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This Kit Will Help Anyone Solve Oil Spill Mysteries

People can now hold polluters directly accountable for contamination with DIY chemistry kits.

Do-it-yourself culture has seen a revival in recent years, in pursuits ranging from pickling to butchering animals for food. But some of the most critical processes to our health and wellbeing are still often left to forces beyond our control, sequestered in labs for oil companies and government regulators. That’s why Public Lab, an open-source science community borne out of the BP oil spill, is offering up a new tool that can help DIY detectives investigate oil spills in their own backyards.

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Oil spills happen far more often in cities than many of us would like to think, though perhaps not on as grand a scale as the Gulf of Mexico disaster. “It’s endemic,” says Public Lab cofounder Jeffrey Warren. “Even if you just go outside of your house, it’s likely that you’ll find motor oil runoff.”


Proving that the contamination exists, on the other hand, can be an arduous and lengthy process. So, Public Lab, along with coastal residents affected by the BP spill and other environmental ills, began testing for oil contamination on their own. To date, they’ve built cheap, open-source chemical testing kits out of tools easily found in hardware stores. Some of their spectrometers can simply be cut from thick, black paper, and attached to an iPhone.

Their most recent project is seeking funding for a full oil test kit, something that will include sampling materials and a comprehensive, step-by-step guide. Warren and his colleagues have put up a Kickstarter campaign asking for $25,000 to fund the latest design.

“One of our goals is getting people to ask questions, and feeling more comfortable asking questions about exposure,” Warren says. “Our goal is to get people involved in that process of inquiry, rather than just be victims or protesters.”

If people have the tools to prove who did the polluting, Warren hopes that they can hold polluters accountable directly. “Government will listen to them, and industry will be aware that they’re not helpless,” he says.

To check out the Kickstarter, click here.

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About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data

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