WOOSTER, Ohio — The fish in Chicago’s massive waterway system are breathing a little easier these days following a recent study that involved several researchers from The College of Wooster.
Melissa Schultz, associate professor of chemistry at Wooster, and several of her students, along with scientists from St. Cloud State University, the University of St. Thomas, and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) of Greater Chicago collaborated on a three-year study to determine the impact of unregulated Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) on urban waterways.
Thousands of fish and water samples were collected from 45 locations on the Chicago waterways between 2009 and 2012 in an effort to determine the sources and the impact of EDCs, which water reclamation plants are not designed to completely remove.
The group discovered that EDCs, including natural estrogens and personal care products, are common in the waterways, which is consistent with other studies both nationally and globally, according to a release from the MWRD. The compounds were found to originate from street runoff after snowmelt and heavy rains, from treated wastewater, and from other sources. Many EDCs can be controlled by properly disposing pharmaceuticals and pet waste, using biodegradable cleaning supplies, and discontinuing the use of soaps that contain antibacterial agents.
Schultz was asked to conduct a target analysis to determine the occurrence and levels of endocrine disrupters, specifically those chemicals that have estrogenic effects — natural hormones that are excreted plus the active ingredient in birth control (ethinyl estradiol) and additives found in consumer products (including bisphenol-A or BPA). “What our team found was that there were EDCs in the waterways and estrogenic effects on the fish,” she said, “but ultimately we determined that this did not cause any immediate harm to the fish population.”
In addition to Schultz and her fellow scientists, several Wooster undergraduates had an opportunity to participate in the multi-year study. The first of those four students was David Flannelly, a 2010 graduate currently enrolled in the environmental toxicology Ph.D. program at Cornell University. “Dr. Schultz approached me (about the project) in my senior year,” said Flannelly. “I was very interested because of the applied practical aspect with a client on the other side.”
Flannelly wound up playing a significant role in the study. He received water samples from Chicago and developed an extraction and analysis method using the chemistry department’s mass spectrometer. “I had to figure out a way to extract the contaminants of interest while removing the gunk so that the sample would be clear for the spectrometer,” said Flannelly, who used the data as the basis for his Senior Independent Study project (Wooster’s nationally acclaimed undergraduate research program). “It was a foundational research experience for me in terms of developing a method for extraction in the lab and working with collaborating scientists — all through Dr. Schultz’s connections.”
Findings from this study will be published in the journal Environment International, and the Journal of the American Water Resources Association in three separate papers. In addition, the research team was recently awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to continue its research in the Chicago area waterways as the MWRD works to upgrade two of its water reclamation plants to disinfection, which may lower the concentrations of endocrine disrupting chemicals in their effluents.
“This is a huge urban watershed,” said Schultz. “It’s the first time a team has looked at the impact of wastewater discharge on an urban aquatic environment on such a large scale over three years.
“Chicago will be adding a final disinfection treatment at two plants,” added Schultz. “We will be looking at the effects of the (disinfection) process through the NSF grant, and we are hoping that will produce a positive outcome as well.”
Equally valuable in the eyes of Schultz was the opportunity for undergraduate participation. “Science is becoming more interdisciplinary, and our four students had a chance to be in the field to see all components of the project,” she said. “To be able to do that type of fieldwork as an undergraduate is significant.”
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