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  • Chemical Reactions Between Fracking Fluids and Rock Release Toxic Contaminants into Water New Study Finds

    During hydro-fracking operations, hundreds of thousands of gallons of water are pumped into the ground under pressure to force open fissures and release the natural gas trapped within. During this process, a concoction of toxic chemicals are added to the water, resulting in heavily contaminated wastewater as a byproduct.

    Until now, it was believed that fracking wastewater was largely contaminated as a result of chemical interactions with naturally occurring saline brine water found in rocks. However, a new study has found that chemical reactions that occur between the freshwater injected into the ground and fractured shale rock could be a major cause of the contamination.

    The results of the study, which were recently published in the scientific journal Applied Geochemistry, shows that when freshwater used in fracking operations is exposed to rock deep underground, due to chemical reactions between the two, it transforms into a liquid that is highly saline and has high levels of toxic metals, and poses a risk of contaminating drinking water if not disposed of appropriately.

    Courtesy of: https://www.flickr.com/photos/128012869@N08/ FRacking Pond. Photo courtesy of: https://www.flickr.com/photos/128012869@N08/

    For the study, the research team examined samples taken from three drilling cores from drilling sites situated in the Marcellus Shale deposit in New York and Pennsylvania to assess chemical reactions between water and rock that could release toxic metals such as barium during the hydro-fracking process.

    The Marcellus Shale deposit has extensive natural gas reserves, and as a result has been largely exploited by the oil and gas industry using hydro-fracking techniques to extract the natural gas from deep underground. Because the fracturing process takes place under high pressure about a mile underground where temperatures are high and oxygen levels low, chemical reactions between water and the fractured rock occur.

    In terms of extracting oil and gas from shale beds, hydro-fracking is considered to be an important technological advancement in the oil and gas industry. However, the wastewater produced as a result of these operations is highly saline and contains extremely high levels of barium — a toxic metal. Up until now it was assumed that this highly saline water containing high levels of barium resulted from freshwater (used in fracking operations) mixing with saline water naturally found underground that already contained barium. Yet the researchers found that a large percentage of barium within the shale is bound to clay minerals, and gets released into the fracking water as salinity levels increase over time.

    "Based on barium yields determined from laboratory leaching experiments of the Marcellus Shale and a reasonable estimate of the water/rock mass ratio during hydraulic fracturing, we suggest that all of the barium in produced water can be reconciled with leaching directly from the fractured rock," says senior author Mukul Sharma, a professor of Earth Sciences at Dartmouth College.

    By understanding how barium behaves during these processes, we can better understand the behavior of other environmental contaminants that occur as a result of the hydro-fracking process.

    "Importantly, barium behavior allows us to understand the behavior of radium, which is very abundant in produced water and is a very real environmental concern," explains Sharma. "There has been much discussion about injection of water with lots of toxic compounds during fracking. What is less known is that produced water is hazardous waste and chemical reactions between water and the rock are likely playing a role in its formation, not simply a mixing of freshwater with natural brines in the rock."

    Journal Reference

    Devon Renock, Joshua D. Landis, Mukul Sharma. Reductive weathering of black shale and release of barium during hydraulic fracturing. Applied Geochemistry, 2016; 65: 73 DOI: 10.1016/j.apgeochem.2015.11.001

  • Toxic Environmental Contaminants Contribute to Antibiotic Resistance

    ** Antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a growing health problem that has prompted health officials, NGOs and media agencies to increase public awareness of the hazards associated with antibiotic use and misuse.

    ** Now a University of Georgia ecologist has warned that there may be more to this issue than misuse of antibiotic drugs.

    J. Vaun McArthur, an ecologist based at the Odum School of Ecology and the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, believes that environmental contaminants (primarily heavy metals) could play a role in the rise of bacterial resistance. To test his hypothesis he studied the effects of environmental contaminants in streams surrounding the U.S. Department of Energy's Savannah River Site.

    The DoE's Savannah River Site is situated alongside the Savannah River, close to Aiken, South Carolina, and covers an area of 310 square miles. In the 1950s the site was closed to the general public and used to produce materials required for building nuclear weapons. The production of these materials has resulted in toxic waste materials that have contaminated certain areas within the site and impacted streams in the surrounding areas.

    105936_web

    McArthur and his fellow researchers collected water and sediment samples from eleven sites along nine streams and proceeded to test five different antibiotics on over 400 strains E. Coli bacteria collected from the streams. Metal contaminants measured at the various sites ranged from low to high.

    "The site was constructed and closed to the public before antibiotics were used in medical practices and agriculture," McArthur said. "The streams have not had inputs from wastewater, so we know the observed patterns are from something other than antibiotics."

    The results of the study, which were recently published in the journal Environmental Microbiology, found that 8 of the 11 sites tested had high levels of antibiotic resistance. The highest level of antibiotic resistance (in both sediment and water samples) were recorded at the northern-most location on Upper Three Runs Creek, and on two tributaries within the industrial area.

    While the Upper Three Runs Creek does flow through agricultural, residential and other industrial areas before entering the Savannah River Site, therefore exposing bacteria in the stream to antibiotics, sites marked U4 and U8 are contained within the site and do not have any known antibiotic input from external sources. There is, however, a long history of contamination from legacy waste at these sites.

    McArthur then screened the samples a second time using twenty-three antibiotics on samples collected from U4 and U8, as well as samples collected from a stream nearby that was considered to be free from industrial contaminants.

    According to McArthur, more than 95% of bacteria samples collected from these streams showed antibiotic resistance to more than 10 of the 23 antibiotics tested, including antibiotics typically used to treat common bacterial infections such as pink eye, sinus- and urinary infections. The highest levels of antibiotic resistance were recorded at locations U4 and U8 (the streams heavily contaminated with industrial waste).

    "These streams have no source of antibiotic input, thus the only explanation for the high level of antibiotic resistance is the environmental contaminants in these streams -- the metals, including cadmium and mercury," McArthur said.

    While McArthur acknowledges that wildlife that have been exposed to antibiotics may have contributed by adding waste to these streams, only streams that had a history of industrial waste being discharged into them had bacteria that were resistant to antibiotics — bacteria in the other six streams located in pristine areas within the site that received no industrial input succumbed to antibiotics.

    McArthur finds it disconcerting that industrially contaminated water from these antibiotic resistance streams flows into the Savannah River, which flows past residential communities living on the border of South Carolina and Georgia.
    According to McArthur: "The findings of this study may very well explain why resistant bacteria are so widely distributed."

    Journal Reference

    J.V. McArthur et al. Patterns of Multi-Antibiotic-Resistant Escherichia Coli from Streams with No History of Antimicrobial Inputs. Environmental Microbiology, (Nov 2015); doi:10. 1007/ s00248-015-0678-4

  • Water Dispensers in Schools Linked to Weight Loss in Kids

    ** Giving kids the option to drink water instead of milk or fizzy drinks can prevent weight gain and keep them healthy.

    ** Making water freely available in schools by placing water jets in school cafeterias resulted in a reduction in student weight, a new study that was conducted in public schools in New York City has found.

    For the study, researchers assessed over 1 million students from 1227 schools across New York City comparing weight loss at schools with water dispensers to those at schools without. The report, which was recently published online in the journal, JAMA Pediatrics, is the first to reveal the link between the school water program and student weight loss.

    "This study demonstrates that doing something as simple as providing free and readily available water to students may have positive impacts on their overall health, particularly weight management," says study senior investigator Brian Elbel, an associate professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone and NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service."Our findings suggest that this relatively low-cost intervention is, in fact, working."

    The school water program was implemented in New York City schools in 2009, where large, electrically-powered water jets that dispensed water out of clear jugs by the push of a lever, were installed into schools across the city. At a cost of $1000 each, roughly 40% of schools were issued a water jet during the course of this study, which ran from the 2008/9 school year through to 2012/3 school year.

    Water Dispenser in NYC School Water Dispenser in NYC School

    The researchers analyzed height/weight data of students recorded by schools annually to determine student fitness levels, and compared body mass index (BMI) and weight status of all the students before water jets were introduced. They then reassessed these measurements after water jets were installed. The results show a change for the better: Compared to students at schools that didn't have water jets, students from schools where water jets had been installed for at least 3 months showed a reduced BMI — a reduction of between 0.22 (girls) - 0.25 (boys). Students were also between 0.6% (girls) - 0.9% (boys) less likely to be overweight than children from schools that didn't have water jets installed.

    The researchers conclude that making water readily available to children may lead them to opt for water instead of high calorie beverages such as flavored milk, fruit juice or soda. While New York City schools prohibited the sale of sugary beverages before the study began, students are still free to bring these onto school premises from other outside sources.

    A previous study conducted by Dr Ebel found that after water jets were introduced to schools, water consumption tripled within 3 months, while milk consumption dropped.

    According to lead author, Amy Ellen Schwartz, reducing the consumption of high calorie sugary beverages while simultaneously encouraging kids to drink water, is an important step in promoting children's health and decreasing childhood obesity, and school's provide the perfect setting for such an intervention.

    Considering that just under 40% of New York City children are overweight, healthy lifestyle choices are essential to end this trend. To this end, the city has implemented various policies to combat childhood obesity and promote child health. Besides introducing water jets to public schools, the city is striving to improve nutrition standards by offering more fruit and vegetables and removing fizzy drinks from vending machines, and providing low-fat milk instead of full-cream milk.

    If your child attends a school that does not have water jets installed you can still ensure that he or she has water freely available at all times. Pack a handy Sport Berkey Filter Bottle into your child's school bag and they can have a ready supply of healthy filtered water wherever they are.

    Journal Reference:

    Amy Ellen Schwartz, Michele Leardo, Siddhartha Aneja, Brian Elbel. Effect of a School-Based Water Intervention on Child Body Mass Index and Obesity. JAMA Pediatrics, 2016; 1 DOI: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.3778

  • Flint, Michigan's Toxic Water Situation Will Persist for Some Time

    A study released by the The Hurley Medical Center, in Flint, Michigan, in September 2015, confirmed many parents’ fears: their children are being silently poisoned by lead. The report revealed that the number of children and infants with high levels of lead — a highly toxic heavy metal — in their systems has almost doubled since 2014, when the city opted to use the Flint River as a water source instead of the Detroit water system used prior to the switch.

    The crisis originally reached a head following a Michigan state emergency declaration last month, but since Saturday when President Obama declared the situation a national emergency, much of the US public is finally waking up.  Some residents have taken legal action by filing a class-action federal lawsuit against the city, state, and officials responsible for putting the health and safety of their families at risk by exposing them to drinking water that is highly toxic. There are no simple solutions and they expect the problem to persist at least a year or more as efforts to correct the issue are put into place.

    The lawsuit states: “For more than 18 months, state and local government officials ignored irrefutable evidence that the water pumped from the Flint River exposed [city residents] to extreme toxicity. The deliberately false denials about the safety of the Flint River water was as deadly as it was arrogant."

    Parents in the city of Flint have been taking their children to visit GPs and clinics for medical check ups for months, fueled by concerns that they are being poisoned. So, what are the symptoms and long-term consequences of lead exposure?

    According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), symptoms of lead poisoning can initially materialize as changes in child behavior and learning disabilities. While exposure to lead can cause high blood pressure and kidney damage in adults, children are particularly vulnerable as they tend to absorb greater levels of lead — sometimes as much as five times the amount of adults exposed to the same source. Once lead enters the body it is dispersed throughout the system and can accumulate in organs of the body including the brain, bones, liver and kidneys,

    "In particular, lead affects children’s brain development resulting in reduced intelligencequotient (IQ), behavioural changes such as shortening of attention span and increased antisocial behaviour, and reduced educational attainment," says the WHO. "Lead exposure also causes anaemia, hypertension, renal impairment, immunotoxicity and toxicity to the reproductive organs. The neurological and behavioural effects of lead are believed to be irreversible."

    Residents began complaining about the quality of their drinking water, noting that it was cloudy and smelled bad, almost as soon as Flint began drawing the city’s water from the Flint River, and complaints have escalated ever since. While water officials initially tried to pacify residents and declared the water safe to drink, the state later issued a warning notice to inform residents that their drinking water contained high levels of trihalomethanes, a water contaminant that forms as a byproduct following treatment with chlorine, and which is associated with various diseases including cancer. The city then advised residents that children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with a weak immune system should consult their doctors as to whether it was safe for them to drink the water or to rather use an alternative source of drinking water.

    For many residents who could not afford to use expensive bottled water as their sole source of drinking water indefinitely, their only option was to take their chances and revert back to tap water. However, most protested and petitioned for change. Water officials had originally planned to continue using the Flint River water source until later in 2016 while a new cost-effective pipeline was being constructed between Lake Huron (Detroit) and Flint, but in October, officials finally conceded to pressure from residents and reverted to the Detroit water system as Flint’s main source of water.

    Following the declaration of a state of emergency, Flint officials are rallying around in damage control mode. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has made 28,000 liters of bottled water available to residents via a local food bank. The city is offering to test residents water for free, and is also providing residents with water filters. Even celebrities such as Cher, and filmmakers such as Michael Moore and doing what they can to assist.

    There are still concerns that in certain areas of the city unfiltered water could still be unsafe to drink. There are also concerns about the long-term effects of this exposure. In an article published in The Washington Post Flint Mayor, Karen Weaver aired her concerns, stating that the long-term health risks could “lead to a greater need for special education and mental health services, as well as developments in the juvenile justice system” in future.

    The untold story is that this is not the last time we're going to hear about a municipal water crisis in the US such as this. Municipalities are always looking to save money, so we could easily see a similar event in the future.  But more likely, with the many aging city water distribution systems that lack funding for updating and pipe replacements, we will see many smaller contamination events that don't national news, but have a continued and growing impact across our US towns and cities.

    The bottom line is that lead contamination has serious long-term health effects. If you are concerned that your tap water may be contaminated, get it tested, and invest in a good quality drinking water filter that is capable of removing lead. The Big Berkey range of drinking water filters fitted with Black Berkey filters can reduce lead and other heavy metals by 99.9%+, and can also remove trihalomethanes and many other drinking water contaminants to ensure your family's safety.

  • Can a Mother's Exposure to Chemicals Make Their Baby Vulnerable to TB?

    A new study that was recently conducted by researchers from the University of Rochester Environmental Health Sciences Center has revealed that exposure to hazardous chemicals such as DDT and PCBs can suppress a babies response to vaccines for tuberculosis.

    The significance of these findings, which were recently published in the scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives, is not only limited to an infants response to the TB vaccine; nor is it limited to exposure to the notorious two chemicals mentioned above. According to lead author, Dr Todd Jusko, who is an assistant professor in the departments of Environmental Medicine and Public Health Sciences at the University of Rochester:

    "There are thousands of pollutants similar to PCBs and DDT with unknown health implications. Our work provides a foundation for how these types of chemicals affect the developing immune system in infants around the world."

    For this study, the researchers focused on two key chemicals: polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); and DDE, which is the primary byproduct of the notoriously hazardous insecticide DDT. Both of these chemicals are considered extremely persistent pollutants as they do not readily break down in the environment, but rather persist to pose a health risk to both the environment and humans. Even though these chemicals were banned decades ago, they are still prevalent in the environment (notably soil and water) today.

    TB Under the microscope TB Under the microscope

    PCBs were routinely added to consumer products and other industrial products in the US until they were banned in 1979. But despite the ban, nearly everyone has detectable concentrations of PCBs in their blood — even people who reside in unindustrialized regions of the world. While DDT is now banned in the US, it is still in use in certain countries where malaria is a larger health issue.

    For this study, researchers took blood samples from 516 healthy moms and their infants living in eastern Slovakia — a region that is heavily polluted by environmental toxins — and assessed the immune responses of babies six months after being given a TB vaccine that was administered within four days of their birth.

    They found that harmful chemicals were present in over 99% of the blood samples. However, babies with the highest PCB concentrations in their blood had fewer antibodies to fight off TB. Although the presence of DDE did not have such a strong influence on the levels of vaccine antibodies as PCBs, it still significantly reduced a baby's response to the TB vaccine; and babies that were exposed to both of these chemicals had the poorest immune response.

    PCB, DDE, and other persistent chemical toxins are able to pass through the placenta, and are also passed from mother's to their babies during breastfeeding. The authors note that a child develops his or her immune system in the early stages of life, and even the slightest changes can result in a dysfunctional immune system in the long-term.

    TB is a serious infectious killer disease that affected nearly 10 million people globally in 2014 alone. For years, scientists have pondered why people respond to the TB vaccine differently, with the impact that environmental toxins have on a child's developing immune system tending to be overlooked as a potential reason. This study shows that common environmental toxins can reduce the immune response to an important vaccine that is used globally to treat TB. Mothers (and their children) can be exposed to PCBs, DDT and other harmful environmental contaminants in drinking water.

    Journal Reference
    Todd A. Jusko et al. A Birth Cohort Study of Maternal and Infant Serum PCB-153 and DDE Concentrations and Responses to Infant Tuberculosis Vaccination. Environmental Health Perspectives, December 2015 DOI: 10.1289/ehp.1510101

  • Arsenic Exposure Poses Increased Risk Infection & Respiratory Symptoms in Children

    Pregnant women who are exposed to high levels of arsenic during their pregnancy are more likely to give birth to babies who are predisposed to infections and respiratory related ailments in the first year of their lives, a new study which was recently published in Environmental Health Perspectives has revealed.

    For the study, which surveyed New Hampshire residents who get their water from private wells, the research team measured arsenic levels in urine samples taken from 412 pregnant women to gain a better understanding of how much arsenic each unborn baby was exposed to prior to their birth. Once the women had given birth, the researchers conducted telephonic surveys every 4 months to determine how many infections the children succumbed to and how severe these infections were, as well as the symptoms the child displayed within their first year.

    523977327_0eddaa4b3e_z credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/viralbus/

    The results of the study indicate that babies that were exposed to arsenic while in their mother's womb had more infections that required visiting a doctor or that needed to be treated with prescription drugs. According to Shohreh Farzan, a scientist at Dartmouth University's Geisel School of Medicine and lead author of the study, babies exposed to high levels of arsenic in the womb were more likely to have infections of the upper and lower respiratory tract, together with respiratory symptoms (for example wheezing) that required medical attention.

    According to Margaret Karagas, a professor of epidemiology at the Giesel School of Medicine and co-author of the paper, the results of this study indicate that early exposure to arsenic may not only increase a child's risk to some types of infections, as well as the severity of those infections; but infants who succumb to these infections and respiratory symptoms could be at higher risk of developing allergies and respiratory conditions later in life.

    These findings echo observations of children exposed to high levels of arsenic in Bangladesh, where respiratory infections, impaired immune function and higher susceptibility to infection is higher in the general population due to widespread exposure to high levels of arsenic in well water that is used for drinking.

    The most common source of arsenic exposure is drinking water, particularly water drawn from private wells as these do not undergo the same level of testing as water that is supplied by a water utility, which must meet EPA standards for water quality. In the US, arsenic in well water is considered the biggest public health problem in terms of drinking water quality. In New Hampshire, approximately 10-15% of private wells are contaminated with arsenic at levels above the standard set by the EPA for drinking water. As these wells are not regularly monitored, many households may be unaware that they are being exposed to high levels of arsenic via their drinking water.

    The authors recommend that households that get their drinking water from private wells should have their water tested for arsenic. If high levels of arsenic are present, this can be filtered out with a good quality water filter that has the capability to remove the hazardous contaminant.  Berkey water filters remove this by 99.9%.

    Journal Reference

    Margaret R. Karagas, Emily Baker, Kari Nadeau, Richard Enelow, Donna Spiegelman, Susan A. Korrick, Zhigang Li, Shohreh F. Farzan. Infant Infections and Respiratory Symptoms in Relation to in Utero Arsenic Exposure in a U.S. Cohort. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2015; DOI: 10.1289/ehp.1409282

  • Sediment Contaminants: Tracking the Source of Erosion

    Sediment contaminants are a common occurrence but rarely covered in today's environmental discussions. After a particularly heavy downpour you may often find that the waters in your local stream or river have transformed from a clear bubbling brook into a fast-moving mass of opaque chocolate colored liquid.

    That chocolate brown coloration is the result of suspended sediments, which may range in size from minute granules of clay or mud to larger pebbles and stones, originating from eroded substrates further upstream.

    As the river meanders through its course, sediments are swept away by the flowing water in the process commonly known as erosion. These suspended sediments will eventually be deposited, but very often they are not wanted in the place where they land up. This is especially true for drinking water sources, as not only is sediment considered a drinking water contaminant that makes your tap water murkey and unpleasant to drink, these sediments often have other contaminants clinging to them, which can pose a health hazard in drinking water.

    640px-Muddy_USGS

    Soil scientist David Lobb has been investigating the origin of sediments carried by rivers in the Tobacco Creek Watershed, which eventually flow into Canada's Lake Winnipeg, where this load is deposited. Lake Winnipeg is Canada's 2nd largest watershed having three major river systems emptying into it. It is therefore very susceptible to the effects of activities that take place further upstream and important that we consider the watershed in its entirety, and not simply look at water that is flowing out of the watershed explains Lobb.

    The ecological health of a watershed, together with issues affecting its water quality, are areas of growing concern as both can be negatively impacted by a wide range of human activities. For example, crop fertilizers, animal waste from livestock, or sewage effluent from wastewater treatment plants, can all cause nutrient loading in lakes that encourage algal growth that clog up waterways, smother other species and generally disrupt the ecology of freshwater lakes. They can also fuel harmful algal blooms of toxic blue-green algae.

    Lobb, together with fellow researchers from the Universities of Manitoba and Northern British Columbia used a technique known as color fingerprinting to gain a better understanding of where the sediments in Lake Winnipeg were originating from. The color of a sediment is a key indicator of where it was originally eroded.

    According to Lobb, while this method of fingerprinting is not quite as accurate as taking fingerprints from a crime scene, the available tools can accurately identify the source of the sediments. The technique is also easy, quick and cheap to implement.

    "In the most simple case, black sediment is from surface sources and light sediment is from subsurface," explains Lobb, "That's an oversimplification of a very precise process backed up by statistical models."

    Lobb notes that it's important to determine whether sediments originate from surface or subsurface soils. Sediments originating from eroded subsoils tend to be eroded from the bottom and sides of rivers and streams as the water flows over them, whereas sediments originating from surface soils (topsoil) is more likely to have been eroded from farm lands, forest floors or areas along the river banks.

    "We found that nature is more often to blame for a lot of the sediments we see in our streams," says Lobb, "Humans may not have as much of an effect on the amount of sediment flowing out of a watershed as we've been taught," says Lobb, "but we do have a profound effect on hydrology, and that can contribute to the erosion and sediment produced downstream."

    The sediment in the South Tobacco Creek originates mostly from subsurface soils that are eroded from the banks of streams and the extensive walls of rock that frame the creek as it makes its way through the 600-foot escarpment. While people typically assume that sedimentation is due to erosion of farm lands, river channel erosion, which is a natural process that is constantly occurring, is one of the major contributors of sedimentation, according to Lobb.

    The color-coding fingerprinting technique allows us to easily finger point the geographic origins of sediment, however it is not so easy to know what action to take once we have these answers, says Lobb. One angle that they will be focusing on in future is managing runoff from farm lands — placing it as a top priority on the same level as managing soil erosion and topsoil loss from farm lands — addressing this at both local farm-field scale and watershed scale.

    The question of scale is both complicated and important as watersheds tend to be dynamic entities that are continually changing. The health of one stretch of a river will also impact the health of another stretch. It is thus important to look at the watershed in its entirety, and for Lake Winnipeg, the watershed extends over an area that is 40 times larger than the area the lake covers.

    "The public is demanding actions and impacts on a watershed scale," says Lobb. "Therefore, practices and processes have to reflect that larger regional scale."

    Journal Reference

    Louise R.M. Barthod, Kui Liu, David A. Lobb, Philip N. Owens, Núria Martínez-Carreras, Alexander J. Koiter, Ellen L. Petticrew, Gregory K. McCullough, Cenwei Liu, Leticia Gaspar. Selecting Color-based Tracers and Classifying Sediment Sources in the Assessment of Sediment Dynamics Using Sediment Source Fingerprinting. Journal of Environment Quality, 2015; 0 (0): 0 DOI: 10.2134/jeq2015.01.0043

  • Wastewater Treatment Plants Harmful to River Ecosystems

    Wastewater treatment facilities are supposed to remove pollutants from water fouled by human activities, yet the effluent released from water treatment plants is very often a source of a large number of contaminants found in rivers, according to a study recently published in the scientific journal, Freshwater Biology.

    Ibon Aristi, a researcher in the department of Plant Biology & Ecology at The University of the Basque Country, Bilbao, Spain, assessed the impact of wastewater effluent from a treatment facility that flowed into the river Segre in Spain by analyzing the response of fluvial communities to pollutants present in the discharged effluent.

    Aristi divided the compounds found in the discharged effluent into two groups according to how they affected the rivers ecosystem:

    1) Pollutants that increase activity of organisms living in the river.

    2) Pollutants that reduce productivity or are otherwise harmful to organisms living in the river.

    640px-Discharge_pipe

    Group 1 consists of nutrients and organic matter that aquatic dwelling organisms can readily assimilate. These pollutants tend to encourage growth of river organisms and increase their activity. However, according to Aristi, above a certain concentration these pollutants can be toxic, and thus harmful to river organisms. One of the key functions of wastewater treatment plants is to ensure that these pollutants are reduced to acceptable concentrations.

    Group 2 on the other hand consist of pollutants that are toxic to river organisms and will harm them even in low concentrations. For this study, the authors focuses on drugs dissolved in the river water.

    "We regard them as indicators of all the toxic pollutants, but one has to understand that together with the drugs there is a variety of toxic compounds, such as heavy metals, pesticides and components of soaps, and that it is when they are taken together that they are harmful," explained Aristi. "None of them are removed in the water-treatment plants because these plants are not equipped for that purpose."

    The results of the study show that both types of pollutants affect various river organisms. The first group of compounds that are readily assimilated by river organisms influences respiration — the rate at which the organisms process organic matter.

    "When the concentration of assimilable compounds increases, respiration also increases," explains Aristi. "Respiration is much greater at the place where the effluent from the water-treatment plants is incorporated than in the upriver stretches, and when it heads downriver, the concentration of assimilable compounds gradually decreases and with it respiration".

    The second group of more toxic pollutants tends to affect photosynthesizing organism more.

    According to Aristi, these toxic pollutants reduce the rate of plant production, causing it to be much lower than what it should be for the amount of light available — light is an important indicator of production as it is a fundamental requirement for photosynthesis; when light is abundant, plant growth rates increase and plants flourish. Yet, even though light was abundant, productivity in river water that contained wastewater effluent was much lower than it should be considering the light available for growth. "We have also seen that these organisms have activated a mechanism to protect themselves from the stress produced by the toxic substances".

    According to Aristi, this research shows that wastewater treatment facilities are not as efficient as they should be, and steps need to be taken to improve their efficiency if we want river communities and river ecosystems to remain healthy.

    Aristi concludes that we need to weigh up the pros and cons of maintaining the current situation where there are a lot of small wastewater treatment plants discharging into a river along many stretches, or try a different approach by reducing the number of wastewater treatment plants by constructing larger water treatment facilities that harm fewer stretches of a river. Alternatively we need to consider the possibility of improving the efficiency of wastewater treatment plants, for example by improving filtration to ensure pollutants are removed before effluent is discharged into a river. However, this could be costly says Aristi.

    Journal Reference

    Ibon Aristi, Daniel von Schiller, Maite Arroita, Damià Barceló, Lídia Ponsatí, María J. García-Galán, Sergi Sabater, Arturo Elosegi, Vicenç Acuña. Mixed effects of effluents from a wastewater treatment plant on river ecosystem metabolism: subsidy or stress? Freshwater Biology, 2015; 60 (7): 1398 DOI: 10.1111/fwb.12576

    Image Suggestion
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Effluent#/media/File:Discharge_pipe.jpg

  • Households, Not Hospitals, Primarily Responsible for Drug Residues in Wastewater

    Drugs and pharmaceuticals are listed as emerging contaminants that pose a concern in terms of drinking water contamination. Now a recent study conducted in Germany shows that most of the drug residues found in wastewater originate from domestic households rather than health care institutions such as nursing facilities and hospitals, whose output is considered insignificant by comparison.

    Scientists from Leuphana University analyzed data of drug consumption from a German hospital, nursing home and psychiatric clinic, and identified 50 substances that are frequently administered to patients which are commonly discharged into wastewater. Then, using the annually published German Drug Prescription Report which provides a list of drugs prescribed to patients on the public health-care scheme by German physicians, the researchers compared the average total use of these drugs over a 3-year period by health care institutions to the annual use of a selection of substances commonly used by German domestic households.

    Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/v1ctor/ Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/v1ctor/

    The findings, which were recently published in Environment International, show that for the large number of drugs tested, the average consumption — and thus contaminants discharged into wastewater — is much higher for domestic households compared to health care institutions.

    The results reveal that the use of drugs that act on the cardiovascular system or digestive tract is between 15 - 500 times higher in private homes than health care facilities, and as much as 2500 times higher than psychiatric clinics. Even painkiller consumption by hospitals is relatively low by comparison; for example, the use of Metamizole — a commonly prescribed painkiller — in hospitals accounts for only 22% of the total consumption. The only drugs that had significantly high consumption rates in health care facilities were Clomethiazole (a sedative widely used in hospitals), quetiapine and Moclobemide (a neuroleptic and antidepressant respectively, both of which are commonly used in nursing homes). By identifying these Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs), it is possible to ascribe emissions of specific drug contaminants to certain health care institutions on a regional level.

    While earlier studies have shown that drugs discharged into wastewater by general hospitals is much lower than that discharged by domestic households, this study is the first to demonstrate that on a national scale, only a very small portion of the drugs discharged into wastewater originate from nursing homes and psychiatric care facilities compared to domestic households.

    The methodical approach — modeling the prediction of drug emissions using consumption data — is unique.

    "Our study has shown that consumption patterns provide at least as accurate a picture of wastewater pollution by individual substances as wastewater measurements themselves" explained Manuel Herrmann, lead author of the study. "However, with respect to the measurement procedure, our method combines the advantages of being far less complex and less costly. Thus, contamination can easily be predicted, and policy and management can react appropriately and promptly."

    With all these drugs floating around in our water ways, and not much known about the cumulative effect of long-term exposure, it would be wise to take precautions and filter drinking water to remove any persistent drugs that could be contaminating your drinking water. The Berkey water filter has recently been tested and shown to remove many pharmaceuticals from the water.

    Journal Reference:

    Manuel Herrmann, Oliver Olsson, Rainer Fiehn, Markus Herrel, Klaus Kümmerer. The significance of different health institutions and their respective contributions of active pharmaceutical ingredients to wastewater. Environment International, 2015; 85: 61 DOI: 10.1016/j.envint.2015.07.020

  • Thirsty Business: What Causes Our Thirst

    Scientists discover the mechanism in the human brain that controls body temperature and hydration.

    A team of researchers from Duke University and the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC) have unraveled how the human brain is able to determine when our bodies are becoming dehydrated and how it prevents the body from dehydrating by identifying a key protein that is thought to control body temperature and hydration.

    Their findings, which could potentially be used to clinically treat a wide range of health issues associated with an imbalance of body fluids often seen in emergency room situations, were recently published in the scientific journal Cell Reports.

    “We have identified what we think is the first protein that could allow the brain to monitor physiological temperature and it is important because this protein contributes to how the brain detects heat and triggers adaptive responses such as thirst,” explains study leader Dr. Charles Bourque, a research scientist in the Medicine Faculty of McGill University and at the Centre for Research in Neuroscience, RI-MUHC. “This protein, which is an ion channel, that regulates the flow of ions across the cell membrane, is thought to play a crucial role in balancing body fluids (water, blood, etc.) and sodium (salts) levels, and changes in its regulation could be involved in linking salt to hypertension, and provoking fluid retention following cardiac failure, sepsis or brain trauma.”

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    Dr. Bourque and his team are researching how the human brain maintains the balance of salt and water concentrations in body fluids as they moving through membranes — a process known as osmoregulation. Any changes in osmoregulation can cause health problems in humans. Sodium, for example, plays an vital role in regulating water content within our bodies; consequently high levels of salt can damage the kidneys and cause high blood pressure.

    An imbalance in body fluids, such as hyponatremia — a condition that results when blood sodium levels drop to abnormally low levels, is one of the more common reasons that patients admitted to an emergency room are hospitalized, says Dr Bourque. Sodium plays an important role in regulating the water content within and surrounding the cells in our body. When sodium levels drop, it causes water levels within the body to rise, which in turn causes brain cells to swell, resulting in symptoms such as headaches, nausea and vomiting. This condition is very common in older adults, where it can cause cognitive changes or even seizures.

    The discovery of this protein’s structure will help the scientists better understand the role played by this ion channel in hyponatremia and other medical conditions, and give them tools to make modifications to the channel to treat or prevent the condition, says lead author, Christian Zaelzer, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the RI-MUHC.

    According to Dr Wolgang Liedtke, an associate professor of neurology, anesthesiology and neurobiology at Duke University, who collaborated with Dr Bourque and his team on the investigation, this ion channel activates when dehydration sets in, turning on neurons in the brain’s hypothalamus — the part of the brain that tells the body to take action to maintain the body’s fluid balance. It uses two mechanism to achieve this: 1) It triggers a sensation of thirst to encourage a person to increase fluid intake; and 2) by secreting vasopressin — a hormone that has antidiuretic properties that promotes water retention in the kidneys, which maintains body-fluid balance.

    Journal Reference:

    Cristian Zaelzer, Pierce Hua, Masha Prager-Khoutorsky, Sorana Ciura, Daniel L. Voisin, Wolfgang Liedtke, Charles W. Bourque. ΔN-TRPV1: A Molecular Co-detector of Body Temperature and Osmotic Stress. Cell Reports, 2015; 13 (1): 23 DOI: 10.1016/j.celrep.2015.08.061

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