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Water Quality, Focus on Illinois

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Water Quality, Focus on Illinois

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  • Large Study of Bacterial Water Quality in Sub-Saharan Africa

    Many of us are aware of the lack of safe drinking water in many parts of the developing world, including Africa. The main culprit remains water resources that are not protected from enteric bacteria and viruses. A just released study did a meta-analysis of almost 43,000 water samples from 7 countries in sub-Saharan Africa to assess the amount of bacterial contamination and how it varied with respect to source type.


  • Micro- and Nanoparticles


    I’ve recently noticed a lot of articles and scientific studies about micro- and nanomaterials in the environment. So what are these? They are very, very small particles. The definitions are not hard and fast, but microparticles range from 0.1 and 100 µm (1 µm = 1 millionth of a meter). Nanoparticles are much smaller, on the order of 1 – 100 nm (1 nm = 1 billionth of a meter). There are both natural and engineered micro- and nanomaterials in our world. Ocean spray, smoke, and milk all contain natural nanomaterials. In recent years, engineered materials have been designed and produced with many useful applications. Some of the most commonly used nanomaterials are platinum, which is used in catalytic converters, and titanium dioxide, used is self-cleaning paint. Lithium-ion batteries often contain nickel magnesium cobalt oxide (NMC).


  • Thermal Pollution

    When I collect groundwater quality samples, temperature is one of the parameters always measured. It is considered a “physical” characteristic as opposed to a “chemical” characteristic of the water. In groundwater studies, temperature is not usually considered a water quality parameter, rather it is used to help understand recharge and discharge processes and determine inputs from deep geologic formations. In surface water, however, temperature is an important water quality parameter affecting aquatic organisms, and a recently published paper has looked at the magnitude of thermal pollution in many river basins throughout the world (Raptis, C.E., et al., 2016. Environmental Research Letters 11:104011; doi:10.1088/1748-9326/11/10/104011).

  • Triclosan and Microbiomes

    Triclosan is a very common antibacterial compound, used in of antibacterial soaps and toothpaste, and it is found in humans (detected in about 75% of urine samples in the U.S. in 2008) and in the aquatic environment. In a recent study of pharmaceuticals and personal care products in some karst springs and cave streams in southwest Illinois, we detected triclosan in several samples. One of the concerns about its widespread use is that it may contribute to antibiotic resistance in the environment. However, a survey of recent studies reported in a recent issue of Science indicate some contradictory results [Yee, A.L., and J.A. Gilbert, 2016. Is triclosan harming your microbiome? Science  22 Jul 2016: Vol. 353, Issue 6297, pp. 348-349. DOI: 10.1126/science.aag2698].

  • Climate Change and Water Quality

    Occasionally I am asked to speculate on how climate change might impact water quality. It can be difficult to see how groundwater quality (my expertise) will be affected by changing climate. There are some obvious effects, such as saltwater intrusion as ocean levels rise, but that won’t be an issue in Illinois. Groundwater is generally shielded from variations in the weather, and changes in groundwater quality due to changes in temperature and precipitation are likely to be muted and subtle. However, surface water quality is a different story, and a recent article in Nature discusses this. [Michalak, A. M. 2016. Study role of climate change in extreme threats to water quality. Nature 535, 349–350 (21 July 2016) doi:10.1038/535349a]

  • Plastic Debris and Human Health

    A recent viewpoint in the journal Environmental Science & Technology (Vethaak, A.D, and H.A. Leslie, “Plastic Debris Is a Human Health Issue,” Environ. Sci. Technol., 2016, 50 (13), pp 6825–6826. DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.6b02569) suggests that persistent plastic debris may be an important health issue for humans. We’ve known for a long time that aquatic animals are vulnerable to plastic pollution, we’ve all seen photos of seals and turtles and other animals trapped by plastic rings. But our health may also be at risk.

  • Video on Flint Water Crisis

    The New Yorker tweeted a 5-minute video of residents of Flint talking about how the water crisis has affected them, and how they’ve lost trust in the system. One of the worst things about the whole debacle is the loss of trust in this basic service of delivering healthy water to our citizens. I’ve noticed lots of organizations have responded by sending cases of bottled water to Flint. While this is a noble sentiment and fine for a short-term disaster, providing clean drinking water should not be the responsibility of volunteer organizations; that’s government’s responsibility. Oh, and the next time you hear someone complain about how regulations are killing our economy, just point to Flint and remind them this is what can happen when regulations are not enforced. A big price tag.

  • High Levels of Lead in Flint Drinking Water

    A prominent water quality story in the news in recent months has been the high levels of lead found in Flint, Michigan drinking water. About 25% of Flint households have lead levels above the federal standard of 15 parts per billion (ppb), with one home having an almost unbelievable level of 13,200 ppb. It’s a sordid story, with shocking inaction and apparent malfeasance by authorities. But why are there are such high levels of lead in Flint’s water? The problem came about after Flint switched their drinking water source from Detroit, i.e., Lake Huron, to the Flint River in 2013. The high levels of lead are not in the Flint River, but rather the water is corroding old iron pipes that are part of Flint’s water infrastructure. Why is that?

  • Microplastics in Table Salt

    In June 2014, I wrote a blog post about microplastics in the oceanic environment. These are plastic debris smaller than 5 mm in diameter, and there’s a lot of it in the ocean. Now comes a report that we may be ingesting microplastics through sea salt. [Yang et al., 2015. Microplastic Pollution in Table Salts from China. Environ. Sci. Technol. 49(22):13622–13627. DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.5b03163]

  • Sunscreen and Coral Reefs

    A few years ago, a group of researchers working in the Caribbean were talking to a local vendor who was waiting for the day’s invasion of tourists. He told them that the tourists would leave behind “a long oil slick” in the water. The scientists were intrigued, and wondered how this “oil slick” would affect the local coral reefs. Their recently published study suggests that the answer is bad news. [Downs, C.A., et al. 2015. Toxicopathological Effects of the Sunscreen UV Filter, Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), on Coral Planulae and Cultured Primary Cells and Its Environmental Contamination in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology. DOI 10.1007/s00244-015-0227-7]

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