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Using community science for detailed pollution research: a case-study approach in Indianapolis, IN, USA


Heavy metal contamination in urban environments, particularly lead (Pb) pollution, is a health hazard both to humans and ecological systems. Despite wide recognition of urban metal pollution in many cities, there is still relatively limited research regarding heavy metal distribution and transport at the household-scale between soils and indoor dusts—the most important scale for actual human interaction and exposure. Thus, using community-scientist-generated samples in Indianapolis, IN (USA), we applied bulk chemistry, Pb isotopes, and scanning electron microscopy (SEM) to illustrate how detailed analytical techniques can aid in interpretation of Pb pollution distribution at the household-scale. Our techniques provide definitive evidence for Pb paint sourcing in some homes, while others may be polluted with Pb from past industrial/vehicular sources. SEM revealed anthropogenic particles suggestive of Pb paint and the widespread occurrence of Fe-rich metal anthropogenic spherules across all homes, indicative of pollutant transport processes. The variability of Pb pollution at the household scale evident in just four homes is a testament to the heterogeneity and complexity of urban pollution. Future urban pollution research efforts would do well to utilize these more detailed analytical methods on community-sourced samples to gain better insight into where the Pb came from and how it currently exists in the environment. However, these methods should be applied after large-scale pollution screening techniques such as portable X-ray fluorescence (XRF), with more detailed analytical techniques focused on areas where bulk chemistry alone cannot pinpoint dominant pollution mechanisms and where community scientists can also give important metadata to support geochemical interpretations.

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The authors are deeply thankful to the households that supplied samples for this work and the lab techs who helped with initial sampling processing. Special thanks to Miguel Cruz for help with SEM instrumentation, Jason Kelly with help providing the samples, the two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments, and Leah Wood and John Shukle for helpful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.


The Anthropocene Network is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, funded by Indiana University’s Prepared for Environmental Change Grand Challenge Initiative. Partial support for this work was provided by NSF-EAR-PF Award #2052589 to M.D.

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Matthew Dietrich: conceptualization, funding acquisition, investigation, methodology, visualization, writing—original draft, data curation. Shelby T. Rader: methodology, writing—review and editing. Gabriel M. Filippelli: resources, supervision, writing—review and editing.

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Correspondence to Matthew Dietrich.

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Dietrich, M., Rader, S.T. & Filippelli, G.M. Using community science for detailed pollution research: a case-study approach in Indianapolis, IN, USA. Environ Sci Pollut Res 30, 4269–4277 (2023).

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  • Lead (Pb)
  • Heavy metals
  • Urban pollution
  • Pb isotopes
  • SEM
  • Community science