spill

Every day we get worse news about the Gulf oil spill. There’s likely more oil spewing out of the Deepwater well than previously thought, the dispersants being used are as toxic as the oil, and now the spill is heading for open water. All over the country people are enraged, saddened, and wondering what they can do. Those who are either in the Gulf or went there to volunteer are, in most cases, either being sent away or given work they’re ill-prepared (or protected) to do.

Now two scientists are hoping to give people a safe and easy way to help: collect and send them water samples. Adam Braunschweig, a professor in the Department of Chemistry at New York University and Mark Olson, a professor in the Department of Science and Technology at Texas A&M, launched Project Tantalus yesterday with the goal of getting 100,000 water samples from the areas affected by the Deepwater spill sent to either Olson’s lab in Corpus Christi or Braunschweig’s in New York.

Instructions for submitting samples are simple: Volunteers can download the label form from the Project Tantalus Facebook page, fill in a few basic pieces of information, and then fill a mason jar with at least three tablespoons of water. The scientists are hoping to get six samples per person, each taken within 12 hours of the other.

“We want to know the longitude, latitude, date and time a sample was taken, and whether the sample looks clean, oily, or soapy, and whether it was taken from a beach, marsh, or the open ocean,” Braunschweig explains.

Volunteers west of the Mississippi will send samples to Olson, and those east of the river will send theirs to Braunschweig. “People in the Delta can choose either lab,” Braunschweig says.

From there, the two will test samples to determine the presence and concentration of organic chemicals in the water (both from the oil and from the dispersants being used), and how they’re changing over time. The results of their studies will be published in peer-reviewed journals and made available to the public.

In addition to being able to do something about the spill themselves, and offer others the option of doing something, Braunschweig and Olson are curious to see how well they can use social networking to mobilize a response to an ecological disaster. While that aspect of their project may be interesting to techies and communications professionals, the scientists are interested for a different reason.

“What typically happens in a situation like this is the EPA has their field people out taking samples, but they only test for turbidity — whether the water is clear or not — and there are only so many of them and they’re collecting from specific sites, so the most they can get is 1,000 samples a month and that’s tiny,” Braunschweig explains. “We’re hoping that by relying on grassroots volunteers we can get 100,000 samples from a variety of different places and across different time periods, and if we show that it’s possible, then it’s a strategy that can be used for other ecological crises as well.”

Project Tantalus is named for the mythical Greek king whose punishment for trying to steal the gods’ ambrosia was an eternity of starvation and thirst, spent with food and water in sight but just out of reach. “We called it that because we’re trying to get across the message that all we want is water,” Braunschweig says. “Just send us water.”

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