A citizen science internship program to quantify racial and economic disparities in lead levels in drinking water across North Carolina

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WRRI Project;22-07-W

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“A Citizen Science Internship Program to Quantify Racial and Economic Disparities in Lead Levels in Drinking Water Across North Carolina” (Grant #21-17-W) has four objectives: 1) characterizing lead plumbing in North Carolina, 2) mentoring underrepresented undergraduate researchers, 3) increasing public awareness and self-efficacy related to drinking water, with a focus on marginalized communities, and 4) refining a statistical model to estimate water lead levels using citizen science data. To characterize lead plumbing in North Carolina, we engaged participants in the Crowd the Tap citizen science program. Since Crowd the Tap was started until August 8, 2023 1796 North Carolina residents have screened their home through Crowd the Tap, identifying 1989 in-home plumbing materials and 1671 service line or well casing materials, of which 32 in-home pipes and 20 service lines or well casings were leaded. Of these households, 365 had their water tested in the lab and 208 conducted at-home lead tests. Crowd the Tap identified 226 households with some detectable lead levels, seven of which were greater than 10 ppb. There were nine positive at-home lead tests. We have recruited 43 undergraduate and post-baccalaureate research interns. We have recruited 12 Shaw University students, one student from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University, one student from Montreat College, 28 students from North Carolina State University, and one post-baccalaureate intern. Altogether, 16 of the 43 interns have underrepresented racial or ethnic identities, and six others are people of color. Through these internships, students learned about public engagement through faith communities, community activist groups, community-based health organizations, and in their own communities. To increase public awareness and self-efficacy, we engaged people through various partnerships, which ensured that we engaged people of diverse backgrounds. We recruited 828 university students, 480 households connected to university interns, 296 households from high schools, 26 from faith communities, 21 from a corporate volunteer program, 31 from the Southeastern Wake Adult Day Center (a community-based health organization that supports primarily low-income Black residents of Wake County), and 109 households came to the project independently. Altogether, we recruited 969 White households, 238 Black or African American ones, 109 Asian, 71 Hispanic or Latino, three American Indian or Alaska Native, one Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and 231 households with two or more races or ethnicities present. We are using the citizen science data collected from Crowd the Tap to test a Bayesian Belief Network (BBN) model to predict lead levels in household drinking water. Preliminary results indicate that water quality test strips have high degrees of error and that the BBN has low predictive performance for predicting lead levels in drinking water. Our analysis is ongoing, and we are continuing to explore BBN’s predictive ability for a range of samples. Thus, Crowd the Tap has made significant progress towards each of these objectives. These results can provide guidance to utility companies seeking to prioritize areas for lead infrastructure removal that prioritize equity. Furthermore, our program has supported the professional development of undergraduate researchers from Historically Black Colleges and Universities and/or have underrepresented identities.