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Environment & Science

‘So impactful’: Lehigh Valley teen water-tester takes on Saucon Creek

Toby Broun
Toby Broun
Toby Broun, 17, of Hellertown has been testing water in the Saucon Creek Watershed for heavy metal concentrations.

  • A Lehigh Valley teen has been testing water in the Saucon Creek for heavy metal
  • He's found lowered concentrations of surface lead
  • He plans to continue researching and has partnered with area watershed agencies

HELLERTOWN, Pa. — Toby Broun’s interest in water started the summer after his freshman year of high school, when he worked as a tour guide for Lost River Caverns.

“For my job, I had to learn quite a bit about the geography of that region, and the geography of the underground water systems, especially as it relates to that cave,” said Broun, now a 17-year-old senior at Allentown Central Catholic. “Learning about that geography and also just the more scientific parts of the geology within that cave system actually interested me quite a bit in the water and [its] makeup.

“And when I was working in that cave and providing tours, I'm naturally just learning more [and] more about how that water actually drives that entire cave system.”

It wasn’t long before Broun was thinking about the water above ground, wanting to measure its quality and health.

He started testing water quality in the Saucon Creek Watershed for surface heavy metal pollution and recently found it has improved. As environmentalists applaud the student for his involvement and drive, Broun said there’s still more work to be done.

“I became more and more interested in monitoring its actual quality and health because I understood how just that one substance — that one chemical substance, that's ultimately what you can reduce water to — is so impactful to driving our whole concept of terrain and maintaining proper land use."
Toby Broun

“I became more and more interested in monitoring its actual quality and health because I understood how just that one substance — that one chemical substance, that's ultimately what you can reduce water to — is so impactful to driving our whole concept of terrain and maintaining proper land use,” Broun said.

‘Surprisingly a fine art’

Broun started testing water during the winter of his sophomore year in high school, prompted by a science competition, he said. It took some time to prepare, deciding which places he should focus in the expansive watershed, which drains 58 square miles in the lower Lehigh River Basin.

It includes Hellertown, Coopersburg and Bethlehem, as well as Williams, Lower Saucon, Upper Saucon, Lower Milford, Upper Milford, Salisbury and Springfield townships in Northampton, Lehigh and Bucks counties.

“For this sort of baseline set of tests that weren't really too nuanced or deep, I was really just trying to make sure that I covered the whole watershed,” he said. “And covering the whole watershed means picking very representative points that aren’t just going to reflect that stream alone.

“They're going to be representative of that stream within the context of that watershed,” he continued. “So it's surprisingly a fine art of balancing between natural landscapes and a more authentic-looking picture of that stream and then also accounting for quite a bit of human involvement.”

After the first round of testing, he narrowed down areas to what he called “points of interest” — those more affected by heavy metal pollution, lead, iron, copper, zinc and mercury.

He collected more than 60 water samples, he said.

“It's actually kind of funny to look at them all because you're just seeing this big collection of labeled tubes with water that looks so similar,” Broun said. “But, in fact, with that and all those labels is how you're basically able to go public and inform people what's actually going on.”

Although he missed the Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Science competition after testing positive for COVID-19, he continued his research. Through rounds of testing, he found that from February 2022 to June 2023 there were consistent drops in surface lead content by 0.01 milligram per liter.

It’s good news — especially as the creek acts as a tributary for the Lehigh River, earlier this year included in a list of endangered rivers. But Broun wants to continue pushing forward, digging deeper into the results.

“If you're saying there's progress, you're inherently saying that there's more that we could do,” he said. “But I think specifically in this case, what we could be doing is probing more within sediments and trying to understand if heavy metal drops on the surface are more related to just genuine drops or if there could be some negative secondary sides to all these results.”

‘Sponges looking for partners’

While Broun might have started his journey testing water alone, he’s found community, guidance and support with local watershed associations and research centers, including the Saucon Creek Watershed Association, the Watershed Coalition of the Lehigh Valley and the Stroud Water Research Center.

John Jackson, a senior research scientist with the Stroud Water Research Center, said the center generally draws more college students than high school students, but both are “terrific additions to the team.”

“These minds are just sponges looking for partners,” he said.

And, Broun has taught center researcher something new, too.

Jackson said the heavy metal testing strips Broun was using — found online and relatively inexpensive — were not known to the center before he shared his method.

“His work will help us evaluate the usefulness of this kit for other watershed groups or community scientists concerned about metal contamination, especially in areas dealing with pollution from legacy mining and mineral processing such as in the Lehigh Valley and Schuylkill headwaters, and many other locations,” Jackson said. “It may also be helpful for those sampling urban streams that can also have elevated metal concentrations.

“This testing kit could be a game-changer for these groups because right now they can only get metal data by sending water samples to a professional laboratory, which is not inexpensive.”

Also, in sharing his results with the local watershed community, Broun is completing an important final step in the scientific method before the cycle of inquiry repeats — fostering engagement in the community through information.

“When you have more people supporting what you're doing, that's going to help give you a sense of confidence in your results,” Broun said. “So that's how I was able to understand that the lead numbers dropping wasn't just some sort of random thing that one person could happen to claim.”

He credited the environmental officials for supporting him, saying, “If I'd been completely independent, this never would have been feasible. And I don't think that anyone in our community would have ever gotten value out of that good news.”

‘I'm quite proud of that’

Now, Broun is already on to his next project. Working with the Stroud Water Research Center, he’s creating an analysis on the relationship between lead concentrations and industrialization and urbanization in the Lehigh Valley.

But, he’s also trying to widen his audience.

“It really is becoming clearer and clearer how the work I've done has actually played out very logically and critically and sequentially — and I'm quite proud of that,” he said. “And I do think that there is definitely a role for understanding and differentiating between the hard scientific elements of work like this and then also the more social side of it.

“Because this is all inherently social and if you’re not sharing it, unfortunately, it doesn't really have meaning, because no one's ever going to be able to benefit from it.”

Parallel to his school work and water research, Broun’s been looking at colleges, aiming to study philosophy and its intersection with environmental work.

“The interest in philosophy really just came about from this sort of self-reflection and self-awareness, recognizing different sides to these projects that I've been working on,” he said. “I can really help to elevate these projects with that sort of awareness, and I think that philosophy might sound a little overly idealistic, but I think combining that with this sort of work will actually be really effective, because it’ll allow me to understand the more overarching implications of all these projects.”