Discovery Grant research reveals that X-ray chemical turns toxic in disinfected drinking water

July 25th, 2016 by

University of Illinois geneticist Michael Plewa discovered that a non-toxic medical diagnostic chemical that accumulates in drinking water sources can become a toxic chemical as water goes through the disinfection process.

This study, funded as an Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant Discovery Grant project, revealed that wastewater generated by hospitals can contain toxic disinfection by-products associated with X-ray contrast media. Contrast media are widely-used substances, which when ingested, can enhance medical imaging.

IISG has funded 41 Discovery grants since 2009—these small pots of money are awarded to support graduate student work, to help when researchers need a final boost to finish a project, or to explore new questions or follow up on data that may grow into something larger.

Plewa’s project provides a great example of how a Discovery Grant can open the door to new knowledge and provide a stepping stone to answer bigger questions. It’s also a story about how when data doesn’t fit one’s hypothesis, the quest for answers can lead to new discoveries.

In previous research, Plewa’s lab was looking at the connection between naturally-occurring iodide in drinking water sources and the creation of very toxic substances through the disinfection process. In their study of 23 cities, they measured the level of toxic iodinated disinfection by-products (DBPs) in the drinking water. “Surprisingly, four cities that had no natural iodine in the water­ still had these toxic iodinated DBPs,” said Plewa. “Where was the iodine coming from?”

At a scientific conference, a colleague suggested that the iodine source in these four water supplies may be from X-ray contrast media, and Plewa set out to find out if that was right. Sure enough, the water samples were tested and had high levels of iopamidol, the most commonly used contrast media.

“We let the data carry us to help us understand,” said Plewa. “It’s a puzzle and an adventure. It’s very exciting.

“Through the Discovery Grant, we were able to confirm that iopamidol plus disinfection led to disinfection by-products that were more toxic than iopamidol alone or disinfection alone.”

This project was selected for a 2012 U.S. EPA Scientific and Technological Achievement Award (Level I). According to the EPA, Level 1 is awarded to those who have accomplished an exceptionally high-quality research or technological effort. Awarded work has national significance or has high impact on a broad area of science and technology.

The findings from this project also led to a $495,000 National Science Foundation grant and international collaboration. Working with scientists at the Federal Institute of Hydrology in Germany, the University of Akron in Ohio, and at U.S. EPA, Plewa was able to further study the toxicity of contrast media and the mechanisms of how the chemical change happens.

“When we studied five contrast agents, only iopamidol transformed into a toxic substance during disinfection, but iopamidol is also the most widely used.” said Plewa.

And as their adventure in science continued, Plewa and his team learned that their theory of how iopamidol was transformed was, in fact, wrong. Instead, they discovered it was a very different mechanism, which opened a door to new information. They were able to identify a molecule associated with these toxic chemicals that inhibits an enzyme involved in cellular metabolism. This molecule could be contributing to neurological diseases, like Alzheimer’s, or to birth defects.

“There’s much about this that we still don’t understand,” said Plewa, and he defers to medical researchers to make any direct health connections.

Despite decades of research on drinking water disinfection by-products, Plewa sees water disinfection as the greatest public health achievement of the 20th Century. “Lincoln’s children died of water-borne disease. Before the advent of water disinfection in 1908, water borne disease and death was common in the U.S. With water purification we have dramatically reduced the risk of acute disease.

“But since 1974, we’ve also identified over 600 disinfection by-products, which is maybe only 50 percent of what’s in the water,” he added. “And of these, we’ve analyzed only a few. It makes sense to identify the most toxic chemicals and modify the disinfection process to reduce their presence. The goal is to make good drinking water better.”

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue University Extension.

In the news: River otters tell the tale of chemicals affecting the environment

February 11th, 2014 by
Illinois river otters are just one of the susceptible organisms in the local environment, and a recent study is showing that they are indicating some very high levels of dangerous toxins (including a banned insecticide). 
“‘Thus otters serve as biomonitors – organisms that contain information on the quantitative and qualitative aspects of the environment – of wildlife exposure,’ according to a new study. They also serve as biomonitors for human health because the same toxic chemicals found in otters have also been found in people who eat contaminated fish.
The study published in the journal ‘Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety’ found high concentrations of chemical compounds in the livers of 23 otters in central Illinois.
Especially troubling were the highest concentrations of dieldrin ever reported in otters anywhere in the United States, said lead author Samantha Carpenter, a wildlife technical assistant at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Dieldrin is one of the organochlorine insecticides banned in 1978. More than three decades later, high levels of the chemicals remain in river sediments and accumulate in the fish that otters and people may eat.
The compound has been linked to neurological, behavioral and immune-suppression problems in wildlife. Scientific studies disagree on adverse human effects, but some studies have linked dieldrin to asthma, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and breast cancer, Carpenter said.”
Read the complete article at the link above.

In the news: Pharmaceuticals showing up in Lake Michigan in high concentrations

September 6th, 2013 by

A recent study of Lake Michigan is indicating a high level of prescription drugs in the water, helping to emphasize the importance of proper disposal and the difficulty that water treatment facilities have removing these compounds.


“The study was performed by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and examined water samples taken near a Milwaukee water treatment plant and from the city’s harbor, Environmental Health News reported.

Researchers found high levels of the anti-diabetes drug metformin, the anti-bacterial drug triclosan and the antibiotic sulfamethoxazole as well as high levels of caffeine in both water and sediment samples taken from the lake. In total, 38 different compounds were found in the samples in some concentration, including acetaminophen, testosterone, codeine and several antibiotics.”

Follow the link above for the complete article (including a link to the study and additional reading), and find out more about the importance of proper medicine disposal at our site.

Get an insider’s view of emerging contaminants with UpClose

August 5th, 2013 by
A new interview series takes readers behind the scenes of the latest research on pharmaceutical and personal care products (PPCP). In UpClose, researchers working in the Great Lakes region talk about where these contaminants come from, what they mean for aquatic habitats, and how they can be effectively managed. With its focus on making science accessible and providing practical management solutions, each edition gives you a unique look at an emerging ecological threat. 
Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant kicked off the series with a conversation with Timothy Strathmann, an environmental engineer at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Later editions featured the work of Maria Sepulveda, a toxicologist at Purdue University, and John Kelly, a microbiologist at Loyola University Chicago. Each interview targets a different component of PPCP research—everything from what happens to pharmaceuticals when water is treated to what bacterial resistance could mean for other aquatic wildlife living in urban rivers. Readers also get an insider’s view of the complex, and sometimes tricky, process of conducting field studies and the potential implications of research on industries and regulations. 
In upcoming editions, Ball State’s Melody Bernot will explain the surprising roles location and season play in pharmaceutical pollution, and Rebecca Klaper at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee will talk about how research into the effects of these contaminants could lead to changes in how they are made, used, and treated. 
All UpClose editions are available in print and online. For print copies, contact Susan White. For more information about PPCP pollution and what you can do to reduce its impacts, visit

Great Lakes video informs Congressional legislation

July 2nd, 2013 by
The new Sea Grant video, Revitalizing Local Waterfront Economies: The Great Lakes Legacy Act, welcomes people and partners to the benefits of restoring degraded rivers, harbors, and lakes. This week the video helped inform lawmakers in the U.S. Senate as they developed bipartisan legislation to protect and restore the Great Lakes.
The Great Lakes Ecological and Economic Protection Act was introduced by Senators Carl Levin (D-MI) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), co-chairs of the Senate Great Lakes Task Force, along with Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Al Franken (D-MN), Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI).
In addition to reauthorizing the Great Lakes Legacy Act, which provides support for communities to clean up waterways that are designated Areas of Concern (AOC) the United States and Canada, the new legislation would continue funding the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the EPA Great Lakes National Program Office.


The 10-minute video, produced by Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and Wisconsin Sea Grant, explores Great Lakes waterways blighted by decades of industrial discharges like heavy metals, oil, and chemicals such as PCBs and PAHs. The 2002 Great Lakes Legacy Act created an initiative to clean up contamination in these AOCs. There are currently 29 AOCs in the United States. The habitat, water, and sediment quality have become severely degraded at these sites.


The video informs anglers, boaters, residents, and local businesses of the benefits that can come from a remediated AOC through the Legacy Act. The procedures and successes are the result of strong partnerships among states, municipalities, non-governmental organizations and businesses. Under this voluntary, collaborative program, the EPA and its non-federal partners have allocated almost $400 million toward sediment remediation.


As of September 2012, the program has removed or capped 2.1 million cubic yards of degraded sediment. But more waterways need to be cleaned up, and community involvement is essential.
In the short time that it has been available, Revitalizing Local Waterfront Economies has more than 1,200 views. The video was funded by a grant from the EPA Great Lakes National Program Office.

Learn more about the Great Lakes Legacy Act at the EPA’s GLLA webpage.

In the news: Illinois beach water showing signs of improvement

July 1st, 2013 by

Illinois’ beach fronts got a bit of good news last week as a recent report pointed to improving water conditions and reduced contamination. 

From The Chicago Tribune:

“The report compiles data on E. coli levels collected by local agencies and submitted to the U.S. EPA. E.coli, which can cause serious illnesses and infection, can be a predictor of other contaminants in the water, said Henry Henderson, Midwest director for NRDC.

Chicago’s Montrose Dog Beach and Rainbow Beach were the most contaminated beaches along Illinois’ Lake Michigan shoreline, according to the report. A variety of factors can change how a particular beach might test on any given day.

The study also found that Illinois’ 65 Lake Michigan beaches saw a combined 334 closings and swimming advisory days last year, a decrease from 483 combined days in 2011. The majority of those closings and advisories were caused by unknown contamination sources, according to the report.”

Read the complete article and more details about the report’s findings for several Great Lakes area beaches at the link above.

In the news: Personal care products accounting for Great Lakes plastic pollution

June 26th, 2013 by

Recent research has shown that pharmaceuticals and personal care products can cause significant problems for waterways, affecting not only water quality but also negatively impacting the processes that plants and animals need to survive and thrive.

One way that those products are causing pollution in the Great Lakes may not just be due to the chemicals they are made from, though.

From Scientific American:

“Rather, small plastic beads, known as micro plastic, are the offenders, according to survey results to be published this summer in Marine Pollution Bulletin. ‘The highest counts were in the micro plastic category, less than a millimeter in diameter,’ explained chemist Sherri ‘Sam’ Mason of the State University of New York at Fredonia, who led the Great Lakes plastic pollution survey last July. ‘Under the scanning electron microscope, many of the particles we found were perfectly spherical plastic balls.’

Cosmetics manufacturers use these micro beads, or micro exfoliates, as abrasives in facial and body scrubs. They are too tiny for water treatment plants to filter, so they wash down the drain and into the Great Lakes. The biggest worry: fish such as yellow perch or turtles and seagulls think of them as dinner. If fish or birds eat the inert beads, the material can deprive them of nutrients from real food or get lodged in their stomachs or intestines, blocking digestive systems.”
These latest findings help provide additional information on how these common products can cause environmental problems. For more information, read the complete article at the link above and visit our Unwanted Meds website.

In the news: Scotts leads the way in removing phosphorous from fertilizers

May 16th, 2013 by

Phosphorous is a nutrient that has been linked to significant runoff problems and excessive algal growth in water bodies including the Great Lakes. Recently, Scotts Miracle-Gro announced that they will be removing phosphorous from their line of lawn fertilizers to address the issue and help reduce nutrient pollution problems. 

From The Columbus Dispatch

“The Marysville maker of lawn-and-garden products sees the move as a milestone for its industry, which it says is partly responsible for the phosphorus runoff that feeds one of the nation’s most costly and challenging environmental problems — nutrient pollution.


‘As consumers feed their lawns this spring, they should know they can get great results from our products while also protecting and preserving our water resources,’ said Jim Lyski, Scotts’ chief marketing officer, in a written statement.


Harmful algae blooms in coastal areas of the United States are estimated to have a yearly negative economic cost of at least $82 million, mostly because of their effects on public health and commercial fisheries, according to a 2006 report by the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science.’

Follow the link above to read the complete article, and visit our Lawn to Lake websitet to learn more about runoff issues and natural lawn care solutions.


IISG staff share proper pharmaceutical disposal info at U of I health fair

April 23rd, 2013 by

IISG science writer Anjanette Riley was in attendance at the University of Illinois’ Student Health Fair April 17 and sent in this post about the event. 

At a booth in the heart of the Student Health Fair held yesterday at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, one important question could be heard throughout the day: If I shouldn’t flush them down the toilet, what am I supposed to do with my unused medications?
IISG’s Laura Kammin and Corrie Maxwell Layfield were there to communicate the importance of properly disposing of medicines. During the one-day event, Laura and Corrie talked with more than 130 people about the health and environmental risks posed by pharmaceutical pollution and how they could safely dispose of unwanted medicines. Visitors were also told about the nationwide medicine takeback event coming up on April 27 where they could drop off human and pet medications at locations throughout Illinois. 
Amid the buzz and bustle of the crowded fair, many students lingered at IISG’s booth with additional questions about research on the effects of pharmaceuticals in water and locations of permanent collection programs. Most were surprised to learn that pharmaceutical chemicals have been found in lakes and rivers and linked with changes in wildlife behavior and health. Those who had heard of the dangers of flushing unwanted medication were also surprised to hear that pills thrown in the trash could leach into ground water or find their way to wastewater treatment plants. 
But despite how much they knew about proper pharmaceutical disposal when they stopped at the booth, many left promising not to not to flush or throw away their medication in the future. 
“People get the “Don’t Flush” message,” said Kammin. “But it isn’t common knowledge yet that putting our unwanted meds in the trash just delays their trip to local water supplies. These students really got that message.”
Laura and Corrie also talked with university professors and fellow exhibitors interested in spreading the word about proper disposal. One professor wanted to incorporate pharmaceutical pollution into a class on environmental hazards. And exhibitors from health clinics and advocacy groups took IISG materials with information on collection programs and what to do when a program is not available to share with their patients and clients. 
Learn more about properly disposing of unwanted medicines at our site, and for more information about the Drug Enforcement Administration’s National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day on April 27 including a list of locations, visit the DEA event website.
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