MIT SRP Supports Citizen Science in Collaboration with Native Americans in Maine

By Bevin P. Engelward

MIT Superfund Program Director

Five years ago, Drs. Kathy Vandiver and Robert Croy, along with Prof. John Essigmann, reached out to Passamaquoddy Tribe located in the vicinity of Eastport Maine, who had asked for advice regarding news stories and publications warning of high arsenic levels in drinking water. The MIT group represented the Community Outreach, Education and Engagement Core of the Center for Environmental Health Sciences (CEHS). This initial contact led to a robust bi-directional interaction that serves as a platform upon which some of the Superfund community programs are based. Indeed, Superfund and CEHS now work closely together with the Sipayik Environmental Department of the Passamaquoddy Nation to address an ever widening suite of environmental questions and problems.

Throughout the past year, Dr. Kathy Vandiver (CEC Director), Prof. Harold Hemond (Project 1 Lead), Prof. John Essigmann (Program Co-Director and Project 3 Lead), have overseen and mentored two MIT Masters of Engineering students, Ms. Abby Harvey and Ms. Tchelet Segev (pictured). Their project is focused on testing drinking water for communities in Maine through Citizen Science participation, one of MIT SRP CEC’s specific aims. Specifically, residents of Eastport, Perry, and Pleasant Point, including many members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, had expressed concern about their water quality, including variable color and taste. The municipal water supply for these towns is the Passamaquoddy Water District (PWD), which treats and distributes water from the Boyden Lake, a shallow nearby water body that is often used for recreational purposes.

Ms. Harvey and Ms. Segev had aimed to identify a project for their Masters thesis that would be of benefit to a community. Under the supervision of of Drs. Vandiver, Hemond, and Essigmann, Ms. Harvey and Segev launched a Citizen Science project in collaboration with the local Sipayik Environmental Department that serves the Passamaquoddy Tribe. This project provided an exciting opportunity for the MIT SRP to contribute and to learn from the experience, making this an effective pilot for future citizen science activities.

Ms. Harvey and Ms. Segev collected and analyzed the concentration of metals in household water samples. With guidance from Dr. Vandiver, the team held community meetings in Perry, Pleasant Point, and Eastport, ME (pictured) to listen to residents’ concerns, to describe the water-testing project, and to distribute Citizen Science sampling kits. Residents collected both standing and flushed water samples at their homes, with representation from both private well and municipal water supplies. The number of private wells tested was nearly double the participation of a US Geological Survey analysis between 2005-2009. Over 300 households submitted samples, an exceptional participation rate of more than 20% of homes in the area.

Approximately 1,000 samples were analyzed by inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) for the concentrations of more than 10 different metals, including arsenic and lead. Select samples were shared with the Maine State Laboratory for parallel screening, and results showed excellent agreement. Additionally, household samples that scored high for metal content were re-analyzed for confirmation. Members of the Sipayik Environmental Department, Chris Johnson, Asha Ajmani (left), and Billy Longfellow (right) joined researchers at MIT for the ICP-MS analyses. The experience provided them with a professional development opportunity and enabled them to communicate the results more effectively with the local community. The MIT SRP benefitted greatly from participation by the Sipayik Environmental Department. Mr. Johnson, Ms. Ajmani, and Mr. Longfellow played key roles in organizing the program and engaging the communities in rural Maine.


Results from the sample analyses revealed that several households supplied by private wells had levels of arsenic exceeding EPA guidelines of 10 parts per billion (ppb). None of the households supplied by municipal water were found to have high levels of arsenic. For lead, several households’ standing water samples exceeded the EPA guideline (15 ppb). However, flushing the tap for at least two minutes lowered lead content to acceptable levels, indicating that the lead was introduced from household piping rather than the municipal water mains. Importantly, participants learned that running water before use could reduce their risk of lead exposure. All residents who had submitted samples were mailed a letter describing their household’s individual results, guidance for interpreting the results, and recommendations for reducing risk of exposure. The template of this letter can be found at the PEPH Resource Center.

In May, Ms. Harvey and Ms. Segev returned to Maine with Dr. Vandiver to present their findings at community meetings, which were reported on by the local Quoddy Tides newspaper. After learning about metal concentrations in their own household water via mail, participants attended meetings where town results were discussed. At the report back, presenters reviewed the purpose of the study and analyses performed and offered suggestions for reducing risk of exposure to metals in water. In addition, participants had the opportunity to confirm their understanding of their individual results.

For her Masters thesis, Ms. Harvey conducted a source analysis to determine the likely sources of metals in drinking water. Her study confirmed that arsenic comes from geologic sources whereas lead leaches into water from household piping. Ms. Segev’s Masters thesis included a health risk analysis. Her analysis gave rise to the prediction that 0.11 additional cancer cases in these towns could be attributed to arsenic in private well water.

This project served as an immensely informative pilot for launching future MIT SRP Citizen Science efforts. MIT SRP members gained invaluable experience working with federal, state, local, and tribal agencies to conduct testing of individuals’ drinking water. Collaborations with EPA Region 1 were particularly valuable. This project also fostered meaningful relationships between MIT SRP members and Native Americans in Maine, enabling future collaborations. With the skills, strategies, and relationships established in this project, the MIT SRP group continues to strengthen Citizen Science and community engagement projects.