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air toxics, citizen science, bioindicators, civil science, coarse particulate matter, community science, Duwamish Valley, environmental justice, hazardous air pollutants, heavy metals, moss


Heavy metal concentrations often vary at small spatial scales not captured by air monitoring networks, with implications for environmental justice in industrial-adjacent communities. Pollutants measured in moss tissues are commonly used as a screening tool to guide use of more expensive resources, like air monitors. Such studies, however, rarely address environmental justice issues or involve the residents and other decision makers expected to utilize results. Here, we piloted a community science approach, engaging over 55 people from nine institutions, to map heavy metals using moss in two industrial-adjacent neighborhoods. This area, long known for disproportionately poor air quality, health outcomes, and racial inequities, has only one monitor for heavy metals. Thus, an initial understanding of spatial patterns is critical for gauging whether, where, and how to invest further resources toward investigating heavy metals. Local youth-led sampling of the moss Orthotrichum lyellii from trees across a 250 × 250 m sampling grid (n = 79) and generated data comparable to expert-collected samples (n = 19). We mapped 21 chemical elements measured in moss, including 6 toxic “priority” metals: arsenic, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, lead, and nickel. Compared to other urban O. lyellii studies, local moss had substantially higher priority metals, especially arsenic and chromium, encouraging community members to investigate further. Potential hotspots of priority metals varied somewhat but tended to peak near the central industrial core where many possible emission sources, including legacy contamination and converge. Informed by these findings, community members successfully advocated regulators for a second study phase—a community-directed air monitoring campaign to evaluate residents' exposure to heavy metals—as is needed to connect moss results back to the partnership's core goal of understanding drivers of health disparities. This follow-up campaign will measure metals in the PM10 fraction owing to clues in the current study that airborne soil and dust may be locally important carriers of priority metals. Future work will address how our approach combining bioindicators and community science ultimately affects success addressing longstanding environmental justice concerns. For now, we illustrate the potential to co-create new knowledge, to help catalyze and strategize next steps, in a complex air quality investigation.

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.