Magnifying Microplastics Monitoring: Developing a Community Science Monitoring Program for the Charleston Harbor Watershed

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Prebis, Britney
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Microplastics, plastic particles less than 5 mm in length, are ubiquitous environmental pollutants that affect marine life and water quality globally. This study aims to close critical knowledge gaps in the distribution and abundance of microplastics in the Charleston Harbor Watershed through community science, or the involvement of the public in scientific study direction and data collection. Community scientists collected, processed, and analyzed water samples from 12 sites spanning the Charleston Harbor Watershed monthly in a pilot-study from July to December 2023. Community scientists tabulated microplastic counts, colors, sizes, and types, which were cross-checked against a second researcher’s analysis using a hot needle test and micro-Raman spectroscopy as secondary verification tools for quality assessment. Surveys were administered before, during, and after the six-month pilot study to understand volunteer motivations and inform program improvements. Suspected microplastics were identified by volunteers in 100% of samples collected with fibers dominating, and site average blank-corrected total concentrations ranged 0.9-4.5 particles/L. Cross analysis found site average blank-corrected microplastic concentrations ranging 0.6-2.3 particles/L. Volunteer and cross analysis counts were closer on average in the >300 µm than the 63-300 µm size fraction, suggesting a higher confidence level by volunteers to identify larger microplastics. While volunteers expressed concern over time commitment and microscopy skills in survey responses, they also reported satisfaction with the program and gaining new skills. Community science offers a promising study design to increase understanding of microplastic pollution at a watershed scale.