Independently collecting air-quality data on the community level in order to pressure for change

Many communities across the United States have begun or joined “bucket brigades” programs that teach people living near industrial polluters to build and use simple air monitoring devices, or “buckets,” which have been approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In the absence of strong environmental laws, standards or enforcement bodies, buckets give communities the means to independently monitor the air quality of their neighborhoods and provide them with evidence to pressure for change.

The bucket itself is a relatively simple and inexpensive air sampling device composed of a Tedlar sampling bag inside a five-gallon plastic bucket and a vacuum or tire pump used to suck air into the bag. The bucket brigade in­cludes volunteer members in three jobs: sniffers, samplers and community bucket coordinators (CBCs). Sniffers are responsible for alerting the samplers to pollution incidents. Samplers keep the air sampling devices in their homes and take a sample when a pollution incident is suspected. They record where, when and why the samples are taken and call a CBC to retrieve the sampling bag and arrange for delivery to the analytical laboratory. Results are recorded in a database and provided to the community through local media, community meetings and other methods. Community members use the data at their own discretion to request further investigations on pollution from community groups, government agencies and health facilities. The brigade also provides residents with fact sheets on health effects associated with pollution levels.

Low-income, minority communities in the United States have been particularly receptive to the idea of bucket brigades and the tactic is gaining widespread acceptance. Media attention has helped to create change in many communities. Contra Costa County, California, adopted an “environmental justice policy,” reinforcing industrial pollution regulations, expanding occupational medical facilities and including residents in decisions regarding nearby industries. In Louisiana, air samples proved that the Diamond neighborhood, which was slowly being engulfed by the Shell Chemical plant, was no longer safe; the company eventually agreed to relocate the entire neighborhood.


New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

Communities can demonstrate opposition to abuse — in this case, environmental violations — by acting on their own to collect information.

This approach is useful when governments or businesses do not provide information about pollution or when communities are concerned that official information is false. Setting up a bucket brigade is a powerful public statement that chemical plants and government agencies do not have the right to control data on pollution and that communities can gather this evidence on their own, make it public and place pressure on a company to respond. The method is so simple that it has spread quickly from community to community, and beyond the U.S. as well, making possible something rather unusual: victims of abuse (rather than outsiders) documenting abuse as it is happening. This tactic has been adapted in South Africa, India and the Philippines.