Groundwater contaminants, dioxins, atrazine

Each week, the Freshwater Society publishes a digest of important regional, national and international articles and research on water and the environment. Scan the articles here, then follow the links to read the articles in their entirety where they originally were published.

USGS finds contaminants in 20% of public wells tested
More than 20 percent of untreated water samples from 932 public wells across the nation contained at least one contaminant at levels of potential health concern, according to a new study by the U.S. Geological Survey. 

 About 105 million people — or more than one-third of the nation’s population — receive their drinking water from one of the 140,000 public water systems across the United States that rely on groundwater pumped from public wells. 

The USGS study focused primarily on source (untreated) water collected from public wells before treatment or blending rather than the finished (treated) drinking water that water utilities deliver to their customers. 

“By focusing primarily on source-water quality, and by testing for many contaminants that are not regulated in drinking water, this USGS study complements the extensive monitoring of public water systems that is routinely conducted for regulatory and compliance purposes by federal, state and local drinking-water programs,” said Matthew C. Larsen, USGS Associate Director for Water. “Findings assist water utility managers and regulators in making decisions about future monitoring needs and drinking-water issues.” 

Findings showed that naturally occurring contaminants, such as radon and arsenic, accounted for about three-quarters of contaminant concentrations greater than human-health benchmarks in untreated source water. Naturally occurring contaminants are mostly derived from the natural geologic materials that make up the aquifers from which well water is withdrawn. 

Man-made contaminants were also found in untreated water sampled from the public wells, including herbicides, insecticides, solvents, disinfection by-products, nitrate, and gasoline chemicals. Man-made contaminants accounted for about one-quarter of contaminant concentrations greater than human-health benchmarks, but were detected in 64 percent of the samples, predominantly in samples from unconfined aquifers. 

The USGS also sampled paired source and finished (treated) water from a smaller subset of 94 public wells. Findings showed that many man-made organic contaminants detected in source water generally were detected in finished water at similar concentrations. Organic contaminants detected in both treated and source water typically were detected at concentrations well below human-health benchmarks, however.
–USGS News release

Hand soap dioxins found in Mississippi River
Specific dioxins derived from the antibacterial agent triclosan, used in many hand soaps, deodorants, dishwashing liquids and other consumer products, account for an increasing proportion of total dioxins in Mississippi River sediments, according to University of Minnesota research.

The study appears online in the May 18 issue of the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

The researchers, from the university’s Institute of Technology (soon to be College of Science and Engineering), found that over the last 30 years, the levels of the four dioxins derived from triclosan have risen by 200 to 300 percent, while levels of all the other dioxins have dropped by 73 to 90 percent.

In April, the Food and Drug Administration announced it would study the safety of triclosan, which has been linked to disruptions of hormonal function and may also play a role in the evolution of bacterial resistance to antibiotics. In papers published in 2003 and 2009, university civil engineering professor William Arnold and his colleague Kristopher McNeill, a former professor in the university’s Department of Chemistry, discovered that triclosan, when exposed to sunlight, generated a specific suite of four dioxins.

In the current study spearheaded by Jeff Buth, a recent Ph.D. graduate in chemistry (supervised by Arnold and McNeill), the researchers examined sediment core samples from Lake Pepin, an enlargement of the Mississippi River 60  miles downstream from St. Paul.. The sediment cores, containing a record of pollutant accumulation in the lake for the past 50 years, were analyzed for triclosan, the four dioxins derived from triclosan, and the entire family of dioxin chemicals. The study was a collaborative effort between researchers at the University of Minnesota, Pace Analytical (Minneapolis), the Science Museum of Minnesota and Virginia Tech.

Triclosan was first added to commercial liquid hand soap in 1987, and by 2001 about 76 percent of commercial liquid hand soaps contained it, researchers say. About 96 percent of triclosan from consumer products is disposed of in residential drains, leading to large loads of the chemical in water entering wastewater treatment plants.

The toxicity of the dioxins derived from triclosan currently is not well understood, nor is the extent of their distribution in the environment at large, Arnold says.
–University of Minnesota news release

Atrazine impedes fish spawning, study shows
Atrazine, one of the most commonly used herbicides in the world, has been shown to affect reproduction of fish, according to a new U.S. Geological Survey study.

 “Concentrations of atrazine commonly found in agricultural streams and rivers caused reduced reproduction and spawning, as well as tissue abnormalities in laboratory studies with fish,” said USGS scientist Donald Tillitt, the lead author of the study published in Aquatic Toxicology.

Fathead minnows were exposed to atrazine at the USGS Columbia Environmental Research Center in Columbia, Mo., and observed for effects on egg production, tissue abnormalities and hormone levels.  Fish were exposed to concentrations ranging from zero to 50 micrograms per liter of atrazine for up to 30 days.  All tested levels of exposure are less than the USEPA Office of Pesticides Aquatic Life Benchmark of 65 micrograms per liter for chronic exposure of fish.  Thus, substantial reproductive effects were observed in this study at concentrations below the USEPA water-quality guideline. 

Study results show that normal reproductive cycling was disrupted by atrazine and fish did not spawn as much or as well when exposed to atrazine.  Researchers found that total egg production was lower in all atrazine-exposed fish, as compared to the non-exposed fish, within 17 to 20 days of exposure.  In addition, atrazine-exposed fish spawned less and there were abnormalities in reproductive tissues of both males and females.
–USGS news release 

 Research Council calls for climate change action
In its most comprehensive study so far, the nation’s leading scientific body declared that climate change is a reality and is driven mostly by human activity, chiefly the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.

The group, the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, issued three reports describing the case for a harmful human influence on the global climate as overwhelming and arguing for strong immediate action to limit emissions of climate-altering gases in the United States and around the world — including the creation of a carbon pricing system.

 Congress requested the reports in 2008. This is the first time the academy has issued specific recommendations on how to mitigate or adapt to climate change. 

One of the reports, “Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change,” urges the United States to set a greenhouse gas emissions “budget” that restricts overall emissions and provides a measurable goal for policy makers and for industry. It does not recommend a specific target but says the range put forward by the Obama administration and Congress is a “reasonable goal.”
–The New York Times

Gulf oil spill imperils sea turtles
It is nesting season here, and just offshore, Kemp’s ridley sea turtle No. 15 circles in the water before dragging herself onto the sand to lay another clutch of eggs.

 The sea turtle, affectionately nicknamed Thelma by a National Park Service employee, has already beaten some terrible odds. Still in the egg, she was airlifted here from Mexico in the years after the 1979 blowout of the Ixtoc 1 rig, which spilled millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and covered the turtles’ primary nesting place.

 Now Thelma and others of her species are being monitored closely by worried scientists as another major oil disaster threatens their habitat. Federal officials said that since April 30, 10 days after the accident on the Deepwater Horizon, they have recorded 156 sea turtle deaths; most of the turtles were Kemp’s ridleys. And though they cannot say for sure that the oil was responsible, the number is far higher than usual for this time of year, the officials said.
–The New York Times 

Nuclear dump proposed in Texas
Texas was all set to be part of an agreement with Vermont to dump nuclear waste in a remote region of the Lone Star state, and for the most part people living near the site were OK with it. 

Now, though, that compact could mushroom to include waste from 36 other states, reinvigorating those who oppose the project to fight harder. 

Environmentalists, geologists, the Texas League of Women Voters and others say the huge dumping ground will pollute groundwater and otherwise wreak havoc with the environment. The company that runs the site contends it’ll be safe and many local residents applaud any expansion as a way to bring more jobs and prosperity to the West Texas scrubland.
–The Associated Press

 Poison targets Asian carp in Chicago
The Little Calumet River became the latest battleground against Asian carp as workers dumped barrels of a deadly fish toxin in a desperate attempt to locate the elusive invasive species in Chicago’s waterways.

“If there are Asian carp here, we should get confirmation of that this week,” John Rogner, assistant director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said during a morning news conference.

State officials targeted a two-mile stretch of the river, about seven miles west of Lake Michigan, because numerous DNA samples have indicated the presence of Asian carp. But no one has yet seen an Asian carp, alive or dead, making this stretch of waterway an important staging area to not only test the validity of the DNA research, but also to gauge how imminent a threat the carp are to the Great Lakes.

Biologists dumped about 2,000 gallons of the organic fish poison Rotenone into the river Thursday and are expected to search for Asian carp over the next several days as dead fish float to the surface. The federal government is picking up the estimated $1.5 million price tag for the effort, which likely will kill thousands of fish and shut down a vital shipping corridor for about a week.
–The Chicago Tribune

 China builds ‘Solar Valley’ to power industry
Uprooting the last traces of rural life on the edge of this northern Chinese city, laborers with chain saws spent a recent morning cutting down trees to make way for a hulking factory. A big red banner trumpeted the future for what used to be farmland: “The Biggest Solar Energy Production Base in the Whole World.”

 Across China, villages are being turned into pollution-belching industrial zones, but nature’s retreat on the outskirts of Dezhou boasts a paradoxical purpose — protecting nature. 

“This is an experiment. It is a big laboratory,” said Huang Ming, an oil industry engineer turned solar energy tycoon, who is driving one of China’s boldest efforts to promote, and profit from, green technology.
–The Washington Post 

Invasive kudzu contributes to ozone, research says
Kudzu, a fast-growing and invasive Asian vine introduced in the American South several decades ago, has now blanketed more than 7 million acres of the region, making it sometimes seem more common than the hallmark azaleas, dogwoods and peach trees.

Now there’s evidence that the plant also increases air pollution.

 A paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported a link between kudzu and the production of ozone, the colorless and odorless gas that is the main component of smog. Ozone can damage lung tissue, increasing inflammation and the risk of asthma attacks.

Some crops and plants are known to contribute to ozone. But this study is the first to establish a connection between an invasive plant and poor air quality, said lead researcher Jonathan Hickman, a fellow at the Earth Institute at Columbia University.
–The Los Angeles Times

 Manure-powered data centers?
Hey diddle diddle. Guess what the cow has done this time?

 America’s dairy farmers could soon find themselves in the computer business, with the manure from their cows possibly powering the vast data centers of companies like Google and Microsoft. While not immediately intuitive, the idea plays on two trends: the building of computing centers in more rural locales, and dairy farmers’ efforts to deal with cattle waste by turning it into fuel. 

With the right skills, a dairy farmer could rent out land and power to technology companies and recoup an investment in the waste-to-fuel systems within two years, Hewlett-Packard engineers say in a research paper.
–The New York Times

 Penn State researches ‘gray water’ use
Horticulturists at Pennsylvania State University have come up with a low-cost, green method for recycling so-called “gray” water – the stuff from sinks, showers and washing machines that would otherwise go down the drain.

 They filter the water through some plant roots and layers of crushed stone, peat moss and waste materials – making it clean enough to reuse for growing vegetables or flushing toilets – but not for drinking. 

Using gray water is generally not allowed in the United States, but some states have explored the idea. The Penn State researchers hope their data – which show such biofilters can remove almost all suspended solids, nitrogen compounds and other pollutants from gray water – might lead to greater acceptance.
–The Philadelphia Inquirer

Mail-in drug disposal plan tried
Through a grant awarded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the University of Maine’s Center on Aging has completed the first statewide mail-back pilot program for managing pharmaceutical waste from consumers.

Studies show that pharmaceuticals are present in our nation’s water bodies and that certain drugs may cause ecological harm. The EPA is currently evaluating the potential risks associated with pharmaceuticals and personal care products on public health and aquatic life.

The program included the use of mailers to return unused and unwanted medications, both prescription and over-the-counter, from households.

Maine Care (Maine’s Medicaid program) established a limit for certain drugs on the quantity that can be filled with an initial prescription. This policy is targeted at reducing the supply and accumulation of unused medications and to prevent pollution. The Maine legislature also recognized the value of the take-back pilot and enacted legislation to continue the program for an additional two years. As part of the EPA grant, the University of Maine’s Center on Aging developed a handbook on the project and collected data on the type and amount of unused medications. 

To view the executive summary of the report, click here.
–EPA New release

Conserving water conserves energy
In the run-up to the Copenhagen climate summit conference last year, water researchers and advocates held a special meeting to address the fact that water issues were absent from the draft negotiating text.

This was a major oversight, given the amount of energy that is used to collect, treat, distribute and use water and wastewater.

 Just how much energy is consumed has not been measured in most places, but a 2005 energy policy report published by the state of California found that annual water-related energy consumption in the state accounted for 19 percent of electricity consumption, 32 percent natural gas consumption, and 88 million gallons, or 333 million liters, of diesel fuel. River Network, an organization that advocates water conservation, has extrapolated that data nationally. In a report last year it calculated that Americans use 520 megawatt-hours, or 13 percent of U.S. electricity consumption, on water.
–The New York Times

Ely mayor fined for BWCA violations
The case of the purloined porta-potty is over.

Ely Mayor Roger Skraba was sentenced Tuesday in Duluth after admitting that he drove his snowmobile in the federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) three years ago, broke into a U.S. Forest Service shed and stole and hid a portable toilet.

Federal Magistrate Judge Raymond Erickson fined Skraba $3,600. The sentence also includes 40 hours of community service and two years’ probation.

Skraba, 48, was charged on Nov. 9, 2009, and pleaded guilty two months ago to three misdemeanors: removing property belonging to the federal government, entering a protected wilderness area without a proper permit, and possession or use of a motor vehicle or motorized equipment in a protected wilderness area.
–The Star Tribune

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