Environmental test kits of my youth

Energy & Sustainability Science
Environmental test kits of my youth

I was out to dinner the other night with O’Reilly/MAKE’s Brian Jepson, his wife Joan, and our new Make: Online author Kipp Bradford. We were talking about the awesome Thames & Kosmos science and tech kits we carry in the Maker Shed. The conversation inevitably turned to chemistry kits of yore, the beloved kits of our childhoods. Usually, I immediately go to my Gilbert sets, but this time, I flashed on a kit I’d largely forgotten about: The Johnny Horizon Environmental Test Kit. I think I was 14 when I got it.

I grew up in Chester, VA, the small town over from Hopewell, the “Chemical Capital of the South.” On days when the wind blew out of the south, it was as if the Devil himself had farted on our sleepy little town. Armed with my Johnny Horizon Test Kit, I was determined to prove that Hopewell was hurting us. I did all of the tests in the kit — suspended particles, wind-blown particles, Coliform, pH, smoke density, nylon deterioration, etc. I did them as a science project and showed that the industrial zone between Hopewell and Chester was crankin’ crud into the air and water that was beyond allowable levels (in some tests). Nothing really ever came of it (except an A+ on the project), but it felt really empowering to get this kit, trudge off into the woods, and collect scientific data that actually painted a picture of what was happening in the surrounding area because of these plants. I still remember the canal that I went to next to one plant and how creepy it was — everything was dead, choked with trash and the sulfurous reek of chemicals. It was like something out of a Troma sci-fi/horror film. Whenever I see that three-eyed fish on The Simpsons, I always think of Hopewell, Va, circa the mid-70s.

At the dinner, Brian asked if I’d ever thought to look up the Test Kit on the web. I’d looked up other kits, but not this one. As soon as I got home, I did, and found this page. Pleasant memories came flooding back (along with some unpleasant ones involving hellish flatulence).

(BTW: Hopewell, VA was thrust onto the national stage a few years later with the “Kepone disaster” of 1975, when workers at a plant that produced the pesticide Kepone got sick from over-exposure. Dozens of workers were affected, it costs many millions in clean-up, and fishing in the James River was shut down for years in the aftermath. One article I found online quoted the cardiologist who first linked the symptoms to the pesticide saying that this incident “really opened up awareness of how chemicals can affect the environment.” I *tried* to tell them :-) Me and Johnny Horizon.)

2 thoughts on “Environmental test kits of my youth

  1. keithO says:

    I guess this helps prove to my 20ish nephews that they aren’t the first ones to worry about the environment. Typical of each generation to think they are the first ones to find some problem and care about it and blame their parents. I know I did!

    Green movements come in cycles every few decades.

    Are there any new DIY test kits out there like this? Directly monitoring temperature is out, because it takes many years to get meaningful data, and measuring air temperature accurately is devilishly difficult. Solar radiation or other activity might be do-able on a small scale. You could watch what happens as the sun goes through it’s next sunspot cycle.

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at garstipsandtools.com.

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