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
Water Management Issues in the Chicago Region
This is not strictly a water quality issue, but Marcella Bondie of the Metropolitan Planning Commission in Chicago recently posted a blog post about water management issues in the Chicago region. Its title is “Water, Water Everywhere? DuPage Water Commission leads efforts to better manage Lake Michigan water”, and it’s a good summary.
Groundwater: Possible Long-Term Source of Nitrate to Streams
We’ve known for a long time that too much nitrogen in streams, lakes, and seas can be a bad thing, and many efforts are being made to reduce the amount of nitrogen (primarily nitrate) coming off of agricultural fields. In addition to being smarter about when and how much fertilizer is applied, a number of techniques designed to slow down movement of runoff to streams, such as constructing wetlands or water-table management, are being tested. Decreasing the concentrations and loads of nitrate in streams in agricultural regions has been remarkably difficult, however, and oftentimes do not match expectations based on these new best management practices (BMPs). A recent study by USGS scientists suggests that the long times it takes for groundwater to discharge to streams is the most likely factor.
Sodium and Drinking Water
Too much sodium in our diets has long been known to raise blood pressure and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. A modeling study published in the journal Hypertension (Coxson, P.G., et al. 2013. Mortality Benefits From US Population-wide Reduction in Sodium Consumption: Projections From 3 Modeling Approaches) suggests that even a small reduction in sodium consumption could save hundreds of thousands of lives. I’ve been involved with a lot of research on the contamination of shallow aquifers from road salt (sodium chloride) runoff, but we typically focus on chloride and not sodium. Chloride is a conservative ion, so it travels in groundwater basically at the speed of the water, whereas sodium is more reactive and thus more difficult to predict in the subsurface. But sodium is definitely increasing in these aquifers. This sodium study got me wondering how much sodium we ingest through drinking water.