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  • Hungry Antibiotic Loving Bacteria Could Help Rid Environment of Antibiotic Contaminants

    Antibiotic drugs can be a lifesaver for anyone suffering from a bacterial infection such as meningitis or pneumonia. Antibiotics kill bacteria, and thus help fight infection. But some types of bacteria can develop a resistance to these drugs, while others not only become resistant but also utilize antibiotics as a source of food.

    Until now, scientists have not fully understood how drug resistant bacteria manage to safely consume antibiotics, but a study that was published in the scientific journal Nature Chemical Biology earlier this year reveals important steps in this process. The study's findings could help establish new methods to remove antibiotics from soil and water, thus ridding the environment of antibiotic contaminants which promote drug resistance, undermining our ability to cure bacterial infections effectively.

    "Ten years ago we stumbled onto the fact that bacteria can eat antibiotics, and everyone was shocked by it," said senior author Gautam Dantas, an associate professor of pathology and immunology, of molecular microbiology, and of biomedical engineering at the Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis. "But now it's beginning to make sense. It's just carbon, and wherever there's carbon, somebody will figure out how to eat it. Now that we understand how these bacteria do it, we can start thinking of ways to use this ability to get rid of antibiotics where they are causing harm."

    Antibiotics in the environment contribute to drug resistance. But researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have figured out how some soil bacteria turn the drugs into food. The information could lead to new ways to clean up antibiotic-contaminated soil and waterways. Antibiotics in the environment contribute to drug resistance. But researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have figured out how some soil bacteria turn the drugs into food. The information could lead to new ways to clean up antibiotic-contaminated soil and waterways.

    When these resistant bacteria get into soil, waterways and ultimately drinking water sources, they can cause antibiotic resistance in people who are exposed to them. Antibiotic resistance is an increasingly common problem that adversely affects medical treatment of infectious diseases, eroding the advances made in medical care since antibiotics were discovered, and ultimately putting people's lives at risk.

    Modern day agricultural and industrial practices which saturate the environment with antibiotic drugs are fueling the growth of antibiotic resistance. In China and India, the two largest producers of antibiotic drugs, pharmaceutical companies often discharge antibiotic-laden wastewater into local waterbodies. Back home in the US, farmers routinely feed antibiotics to their livestock to help them grow healthy and strong, resulting in animal waste that is laded with these drugs.

    Because bacterial communities readily exchange genetic material, when soil and water become polluted with antibiotics, bacteria living in these habitats respond by sharing their antibiotic resistant genes with their neighbors.

    The researchers wanted to gain a clearer understanding of how some bacteria in the environment are not only resistant to antibiotics, but also feed on the drugs. They examined four types of soil bacteria that were distantly related and which flourished on a diet consisting solely of penicillin — the first antibiotic ever discovered, which until recently was widely used but is prescribed less often now due to antibiotic resistance. They found three sets of genes that were activated when the bacteria consumed penicillin, but which became inactive when the bacteria consumed sugar. The three genetic sets correspond to the three steps the bacteria take to convert what should be a lethal drug into a nutritious meal.

    According to the authors, "all of the bacteria start by neutralizing the dangerous part of the antibiotic. Once the toxin is disarmed, they snip off a tasty portion and eat it."

    Gaining a clearer understanding of the steps the bacteria take to convert antibiotics into a source of food may help scientists bioengineer bacteria and put them to work ridding soil and waterbodies that are contaminated with antibiotics in an effort to combat the rise in drug resistance.

    Because soil dwelling bacteria that typically consume antibiotics are not so easy to work with, the researchers suggest that with some genetic tweaking, "a more tractable species such as E. coli potentially could be engineered to feed on antibiotics in polluted land or water."

    "With some smart engineering, we may be able to modify bacteria to break down antibiotics in the environment," said Terence Crofts, a post-doctoral researcher and primary author of the study.

    While bacteria are effective at removing antibiotics from soil, their rate of consumption is slow. Consequently, if we have any hope of eradicating antibiotics from hotspots such as sites located near sewage plants' or pharmaceutical manufacturers' discharge outlets, any bioengineering project with this goal in mind would need to encourage the bacteria to consume antibiotics faster.

    "You couldn't just douse a field with these soil bacteria today and expect them to clean everything up," Dantas said. "But now we know how they do it. It is much easier to improve on something that you already have than to try to design a system from scratch."

    Journal Reference

    T.S. Crofts, et al. Shared strategies for β-lactam catabolism in the soil microbiome. Nature Chemical Biology. Vol.14, 556-564; (2018)

  • Detroit Schools Turn Off Drinking Water Over Lead Contamination Concerns

    Public schools in Detroit are shutting off their drinking water due to concerns of copper and lead contamination, after high levels of these heavy metals were found in samples taken from several school buildings, Detroit Free Press recently reported.

    The district superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, has indicated that schools will make water coolers and bottled water available to students when they return to classes this week.

    Lead in Water

    Recent tests conducted on public water supplies in 24 schools in Detroit found at least one drinking water source, i.e. tap or water fountain, at 16 of the schools had elevated levels of lead and/or copper at concentrations deemed to be unsafe.

    african-american-boy-take-a-drink-of-cool-water-from-one-of-the-schools-water-fountains Lead in Drinking Water lead water filter Lead in Drinking Water

    According to Vitti, 18 other schools have already had their drinking water sources shut off due to water contamination issues identified prior to this latest scare. More than fifty other schools were also tested, but while there is no indication that the water supply at these schools is tainted with copper or lead, officials are erring on the side of caution as they await the results of tests conducted on water samples taken from these schools.

    "Out of an abundance of caution and concern for the safety of our students and employees, I am turning off all drinking water in our schools until a deeper and broader analysis can be conducted to determine the long-term solutions for all schools," Vitti said in a public statement.

    There are more than 100 public schools within the Detroit district, but authorities have not released any details with regard to the water tests or given any indication as to what could have contributed to the high levels of lead and copper in the drinking water of affected schools.

    However, the Great Lakes Water Authority and the Detroit Water and Sewage Department, who are jointly responsible for supplying drinking water to the city, released a joint statement blaming the schools' aging water infrastructure for the water quality issues they are experiencing, saying they do not affect consumers across the city as the treated drinking water they supply surpasses all drinking water standards for safety and quality. According to the statement, there are no lead water pipes connected to the schools' plumbing; copper and lead can leach into drinking water if pipes that contain these metals corrode.

    Exposure to heavy metals such as lead and copper in drinking water can pose a number of serious health issues, the EPA regulates that water systems need to be fixed when concentrations of these heavy metals exceed safety levels, which is set at zero for lead.

    Children are particularly vulnerable to negative health effects of lead, as these occur at a much lower exposure level in children compared to adults. Even small doses can have a serious impact on the health of a child — exposure to lead at low levels can damage the nervous system, cause learning difficulties and impair hearing and formation and healthy functioning of blood cells in children, while higher levels can cause cognitive and behavioral disorders, and delayed puberty.

    This precautionary move to protect learners from potential contamination follows the ongoing water crisis in Flint, where residents have been exposed to dangerous levels of lead in their drinking water putting the broader community at risk.

    Lead Water Filter

    If you are concerned about the quality of water your child is exposed to while attending classed, you can take measures to ensure they remain safe. Invest in a portable water filter bottle or water purification kit that will remove lead, copper and other dangerous heavy metals as well as other harmful contaminants your child may be exposed to on a daily basis.

  • Heavy Metals in Drinking Water Linked to Morbidity

    Heavy metals can accumulate in lakes that supply drinking water to consumers, posing a serious health risk. A recent water quality study conducted by a team of Russian scientists in lakes in Russia's Murmansk region has linked heavy metal contamination with morbidity in the region. The study found that nickel, copper, lead and cadmium accumulate in lake water, and were also present in the livers and kidneys of residents who rely on this drinking water supply.

    Heavy Metals in Drinking Water

    The study, which was recently published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, was conducted in the industrialized cities of Apatity, Monchegorsk and Olenegorsk, as well as the more remote villages of Lovozero and Alakurtti, where residents depend on surface water for their drinking water supply.

    800px-Copper_mining_and_sulfuric_acid_plant1a34319v Copper mining and sulfuric acid plant, Copperhill], Tenn

    Using fish as an indicator of water contamination (since the way in which humans and fish accumulate and store heavy metals in the body is very similar), scientists assessed heavy metal accumulation in the kidneys and livers of fish.

    The scientists also looked at tissue samples taken from 110 deceased local residents aged between 35-60 who had lived in the affected areas for at least a decade, but had not been exposed to heavy metals through their occupations or suffered from viral hepatitis or chronic alcoholism. The authors point out that for 24 of the 110 deceased patients, no disease was diagnosed before the patient died.

    According to the study: "Based on the results of histological, clinical and postmortem examination of patients in the liver and kidneys, a high content of toxic metals, especially cadmium, was found. It is a well-known fact that exposure to highly toxic compounds can destroy the endocrine system, increase the frequency of congenital malformations and alter the hormonal environment of the parents."

    Previous studies on communities living in the Arctic have demonstrated that lower air temperatures can ramp up the harmful effects of exposure to toxins by as much as five times, even at levels considered safe.

    "It seems obvious that the permissible concentrations of harmful substances should not be the same in both subtropical Sochi and Arctic Norilsk, simply because of the massive differences in the processes of degradation and assimilation of these contaminants," say the authors. "However- they are indeed the same."

    While the impact of this contamination has not been fully assessed, some negative effects are already evident. Indigenous Arctic populations, for example, have seen a sharp rise in the ratio of newborn girls to newborn boys being born. There are also other disturbing statistics, said Boris Morgunov, Director of the Institute of Ecology at the Higher School of Economics and co-author of the study.

    800px-Karabash_plant - heavy metals in drinking water Copper melting plant in Karabash, Chelyabinsk region, Russia adding

    The main pollutants affecting water quality in the region are chromium and nickel, due to the presence of large copper-nickel smelting plants. Scientists found high concentrations of these pollutants within a 30 kilometer radius of the smelters, with background levels at distances of up to 100 kilometers, attributed to pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and dust particles carried further afield in smoke emissions. The study's results show that heavy metals were not removed during water treatment processes, and that some metals, particularly manganese and iron, were more concentrated in water pipes.

    The researchers also found that cadmium, nickel and chromium tended to accumulate mostly in the livers of fish, while nickel and cadmium also accumulates in the kidneys. The concentrations of these toxins, particularly nickel, are significantly lower in fish living in lakes that are located further away from industrial cities. Yet, despite this distance, cadmium concentrations in fish kidneys was extremely high.

    According to the study: "In areas of the Kola Peninsula which are contaminated by nickel-cobalt smelting, the most serious diseases (nephrocalcinosis and fibroelastosis) were detected in the kidneys of fish. In comparison to the lake water, the concentration of iron in water in the pipelines in Monchegorsk is more than three times higher, and in Apatity - more than five times. The concentrations of many elements in the water taken from the aqueduct were no lower than in the lake water, which indicates a poor water purification system."

    How Heavy Metals in Drinking Water Impact Human Health

    According to the study, residents living in the study areas had significantly higher concentrations of copper in their liver tissue compared to the control population. Post mortem results from one community showed that concentrations of heavy metals (cadmium, cobalt, copper and lead) found in liver samples were twice as high as those found in the control population, while cadmium levels in kidney tissue was more than five times greater.

    Morbidity was higher in cities that obtained drinking water from lakes that had the highest concentrations of heavy metals. The biggest health threat resulting from drinking contaminated water is the development of malignant tumors — the number of reported cases ranged between 10.4-18.1 per 1000 in three of the cities assessed.

    How to Remove Heavy Metals From Drinking Water?

    Considering that cities and regions around the world are becoming increasingly industrialized, and that heavy metal pollutants can be transported further afield with emissions, many more surface water supplies may be affected, and by extension, also the communities who depend on them for a source of drinking water. Investing in a good quality drinking water filter such as a berkey water filter, that can remove toxic heavy metals, as well as other pollutants can protect you and your family from these invisible, but potentially harmful, threats.

    Journal Reference

    T.I. Moiseenko eta al. Ecosystem and human health assessment in relation to aquatic environment pollution by heavy metals: case study of the Murmansk region, northwest of the Kola Peninsula, Russia. Environmental Research Letters, Vol 13:6, 2018. DOI:10.1088/1748-9326/aab5d29

  • Hurricane Season Brings Water Quality Fears

    It's hurricane season once again, with Hurricane Florence bringing home that reality loud and clear as she unleashed her fury across the Carolinas. Besides the wind and rain, and the destruction and flooding associated with those two evils, there is always the threat that rising waters can cause hazardous waste to leach out of holding pits or soils on contaminated sites and potentially pollute groundwater and surface waters that serve as a source of drinking water.

    Recent reports are highlighting the extent of the problem, listing potential threats, which include hazardous waste from superfund sites, chemical factories, coal ash ponds collapsing, and potentially also nuclear power plants, as well as animal waste from hog farms.

    A pig farm waste pit A pig farm waste pit

    North Carolina has a large concentration of hog farms, and where there are pigs there is plenty of pig waste. This animal waste is held in open pits dotted across parts of North Carolina that lie slightly inland from the coast. These pits are already overflowing due to heavy rainfall and flooding, with also drinking water sources potentially becoming contaminated with feces-laden wastewater.

    Pilots for Waterkeeper Alliance document the effects of Hurricane Florence's flooding on concentrated animal feeding operations in North Carolina on September 17th, 2018. (Photo: Rick Dove, Waterkeeper Alliance) Pilots for Waterkeeper Alliance document the effects of Hurricane Florence's flooding on concentrated animal feeding operations in North Carolina on September 17th, 2018.
    (Photo: Rick Dove, Waterkeeper Alliance)

    According to a study conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Waterkeeper Alliance, in 2016 there were North Carolina had more than 4,000 animal waste holding pits containing pig and/or chicken manure.

    It is estimated that North Carolina generates around 10 billion gallons of wet animal waste every year. Picture 15,000 Olympic-size swimming pools filled with pig poo mingling with rising flood waters. Not a pretty sight.

    Kemp Burdett from Cape Fear River Watch is very concerned about the swine lagoons breaching, and said he was "bracing for catastrophic impact" in Florence's aftermath.

    "When you have a swine lagoon breach, it is going to have catastrophic impact on the river," Burdette said in an interview with CNN. "We are going to see serious water quality problems."

    While some farmers have made efforts to reduce the animal excrement in their pits by spraying it onto their fields, this is not likely to be of much help should severe flooding occur. But, even with the best intentions and precautions it may be impossible to prevent animal waste from escaping the holding pits and leaking into the environment. Some runoff is inevitable.

    According to Burdette, should animal waste be released by floodwaters, the region could suffer long-term water quality issues. But added to that, there is a very real risk to the animals themselves. Should they succumb to rising floodwaters, their carcasses can get washed away and end up in rivers, posing a further risk of contamination.

    According to Soren Rundquist, Director of Spatial Analysis at EWG, during periods of heavy rainfall floodwaters will wash whatever has been sprayed onto the fields away, together with whatever overflows from the waste holding pits.

    "Everything that's been sprayed on the fields is going to leave with the runoff anyway," Rundquist told CNN. "So pumping might move it from over here to over there, but it doesn't have a practical effect."

    Besides the threat posed by animal waste, both North and South Carolina have several Superfund sites earmarked for cleanup by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with at least nine of those locations posing a real concern to the EPA, who will be monitoring them during and after the storm for any indication that things are amiss.

    If you believe your water source may be at risk from pig waste contamination or other forms of water contamination, please consider employing a filter system like a berkey water filter.

  • Water Footprint of Fracking Operations Rises Dramatically

    The volume of water that is used in each well to extract oil during the hydraulic fracturing process has surged dramatically since 2011, rising by an alarming 770% by 2016 across all the main oil and gas production regions across the US, a new study has revealed.

    In addition to the surge in water usage, the study also shows that the volume of wastewater laden with brine and potentially harmful chemicals generated during fracking operations has risen by as much as 1440% over the same time-frame.

    If fracking operations intensify at the current rate, the industry's water footprint is likely to increase 50-fold by 2030, fueling concerns regarding the sustainability of these operations, particularly in the drier regions of the country or areas that are already water stressed.

    "Previous studies suggested hydraulic fracturing does not use significantly more water than other energy sources, but those findings were based only on aggregated data from the early years of fracking," said Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment."After more than a decade of fracking operation, we now have more years of data to draw upon from multiple verifiable sources. We clearly see a steady annual increase in hydraulic fracturing's water footprint, with 2014 and 2015 marking a turning point where water use and the generation of flowback and produced water began to increase at significantly higher rates," Vengosh said.

    According to Vengosh, the efficiency of unconventional gas and oil extraction has improved over the years as overall production has increased. However, the volume of both the water used during the oil and gas extraction process, and the wastewater generated as a result, has increased significantly, driving the industry's water footprint upwards.

    Af Peter Aengst - The Wilderness Society, CC BY-SA 4.0, Af Peter Aengst - The Wilderness Society, CC BY-SA 4.0,

    For the study, which was recently published in the scientific journal Science Advances, the researchers reviewed six years of water use, wastewater generation and oil and gas production data collected from non-profit, government and industry sources for over 12,000 oil and gas wells located across the major tight oil and shale gas producing regions in the US. Using this historical data set, they modeled future water usage and first-year wastewater production volumes, looking at two different scenarios.

    Their models reveal that should oil and gas prices, which are currently low, start to rise again with a simultaneous rise in production to volumes similar to those seen during fracking's peak, cumulative water usage and wastewater production could rise as much as 20-fold in regions where unconventional oil is extracted and as much as 50-fold in regions where unconventional gas is extracted. According to lead author, Andrew Kondash, the models show that even if oil and gas prices and production rates remain the same as they are now, the volume of water used and wastewater produced will still increase sharply by 2030.

    The wastewater produced as a byproduct of the fracking process contains water that was injected into the wells under pressure during the fracking process in order to crack open fissures in the rock to release the oil and gas. When this water is pumped out again it contains a large percentage of brines that together with the oil and gas are extracted from rocks and soil deep underground. These brines have a high salt content and can also contain harmful chemicals and radioactive elements, which makes treating and disposing of them safely difficult. To get around this issue, many oil and gas companies inject the wastewater back into the ground via wastewater wells. Yet while this may prevent the wastewater from contaminating local freshwater supplies, it has been associated with an increase in earthquakes at some locations.

    "New drilling technologies and production strategies have spurred exponential growth in unconventional oil and gas production in the United States and, increasingly, in other parts of the world," Kondash said. "This study provides the most accurate baseline yet for assessing the long-term environmental impacts this growth may have, particularly on local water availability and wastewater management."

    The lessons learned locally in the United States can help other countries, such as Mexico, Argentina and China, make informed decisions when planning and implementing fracking operations to exploit their natural gas resources in the future.

    Journal Reference

    Andrew J. Kondash, Nancy E. Lauer, Avner Vengosh. The Intensification of the Water Footprint of Hydraulic Fracturing. Science Advances, August 17, 2018. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aar5982

  • Chemical Additives that Prevent Pipes from Clogging may Release Harmful Bacteria

    Water utilities that supply drinking water to residents in many cities across the country often add chemical softening agents in an effort to prevent mineral buildup in the pipes which if left unchecked can result in clogging. Now a new study shows that these chemical additives may increase the risk of harmful pathogens being released into drinking water as it weakens the grip that harmful bacteria, such as those that cause Legionnaires' disease, exert on the interior of pipes.

    Biofilms similar to those found on the glass of home aquariums are common in water pipes that make up water delivery systems and attach themselves to the mineral scale that accumulates on the walls of the pipes. These biofilms mostly consist of harmless microbes that rarely cause disease.

    Typical Rusted Water Pipe Typical Rusted Water Pipe

    "The groundwater that supplies many cities may be high in magnesium and calcium," said Helen Nguyen, a professor of civil engineering and co-author of the study. "When combined with other elements, they can form thick deposits of mineral scale that clog up engineered water systems. Because of this, water treatment plants add chemicals called polyphosphates to dissolve the minerals to keep the scale buildup under control."

    Another study conducted by co-author Wen-Tso Liu, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, shows that even when water utilities treat the water with antimicrobial additives, the bacteria that adhere to the mineral deposits on pipes can multiply to harmful levels in water that stagnates in indoor plumbing.

    In this new study, which recently appeared in the scientific journal Biofilms and Microbiomes, a team of engineers from the University of Illinois show that anti-scaling chemicals added to the water system encourage growth of biofilms, causing them to become softer and thicker.

    "Increased biofilm thickness means more bacteria, and the softening increases the chance that pieces will detach and foul the water supply under normal flow pressure," explains Nguyen. "Tap water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency up to the property line, not the tap. So, in buildings where water has been stagnating for a while, this could become a public health issue."

    The top image shows a thin and stiff biofilm formed from untreated water, and the bottom image shows a thick and soft biofilm that formed as a result of polyphosphate treatment. The top image shows a thin and stiff biofilm formed from untreated water, and the bottom image shows a thick and soft biofilm that formed as a result of polyphosphate treatment.

    The problem is really a catch-22 situation, as without the addition of an anti-scaling agent, scale will build up on the interior of water pipes, leading to clogging and a reduced flow. According to Nguyen, one solution would be to simply replace clogged pipes as and when necessary. But she points out that this would be extremely costly for both public water utilities and property owners considering the size of water network across the United States.

    Nguyen suggests that rather than removing pipes, trying to eradicate all the microbes in the system or changing regulations, a more cost effective and appropriate solution will present itself with a clearer understanding of water chemistry. This study has provided more insight into the relationship between water chemistry and the communities of micro-organisms that exist in plumbing, and will help determine the most appropriate chemicals to use and the correct concentrations, said Nguyen.

    The research team now plans to undertake related studies which focus on the effects that anti-corrosion chemicals have on biofilms as well as water quality, together with studies that look at how biofilms can be physically removed from pipes in-situ (i.e. without removing the pipes).

    A Berkey water filter will filter out any dangerous bacteria that this may cause, and will help to protect you and your family.

    Journal Reference

    Yun Shen, Pin Chieh Huang, Conghui Huang, Peng Sun, Guillermo L. Monroy, Wenjing Wu, Jie Lin, Rosa M. Espinosa-Marzal, Stephen A. Boppart, Wen-Tso Liu, Thanh H. Nguyen. Effect of divalent ions and a polyphosphate on composition, structure, and stiffness of simulated drinking water biofilms. npj Biofilms and Microbiomes, 2018; 4 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41522-018-0058-1

  • Intense Wildfires Impact Water Quality and Treatment Processes in Forested Watersheds

    As fires continue to rage in California, leaving a trail of destruction and devastation in their wake, one has to question what impact this will have on local water resources. In a presentation given at a meeting hosted by the American Chemical Society earlier this year, researchers reported that wildfires burning in forested watershed have the potential to negatively impact drinking water sources by releasing substances from soils which can make their way into local water sources, resulting in contamination.

    Forested watersheds provide nearly two-thirds of America's drinking water, and globally supply drinking water to billions of people across the world. When forested watersheds are healthy, they absorb rainwater and melted snow, reduce storm runoff, remove pollutants, and play a key ecological role providing critical habitat for fish, birds and other wildlife. Forested watersheds are also provide recreational activities, such as fishing, swimming, kayaking, which in turn help support the local economy.


    Water quality of these source waters can change significantly after a wildfire has ripped through a forested watershed, which can affect water treatment processes. Changes to the quality of source water include increased inflow of sediments, dissolved organic carbon and nutrients, which may reduce the capacity of water treatment utilities to be able to deliver drinking water that meets safety standards set by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In order for water utilities to be adequately prepared for wildfire events, they need to understand what these impacts are, and how best to deal with them.

    For the past seven years Fernando Rosario-Ortiz together with a team of fellow researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder have been analyzing the impact that wildfires have on soil, and how soil is transformed by wildfires. The researchers simulated wildfire events of various magnitudes in a laboratory study, where they heated soil samples to different temperatures before analyzing the results.


    "Up to a point, the warmer the soil gets, the more carbon- and nitrogen-containing compounds are released from soils," Fernando Rosario-Ortiz explains. "These compounds, which are generally characterized as dissolved organic carbon, can react with chemicals used to purify water and be transformed into disinfection byproducts, which you don't want in drinking water." Disinfection byproducts are considered a drinking water contaminant, and as such their levels are regulated by the EPA. "But we were surprised to find that as a wildfire increases in severity, the amount of dissolved organic carbon released by the soil decreases, and instead you could end up with more sediments in the source waters," says Rosario-Ortiz.

    Rosario-Ortiz and his team are now focusing on how wildfires change how organic compounds are released from soils into water.

    "We found that there is an enhanced release of compounds with a lower average molecular weight, containing both more oxygen and nitrogen functionalities, compared with typical conditions," Rosario-Ortiz reports, adding that the results from this study will help us to gain a clearer understanding of the overall effects that wildfires have on water quality and ultimately on the production of safe drinking water.

    As the number of wildfires, and their severity, continues to increase due to factors such as climate change, extended periods of extreme droughts and an associated increase in fuel loads, this research is likely to provide important insights for drinking water utilities reviewing water treatment options following a severe wildfire event.

    If your water is originating from a region impacted by forest fires, we would recommend a berkey water filter, which can remove dangerous contaminants from your drinking water.

  • Improving the way in which Water Quality of Recreational Waterbodies is Measured and Monitored

    Currently, the standard method used to determine water quality is to measure the concentration of fecal bacteria, known as enterococci. Now, a new study which was recently published in the American Society for Microbiology's journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, has shown that the concentration of these bacterial communities are largely influenced by the amount of mammalian feces present in water as well as the number of enterococci that attach themselves onto particulate matter floating on the surface.

    "We also found that ecosystem specific characteristics, such as freshwater sediment and freshwater transport to the estuary are important influences on enterococci concentrations in coastal recreational and shellfish harvest waters," said Dr. Stephen Jones, Research Associate Professor at the University of New Hampshire and co-author of the paper.

    According to the investigators, recreational water bodies can harbor a wide array of pathogenic bacteria. However, bacteria that thrive on human feces pose the biggest risk to human health, as the transmission effectively passes directly from human to human via fecal pollutants without any inter-species barrier to transmission.


    However, the researchers point out that "other fecal sources that contain enterococci and possibly human pathogens can be chronic or intermittent sources of both, making beach water quality management and remediation efforts more complex."

    The researchers collected weekly water samples from beaches at Wells, Maine over the summer months in 2016. Two years earlier, two of the town's beaches intermittently exceeded the state standard set for enterococci concentrations, resulting in advisories being posted to warn people that the waters at these beaches may pose a health risk — not very good publicity for a town who's beaches are a major drawcard. But within two years, the beaches at Wells were conforming to health standards set by the state of Maine.

    In addition to the main beaches, the researchers also sampled seawater at a beach close to the estuary outlet as well as water from freshwater rivers and streams within the coastal watershed. The also took sediment samples from these sampling points to enable them to conduct a molecular assessment of the microbial communities living in the water, soils and sediments of these different ecosystems using DNA sequencing techniques. Parameters such as salinity, acidity, water temperature and weather conditions were also recorded.


    The above methodology is now being used by various agencies within the state of Maine to more accurately assess water quality in areas where water quality is known to be dubious, and the researchers have been sharing their techniques with resource managers and fellow scientists in order to improve the way in which water quality of recreational water bodies is measured and monitored. The US Environmental Protection Agency's water quality regulations for estuaries and coastal beaches are based on enterococci as an indicator of fecal pollution.

    Dr. Jones points out that enterococci are highly adaptable organisms that do not only thrive in the colon, but also in various ecosystems outside the body including soil, and sediments of rivers, lakes and coastal waters. This study assesses the multiple sources of fecal pollution as well as the diverse range of environmental reservoirs that harbor these pathogenic bacteria, and the constantly changing environmental conditions, to determine how all these factors influence enterococci concentrations on coastal beaches.

    "No other study has taken such an encompassing and robust approach towards addressing the issue of the factors that influence enterococci concentrations in coastal waters," said Jones.

    Journal Reference

    Derek Rothenheber and Stephen Jones. Enterococci Concentrations in a Coastal Ecosystem are a Function of Fecal Source Input, Environmental Conditions, and Environmental Sources. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 2018 DOI: 10.1128/AEM.01038-18

  • Devastating Ocean Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico Likely to be Around for a While

    Improving the water quality in the Gulf of Mexico is likely to take decades, a new study released by scientists from the University of Waterloo has revealed. And, just recently a state of emergency was declared in Florida as the algae bloom is having a large impact on the state.  As the Washington Post reports:

    "The red tide has made breathing difficult for locals, scared away tourists, and strewn popular beaches with the stinking carcasses of fish, eels, porpoises, turtles, manatees and one 26-foot whale shark."

    The results of the study, which was recently published in Science, indicate that policy goals set for decreasing the size of the dead zone in the northern Gulf of Mexico are probably unrealistic without major shifts in agricultural management practices as well as improvements to how freshwater systems are managed.

    Large concentrations of nitrogen transported from streams and rivers across the US corn belt into the ocean is believed to have fueled algal blooms in the northern Gulf of Mexico, which strip oxygen from the water as they die off, resulting in an extensive hypoxic 'dead zone' where marine life struggle to survive due to the very low oxygen levels.

    800px-Sediment_in_the_Gulf_of_Mexico_(2) Rivers throughout the region ran high, likely carrying more sediment than usual into the Gulf. The rivers also carry nutrients like iron from soil and nitrogen from fertilizers. These nutrients fuel the growth of phytoplankton, tiny, plant-like organisms that grow in the ocean surface waters. Phytoplankton blooms colour the ocean blue and green and may be contributing to the colour seen here.

    According to Kimberley Van Meter, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Waterloo and lead author of the study:

    "Despite the investment of large amounts of money in recent years to improve water quality, the area of last year's dead zone was more than 22,000 km2--about the size of the state of New Jersey."

    After analyzing agricultural data spanning more than two centuries, the researchers found that nitrogen has accumulated in the soil and groundwater over the years due to intensive agricultural practices, and as a result of this reservoir, the rate of nitrogen flow to the coast is not likely to abate anytime soon, but rather will continue for decades.

    Water quality in the northern Gulf of Mexico has increasingly deteriorated since the 1950's, primarily due to the widespread application of commercial fertilizers to crops as well as intensive livestock farming across the Mississippi River Basin. Commercial fertilizers and manure both contain high levels of nitrogen — a plant nutrient that is used to boost crop production. However, when nitrogen is present in high concentrations it can pose both an environmental and human health risk.

    When farmers do take measures to reduce their nitrogen input it takes a long time before this has any beneficial affect on water quality.

    "We are seeing long time lags between the adoption of conservation measures by farmers and any measurable improvements in water quality," said Prof. Nandita Basu, an associate professor in the departments of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Civil and Environmental Engineering at Waterloo, and co-author of the study.

    After modeling several scenarios, the study shows that even with best-case scenarios, where conservation measures are implemented with immediate effect, it is likely to take around 30 years for the excess nitrogen that has accumulated within agricultural soils and underground water reservoirs to be depleted.

    According to Basu, this problem is not limited to the Mississippi River Basin. As the global population grows, and with it the need for intensive agricultural practices to be able to produce enough food to meet the increased food demands, nitrogen is accumulating in soils and groundwater across the world, threatening coastal ecosystems the world over.

    The scientists are currently expanding their analysis to include phosphorus, another plant nutrient that is a major contributor to algal blooms in inland freshwater systems such as the Great Lakes.

    Journal Reference:

    K. J. Van Meter, P. Van Cappellen, N. B. Basu. Legacy nitrogen may prevent achievement of water quality goals in the Gulf of Mexico. Science, 2018; eaar4462 DOI: 10.1126/science.aar4462

  • Breaking it Down: What are the Chemical Byproducts of the Water Treatment Process?

    Synthetic chemicals are found everywhere in our modern everyday life. They are in the clothing we wear, as well as in cosmetics, personal care products and medications that we use everyday. But we tend to give little thought to what happens to these chemicals when we flush them away, assuming they are harmless once they disappear down the sink.

    The reality is that most wastewater treatment facilities do not have the capacity to remove synthetic organic chemicals such as those used in personal care products, pharmaceuticals and opioids. So, what happens to them?

    Because wastewater treatment plants are not capable of removing these chemicals, trace amounts remain in the effluent that wastewater treatment facilities discharge into streams, rivers and lakes. Although these concentrations are extremely minute, mere nanograms or micrograms, very little is known about how the risk they pose to the environment or to human health.

    Credit: Sarah Bird/Michigan Tech Credit: Sarah Bird/Michigan Tech

    What is more worrying, is that even less is known about the environmental and human health risk posed by chemical byproducts formed during the water treatment process, where thousands of potentially harmful byproducts can be formed in just a few minutes.

    A new study, which was recently published in the American Chemical Society's journal Environmental Science and Technology, has sought to shed more light on the mechanisms that enable the formation of chemical byproducts during the wastewater treatment process looking at acetone as a case study to determine the chemical byproducts that are created as acetone breaks down during advanced oxidation wastewater treatment process.

    Chemically speaking, acetone has rather a simple structure, which makes it the ideal candidate for modeling chemical reaction pathways — the various ways a chemical can break down into free-radicals and chemical byproducts — in order to predict what byproducts and free-radicals can form.

    "When we do water treatment using advanced chemical oxidation, those oxidants destroy target organic compounds but create byproducts," explains Daisuke Minakata, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Michigan Technological University and lead author of the study. "Some byproducts may be more toxic than their parent compound. We need to understand the fundamental mechanisms of how the byproducts are produced and then we can predict what to be produced from many other chemicals. We found more than 200 reactions involved in acetone degradations based on computational work."

    The researchers then compared the results predicted by their model to ten byproducts observed in an earlier experimental study, and found that the modeled results were similar to those observed in the experimental study.

    Advanced oxidation is an important water treatment method that is effective at removing contaminants. However, many communities, particularly those living in arid regions, are facing water scarcity and are forced to recycle treated wastewater for reuse. Should synthetic organic chemicals together with the byproducts that form during the oxidation process remain in the water, animals and people who consume that water will also consume the chemicals present in the water.

    In other areas, wastewater from communities living upstream is discharged into rivers and lakes. Communities living further downstream may depend on that water as a source of drinking water. As conventional water treatment processes are incapable of effectively removing all the organic chemicals, these consumers are exposed to the chemicals that remain in the water.

    According to the authors: "Advanced oxidation can effectively target specific organic chemicals to remove them from water. Modeling reaction pathways is critical to help water treatment managers understand how best to wield the knife, as it were."

    For the study, the team calculated the chemical reaction pathways using Michigan Tech's Superior supercomputer, however the model is limited to organic contaminants that have a simple structure like acetone. Organic chemicals tend to have much more complex structures, making their reaction pathways nigh impossible for even a supercomputer like Superior to compute.

    According to the authors: "Understanding the mechanisms of chemical byproduct formation isn't just important for water treatment; it's also advancing what we know about chemical reactions in the atmosphere and inside our bodies."

    Journal Reference:

    Divya Kamath, Stephen P. Mezyk, Daisuke Minakata. Elucidating the Elementary Reaction Pathways and Kinetics of Hydroxyl Radical-Induced Acetone Degradation in Aqueous Phase Advanced Oxidation Processes. Environmental Science & Technology, 2018; DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.8b00582

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