Public Lab Aims for Affordable Hydrogen Sulfide Gas Sensors

    by Sara Wylie
    October 25, 2011

    This post was co-authored by Shannon Dosemagen.

    In September, members of Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS) met with residents of Garfield County, Colo., to discuss the growing hydrogen sulfide problem in their small, rural community. Public Laboratory is an organization and membership community which develops and applies open-source tools to environmental exploration and investigation.

    Hydrogen sulfide, a neurotoxic and potentially lethal gas, can be produced by bacteria growing in natural gas wells, or can natively occur within reserves of natural gas. Natural gas development is booming across North America, and with it, cases of hydrogen sulfide poisoning found in both workers and residents living near wells.


    Gas wells in Rifle, Colo.

    Recently, this Colorado community organized to take a gaseous grab sample from one resident’s kitchen sink. Analysis of the sample showed hydrogen sulfide levels of more than 185 times above the long-term exposure level recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency. The family, in which the son developed painful skin lesions and other symptoms coincident with this exposure, was forced to abandon the house.


    Exposure-related rash.

    The story of this family’s health problems are documented on WellWatch. WellWatch is a tool developed by MIT’s Knight-funded Center for Civic Media’s ExtrAct Project for community monitoring of oil and gas extraction. The family is seeking legal assistance, but so far, neighboring gas development companies have denied association with the water contamination.

    In cases such as this, the regulatory authorities weren’t able to act to support exposed individuals because they are understaffed and underfunded. The grab sample, while able to capture one record of exposure, was costly (over $500) and had to be shipped to a lab in California within 24 hours in order to ensure the sample’s viability. The family did not hear about the results of the test for weeks, all the while continuing their exposure.

    Innovating community-based approaches

    There are large gaps in our public health system, particularly around environmental health issues associated with large-scale industries like oil and gas. Public Laboratory is attempting to innovate community-based approaches to environmental health problems like hydrogen sulfide, so that communities and workers may begin to not only develop systems to track their exposure, but to generate data and evidence in order to scientifically validate their experiences.

    Public Lab is developing, through an applied ethnographic approach, a low-cost sensor for hydrogen sulfide gas that’s easy to assemble and use. It will be used in North American communities impacted by natural gas extraction. Sara Wylie, a Public Laboratory co-founder, co-developed the ExtrAct group’s WellWatch.org, for community monitoring of the natural gas industry which can be used in conjunction with the sensor.

    Using WellWatch, landowners can annotate an online map with their stories and complaints about the industry and network with others managing similar issues. As a team of environmental anthropologists and technologists, we’re now developing a pilot-sensing system that can be adapted for use by gas patch communities across the country.

    This pilot will incorporate hydrogen sulfide tool development at gas patch sites, wetlands and remotely in our workshops. The process will begin with aerial mapping — using helium-filled balloons and cameras launched by community members. These community-made maps will be used to develop site-based strategies for hydrogen sulfide sensing using a variety of digital and non-digital approaches to quantifying hydrogen sulfide exposure and events.

    With these conversations, we’ll begin developing strategies with the community based around their advocacy and health goals. We’ll then build out designs that seem most suitable for further testing. The end goal is to institute a five-month pilot study at one site in Colorado.


    Battlement Mesa bucket air monitor.

    While in Garfield County this September, we met with members of the Battlement Mesa Bucket Brigade, which has adopted the bucket air sampling tool to do monitoring in their community. One of the concerns that has been expressed about testing for hydrogen sulfide with the bucket is that the sample has to arrive at the lab within 24 hours, which can be difficult for rural communities.

    The night before meeting with residents of Rifle, we worked on a basic design for a low-cost sensor that included an Arduino board, an H2S sensing device, jumper wires, a box and an LED light. The next day, we met to discuss what would be the best way for people to use the sensor and detect high levels of hydrogen sulfide in their communities — an LED light blinking while it sits on your windowsill? An alert sent to your cell phone?

    H2S sensor prototype

    During lunch at the local Sonic, Sara, Shannon Dosemagon, Public Lab’s director of Community Engagement, Education and Outreach, and Jeff Warren, our director of research, worked with Battlement on creating an initial storyboard that will help in iterations of the next design.


    H2S sensor prototype pictured above. Below: Storyboard.


    Currently, we’re in the early stages of development for the H2S sensor, concentrating on design, toxics research, and partnership building. Recently in Providence, R.I., Public Lab worked with Global Community Monitor (which developed the bucket air monitoring tool) and the Toxics Action Center to do a workshop for residents neighboring the Johnston Asphalt Plant on air monitoring and community mapping. Insight from, and collaboration with, Global Community Monitor will help create a stronger program around the use of hydrogen sulfide sensing in conjunction with air monitoring and community mapping.

    Next week, we’ll also begin testing the use of black-and-white film for detecting hydrogen sulfide by exposing treated photographic paper to H2S. It turns out that silver is tarnished by hydrogen sulfide, making black-and-white film (which contains silver halide) a useful tool for monitoring it. Following a protocol developed by Claire J. Horwell et al. in 2004, we’ll be testing whether photographic paper combined with Photoshop can be used as a low-cost non-digital assay for hydrogen sulfide.

    Testing each of the Public Lab tools takes place based on site-specific needs, and the hydrogen sulfide sensor will be developed accordingly. Use of independent and community-accessible monitoring devices such as the H2S sensor at individual gas patch sites could drive a larger nationwide monitoring network, emerging around extractive industries. With this as one of the large-scale goals, we’re concerned with addressing questions about connecting data to advocacy — and supporting the use of our tools by communities through creating strong systems of data analysis and interpretation. If you’re interested in getting involved, please send us an email at [email protected].

    Sara Wylie, a Public Laboratory co-founder, developed webtools for community monitoring of the oil and gas industry for her doctoral work at MIT in History, Anthropology and Science, Technology and Society. As part of this research, she co-founded and co-directed MIT Center for Future Civic Media’s ExtrAct Project with Chris Csikszentmihalyi. Presently, Sara is Public Laboratory’s director of Toxics and Health Research as well as visiting faculty in Rhode Island School of Design’s (RISD) Digital + Media Department. At RISD, Sara teaches social theory and anthropology of science and technology to artists and designers in order to develop new “in practice” methods for Social Studies of Science.

    Shannon Dosemagen, co-founder of Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, is based in New Orleans as the Director of Community Engagement, Education and Outreach. Shannon has worked with Public Laboratory (formerly Grassroots Mapping) for the last year as the Gulf Coast project lead, organizing volunteers as they collected aerial images of the Gulf Coast. Shannon also works with the Anthropology and Geography Department at Louisiana State University as an Ethnographer and Community Researcher on a study about the social impacts of the spill in coastal Louisiana communities. Prior to working with Public Laboratory, she was the Oil Spill Response Coordinator at the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, directing projects such as the first on-the-ground health and economic impact report in Louisiana post-oil spill. Shannon has an MS in Anthropology, a BFA in Photography and Anthropology and has worked with nonprofits for over 10 years.

    Tagged: colorado hydrogen sulfide natural gas neurotoxic pollution public lab sensor wellwatch

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