A Salty Winter
Somewhat lost in all the hype about the heavy snows and frigid temperatures much of the country has had this winter, and the frustration with a pothole epidemic and treacherous roads and sidewalks, is that we may be applying record amounts of road deicing chemicals, primarily salt (NaCl). A couple of recent articles in the New York Times highlighted how much salt we’ve been using. From an article on February 16, 2014, it was reported that Chicago has already spent $25 million for plowing and salting, $5 million more than budgeted. That’s with half of February and all of March still to come; in a typical March, Chicago gets about 7 inches of snow. Other data from that article: Pennsylvania is using road salt at a pace 24% ahead of normal, and Maine has already spent almost 40% more than they do in a normal year.
How Safe Is Our Drinking Water?
Here’s a link to what I think is a very good (and brief) article about keeping our drinking water safe, by James Salzman at slate.com. I think a lot of people, including myself, were a bit shaken up by how severely impacted Charleston, WV, was by the discharge of methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) into the Elk River, their drinking water supply.
Contaminant Spill of the Day
There was a major contamination event in West Virginia yesterday, causing the governor to issue a state of emergency. A large amount of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a coal preparation foaming agent, leaked in the Elk River just outside of Charleston. The size of the spill hasn’t been reported yet. About 300,000 people have been warned not to use tap water for drinking, cooking, or bathing, and a number of businesses and schools have closed as a result.
Restricting Antibiotics Use for Livestock
It’s not that common to have important environmental news on the front page of The New York Times, but today is such a day. The Food and Drug Administration yesterday (December 12, 2013) announced a major new policy to phase out the “indiscriminate use” of antibiotics for livestock raised for meat. This is really important, and really good, news for the environment and human health.
RIP Ruth Patrick
I don't remember ever hearing of Ruth Patrick before I read her obituary the other day, but I wish I had known her. She was one of the earliest researchers in water quality, studying diatoms in lakes, and revealing the importance of biodiversity. The idea that biological diversity reflects environmental stresses even bears her name, the “Patrick Principle.” She worked when being a woman scientist and an environmentalist were both rare and sometimes suspect, starting her career in the 1930s. I should really know her name, since one of her publications was “Groundwater Contamination in the United States”, published in 1987. RIP, Dr. Patrick.
Arsenic in Vietnamese Groundwater
It’s not every day someone I know is quoted in the New York Times. In yesterday’s (Sept. 24, 2013) ScienceTimes section (p. D5), there was an article highlighting work by Lex van Geen, a geochemist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. Lex contacted the Water Survey a couple of years ago about some potential collaboration on arsenic in groundwater in central Illinois, a subject we have studied in some detail. In fact, we just received news that a National Science Foundation proposal that one of our staff (Tom Holm) is co-PI on with Lex has been funded. The research will use a new sampling technique (“freeze shoe”) to collect intact cores of aquifer material, and initial work will probably be done in Tazewell County.
Creating Energy while Cleaning Water
Here’s an interesting news article involving water quality. Engineers from Stanford are developing techniques to harness electricity from microbes as they work to clean human sewage. Basically, by inserting positive and negative electrodes into wasterwater, the researchers “fish for electrons”. During reactions that degrade organic molecules, microbes cluster around the negative electrode and produce electrons, which are then captured by the positive electrode.
Lithium in Drinking Water
The title of a recent paper caught my eye, “Potential environmental and human health impacts of rechargeable lithium batteries in electronic waste” (Kang, D.H.P., et al., 2013. Environ. Sci. Technol., 47(10):5495–5503). It’s about the potential hazardous nature of some of the heavy elements present in lithium-ion and lithium-poly batteries, which includes lead, chromium, cobalt, copper, nickel, thallium, and silver, if they leach into our water resources. But I was actually more interested in lithium, which reminded me of an article I read a few years ago about how elevated levels of lithium in our drinking water might actually be a positive thing.
A friend recently showed me a newsletter he receives from a company that sells vitamins and dietary supplements; an article in it warned that disinfectant byproducts in public drinking water are a serious health risk. The author referred to a paper published by researchers at the University of Illinois that shows some of these compounds kill cells and cause DNA damage (Pals, J.A., et al., 2011. Biological mechanism for the toxicity of haloacetic acid drinking water disinfection byproducts. Environmental Science & Technology 45:5791–5797). The author then states that unless you have a deep private well that you can test and trust, you should consider buying a distillation system. While disinfection byproducts are no joke and are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, I think the author overstates the problem and its solution.
Conflicting Reports on Fracking and Groundwater Quality
A couple of recent reports about the effects of fracking on groundwater quality seem to be contradictory. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (Jackson, R.B., et al., 2013. Increased stray gas abundance in a subset of drinking water wells near Marcellus shale gas extraction) found that wells in northeastern Pennsylvania where the Marcellus Shale is being drilled for natural gas has high levels of gases (methane, ethane, propane) that they say are due to drilling practices. On the other hand, a paper published in the journal Groundwater (Molofsky, L.J., et al., 2013. Evaluation of Methane Sources in Groundwater in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Groundwater 51(3):333–349) suggests that methane is ubiquitous in groundwater in northeastern Pennsylvania, and is not the result of shale gas extraction.
Image from UConn Today