June 26th, 2018 by Sarah Zack
June 22nd, 2017 by Allison Neubauer
Gillian Flippo is interning with Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant (IISG) as a recent graduate of Butler University with a bachelor’s degree in Science, Technology and Society.
I am a native of Chicago, and working for the health of my local environment and community is of great interest to me. As an intern for the IISG pollution prevention team led by Sarah Zack, I was fortunate to attend the 2018 Emerging Contaminants in the Aquatic Environment Conference (ECAEC), held June 5-6 in Champaign, IL. Newly developed chemicals and substances are used to improve processes and products; however, they often have unintended consequences on human and environmental health, which is why they are of emerging concern. Regardless of whether these contaminants are old or new, many brilliant minds are working to understand their effects, how they move through the ecosystem and how to properly prevent and remove them. At ECAEC, I witnessed these minds come together. Organized by the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center and Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, the conference covered many important topics related to emerging contaminants over the course of two days.
A Widespread Problem
Keynote speaker Rainer Lohmann, a professor at the University of Rhode Island, studies the transport, fate and bioaccumulation of persistent contaminants. His findings demonstrated that these contaminants are not only found at the sites where they are being released. Through various methods such as the movement of water by ocean currents, the contaminants spread to some of the most remote places on earth.
These places that were once thought to be pristine, like the Arctic, are also feeling the effects of these potentially damaging chemicals. I learned that part of the reason these contaminants are found around the globe is because wastewater treatment plants aren’t designed to remove many pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs). Therefore, they are released into nearby streams and rivers, which eventually make it to the ocean.
Mitigation and Prevention
Alison Franklin, PhD student at Penn State, speaks at the 2018 Emerging Contaminants in the Aquatic Environment Conference.
Fortunately, there are scientists like Alison Franklin from Pennsylvania State University, who are researching ways to mitigate the emerging contaminants released from wastewater treatment plants. Her research demonstrates the possibility of using soil as a natural filter to improve water quality and protect human health, focusing on antibiotics in wastewater effluent. Her results showed that groundwater concentrations of antibiotics were lower than the wastewater effluent concentration after being filtered through soil. This suggests that soil may be an adequate third step in wastewater treatment. I found this interesting because the process uses part of nature as a partner to help combat environmental challenges like emerging contaminants.
A wide variety of professionals attended the ECAEC, providing a multi-disciplinary approach to solving the problem of emerging contaminants. Jill Bartolotta from Ohio Sea Grant offered an interesting perspective on the issue, focusing on single-use plastic and the underlying behavioral barriers that inhibit people from using reusables. Her study sought to tackle the problem from the source so that plastic is prevented from getting in waterways in the first place. One interesting piece that caught my attention was that Bartolotta’s survey results showed that people have enough reusable bags, but they forget to bring them to the store. Therefore, people don’t need more reusable bags but instead need new ways to be reminded to use them. This shows that we need to dig deeper to find a new approach to tackle the problem of single-use plastic.
Bartolotta’s talk especially captivated me because it was relevant to my interests in engaging the public on environmental issues. For PPCPs and other emerging contaminants like plastic, it is important to understand the real source of pollution: people and their practices. People may unknowingly pollute because they are simply unaware that what they are doing is wrong, which is why education is important. Or there may be behavioral barriers and incentives that lead people away from environmentally sustainable options, which is why understanding the underlying causes and thinking of alternative solutions are important.
It was incredibly eye-opening to see the research and effort that is being put into tackling the issue of emerging contaminants in the aquatic environment. It became obvious to me after listening to the conference speakers that this issue needs input from many disciplines for us to truly understand and solve the problem. Despite the size and complexity of the issue, it made me feel hopeful to know that it has the potential to be fixed. The conference was great to experience in the beginning of my internship because it helped me understand the work and research going into understanding the issue of emerging contaminants, while challenging me to think of effective ways to communicate the problems to the public.
December 14th, 2015 by iisg_superadmin
Unfortunately in the United States we pollute at a rate much faster than we can put control measures in place. New chemicals and substances are continually being developed and used to enhance our industrial processes and products. A drawback to this advancement is that in some cases, when a chemical so novel, we have difficulty understanding the full effects it’s having on the environment or public health. This is what researchers are looking into when they study emerging contaminants.
As part of the IISG pollution prevention team led by Sarah Zack, I attended the Emerging Contaminants in the Aquatic Environment Conference (ECAEC), organized by the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center and IISG. The conference was a two-day crash course on the newest pollutants causing concern for the health of our waterways. Nearly 100 people attended to listen to four invited speakers, 27 contributed talks, and view 18 posters.
While last year’s conference zeroed in on contamination from pharmaceuticals and personal care products, this year we heard from researchers studying a wide variety of contaminants—from harsh-sounding chemicals used for things like flame retardants and stain repellents, to everyday items winding up as litter and microplastic on our beaches.
I found it reassuring to hear from researchers who are working so diligently to understand how these contaminants are getting into our water, how they move through the ecosystem, and their effects on not only the tiniest organisms in the environment, like microscopic plankton but all the way up to humans as well.
One of the four keynote speakers, Barbara Mahler from the U.S. Geological Survey, presented her research on coal-tar-based pavement sealcoat that is sprayed or painted on top of many asphalt parking lots, driveways, and playgrounds. Mahler found that coal-tar sealcoat, and particularly the dust that results from its wear and tear, is a major source of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) contamination. Many PAHs are known to cause cancer, mutations, and birth defects in addition to being acutely toxic to aquatic life. Her work has informed policy in Austin, Texas where she conducted her research, as well as in other states and cities across the country.
Another keynote and familiar face for Illinois-Indiana Sea Granters, Tim Hoellein discussed several projects he’s working on relating to anthropogenic litter—trash that is making its way from people onto our beaches, in our rivers, and ending up in our Great Lakes.
And it’s not just the chemists and biologists who are toiling away on this complex, moving-target-of-an-issue. Having been to my share of scientific conferences, I was impressed at the variety of disciplines represented at ECAEC. Social scientists, educators, and even an attorney (yet another captivating keynote speaker, Stephanie Showalter Otts) also weighed in on the conversation of how to tackle the problem of emerging contaminants.
For me, it was especially cool to hear scientists in the room call out the necessity of working across disciplines and involving social scientists to further the reach of their research. It’s clear that the road ahead will not be easy, but I walked away from this conference feeling encouraged that there are brilliant, innovative people who are working to address these challenges from many angles.
Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue University Extension.
December 18th, 2014 by iisg_superadmin
The latest edition of the UpClose
interview series takes readers behind-the-scenes of Great Lakes plastic research.
In 2012, chemist Lorena Rios-Mendoza
took part in the first-ever sampling of microplastics in the lakes, a project that revealed that Lake Erie has a higher concentration of minute particles than the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Since then, she has led a number of studies to improve understanding of the chemicals that build up on the surface of microplastics and how photodegradation affects those chemicals and the plastics themselves.
UpClose with Lorena Rios-Mendoza is the tenth issue of the award-winning Q&A series that gives readers an insider’s view of research on emerging contaminants. The series kicked off in 2012 with Timothy Strathmann
, an environmental engineer at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Later editions featured the work of John Kelly, a microbiologist at Loyola University Chicago, Rebecca Klaper
, an ecologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and the U.S. Geological Survey’s Dana Kolpin
and Barbara Mahler
Each interview highlights a unique component of emerging contaminant research—everything from tracing their source to understanding how they impact aquatic life. Readers also learn about the complex, and sometimes tricky, process of conducting field studies and the potential implications of research on industries and regulations.
November 17th, 2014 by iisg_superadmin
Earlier this week, we celebrated the 40thanniversary of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). This law allows us to feel safe taking a sip from a water fountain or filling a glass from the tap virtually anywhere in the United States. It’s undeniably a feat worth celebrating, but it’s not to say that delivering safe drinking water to millions of Americans is without its challenges—as this year’s events in Charleston, West Virginia and Toledo, Ohio prove.
One of the largest challenges lies in the system itself. Much of our drinking water infrastructure is more than a century old and in desperate need of repair. Leaky pipes and broken water mains cost the country around 6 billion gallons of water every day—roughly 16 percent of our daily use. In the Great Lakes region alone, the annual water loss is enough to supply 1.9 million Americans with safe drinking water for a year.
In northeastern Illinois, the cost of leaky pipes is heightened by overtaxed aquifers and legal limits on how much water can be pulled from Lake Michigan. And as the region’s population grows, there is increasing concern that demand for clean water will outpace supply if communities don’t take steps to encourage conservation, including adjusting water prices to reflect the real costs.
Treating water to meet national standards poses its own problems. In fact, some of the chemicals used to treat contaminants regulated under SDWA have themselves proven toxic under the right conditions.
Water suppliers today also face the question of how to deal with emerging contaminants like pharmaceuticals and chemicals found in personal care products. Our wastewater and drinking water systems weren’t designed with these in mind and often don’t eliminate them. These chemicals have been found across the country in the rivers and lakes we rely on for fresh water, including Lake Michigan. In fact, a 2008 Associated Press investigation found pharmaceuticals and their byproducts in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans. They’re present in very small concentrations—too small to be toxic to humans. But the long-term risk to humans is still largely unknown. What is clear is that at least some pose a significant threat to aquatic wildlife.
One of the biggest culprits in lake and river pollution is
stormwater runoff. When it flows into waterways, runoff brings everything with it—from gasoline and trash on city streets to fertilizers and pesticides from lawns and farms. These pollutants and the algae growth they spur on can make it more expensive to treat drinking water. In rare cases, water quality can drop so low that it doesn’t meet federal standards even with treatment. And
concerns about pollutant-laden stormwater runoff continue to grow in the Midwest as storms get bigger.
Fortunately, while public water systems and communities continue to grapple with these and other challenges at a larger scale, there is a lot individuals can do day-to-day. For example, properly disposing of unwanted medicine can help keep pharmaceutical chemicals out of waterways and drinking supplies. Homeowners and gardeners can also adopt natural lawn care practices that reduce water usage and prevent landscape chemicals from washing into nearby rivers and lakes. Even simple practices like washing your car with a bucket and sponge or waiting for a full load to start the washing machine can go a long way towards conserving water.
Visit EPA’s Conserving Water site for more information and tips.
February 25th, 2014 by iisg_superadmin
Microbeads have attracted a lot of public and political attention in the Great Lakes region since Sam Mason and her lab first discovered the tiny beads in staggering numbers in lakes Huron, Superior, and Erie in 2012. Since then, sampling excursions on the remaining lakes—conducted with help from Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and 5 Gyres—have turned up similar findings.
In many ways, the results of these studies raise more questions than they ask. One of the most important, though, is “What effect do microbeads and other plastic pollutants have on Great Lakes food webs and ecosystems?” Research into this question has only just begun, but years of studies in the oceans provide some insight. Some of these latest findings come from our friends at South Carolina Sea Grant.
From Coastal Heritage:
John Weinstein is studying how grass shrimp (Palaemonetes pugio) respond to a diet of plastic beads. A crustacean about the size of half of a shelled peanut, a grass shrimp consumes microalgae that grow on plant detritus—especially decomposing saltmarsh stems called “wrack”—along estuaries and coasts, but it’s also a predator on a wide variety of small animals.
Because of its abundance, sensitivity, and ecological importance in southeastern U.S. estuaries, the grass shrimp is often used to study the effects of pollution in the field and laboratory.
In Weinstein’s lab, Austin Gray, a graduate student in biology at The Citadel, has been feeding grass shrimp two types of beads: one a bright green and the other one translucent.
The green beads are polyethylene, the type of plastic used in plastic bags, bottles, plastic wrap and other films for food preservation, and many other products. Polyethylene is the most common type of plastic found in marine debris around the world.
The translucent beads are polypropylene, a type of plastic used in bottle caps, candy- or chip-wrappers, and food containers. Polypropylene is the second most common type of plastic found in marine debris.
In a lab dish, Austin Gray deposits translucent 75-micron beads. But a visitor looks in the dish and can’t find a single bead. Under the dissecting microscope, though, dozens of tiny spheres suddenly appear. To put it in perspective, an item at about 40 microns is the width of two spooning human hairs.
Gray fed 16 grass shrimp a diet of brine shrimp mixed in with plastic beads. Each grass shrimp was isolated in water that was changed every other day. Eight animals were fed polyethylene beads and eight were fed polypropylene beads. After six days, all of the 16 shrimp were dead.
Dissecting the animals, Gray found plastic beads in their guts and gills. One individual had 10 tiny beads in its gut and 16 in its gills.
The gut blockages, though, were deadlier. The grass shrimp could still take in water through their partly blocked gills. But they stopped eating with clogged guts—or couldn’t eat—and died.
“In my mind,” says Weinstein, “it’s consistent with starvation. The more particles in guts, the more quickly the grass shrimp die.
Concern about results like these has led Illinois to become the first state to ban the sale of microbeads in personal care products. The law, passed in June, is slated to take full effect in 2019. Similar legislation has also been considered in New York and California.
Click on the link above to read the full article.
***Photo: Collecting plastic samples in southern Lake Michigan in 2013.
Much like a gardener hopes that their scattered seeds will eventually bloom into a lush garden, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant awards seed grants to projects that address some of the biggest concerns in the Great Lakes in the hopes that the initiatives will grow into something larger. These Discovery Grant projects—totaling over 40 since 2009—cover a broad range of topics, and their results help natural resource managers and policy makers preserve Lake Michigan and strengthen nearby communities.
So, what are these projects exactly? We’re glad you asked. Discovery Grant Projects II shines a light on unexpected and emerging contaminants in stream water. Other featured projects examine the market for domestic seafood and give Hoosiers real-time access to fish consumption advisories. And another still paints a clearer picture of how Asian carp are changing the food web in the Illinois River.
Download the first edition, Discovery Grant Projects, to learn about past research on water quality, aquaculture, biodiversity, and more. And visit our Research page to read more about past projects and get a peek at ongoing research.