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Young Naturalist Researches River Contaminants

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Joshua collected water samples from Strawberry River in Arkansas to look for the presence of fecal contaminants. 

Photo courtesy of Joshua. 


Seventeen-year-old Joshua had fond memories of swimming in Arkansas’s Strawberry River, a popular site for community gatherings and picnics. But after the construction of a wastewater treatment facility upstream, no one would enter the waters. “The wonderland where I spent so many hours as a child is deserted now, and nobody swims or fishes in that section of the river,” Joshua would later write. “I decided to find out for myself if the [facility] had indeed contaminated the water, or if the community had overreacted.”

Hypothesizing that the water was unsafe for swimming and wading due to contamination, Joshua tested the water in various sites along the river over the course of a year—a project that led to Joshua’s essay An Evaluation of Fecal Contamination in Strawberry River, for which he received a 2011 Young Naturalist Award.

Joshua evaluated the risk of water-related illness in the river by measuring the amounts of Escherichia coli in the water, as well as Enterococcus faecalis, intestinal microbes that can be harmful to humans. While E. coli testing can measure fecal pollution, E. faecalis is better at distinguishing between human and animal feces because it is found primarily in humans and chickens rather than in all warm-blooded animals. Joshua also took note of the climate, topography, land use, and potential animal fecal contaminators around Strawberry River in order to see the full picture of its apparent pollution.

Joshua’s samples supported his hypothesis, revealing the water did not meet swimming and wading safety standards. Furthermore, E. faecalis provided a more consistent test result for fecal contamination than E. coli in his experiment.

Joshua’s research isn’t over yet. He has been continuing the investigation throughout 2011 to understand seasonal fluctuations in river contaminants, so that he can gauge whether swimmers face a higher risk of illness at the time of year when swimming becomes a popular pastime.

The Young Naturalist Awards is a nationwide, science-based research contest for students in grades 7 through 12 presented by the Museum. To learn more and to submit your own project, visit amnh.org. The deadline for the 2012 contest is March 9, 2012.

The Young Naturalist Awards are proudly supported by Alcoa Foundation.

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