People who live in Northeast Ohio and along the coast of Lake Erie have grown up hearing the constant rhetoric about how the local bodies of water are polluted, gross, and unsafe to swim in. This region is home to what was considered one of the most polluted streams in America for a number of years. Adding to this rhetoric are the familiar stories of the Cuyahoga River catching on fire in 1969, due to the dumping of sewage and industrial chemicals into Lake Erie, which contributed to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Many individuals have been swimming in Lake Erie or similar bodies of water their whole life. Most of the drinking water around my hometown comes from the lake. There is no doubt that countless bodies of water across the country and in Northeast Ohio are polluted, yet this does not stop Lake Erie from having over 11 million visitors each year. Are these people putting themselves at risk of exposure to harmful chemicals? You might be wondering what makes this contaminated water so dangerous and asking yourself, “am I putting myself at risk of exposure to harmful chemicals?” Looking at what chemicals may be present in our water, where they are located and how long they can persist, professors and postdoctoral researchers at the College are looking into rainwater contaminants and how this may impact our understanding of water contaminants across the nation.
This work, being conducted in the Faust Lab group in association with Dr. Rebekah Gray, is asking important questions about what chemicals are found in rainwater and how they are able to persist. Dr. Faust, an atmospheric chemist by training, states that she thought “precipitation research would be a great area where Wooster students could contribute to our understanding of chemical transport in the environment.” Dr. Faust uses high-resolution mass spectrometry, instead of typical measurements, at the atmospheric level using aircraft and high-tech equipment to model the origin and movement of the air on days with precipitation events to help track the sources of environmental contaminants in water. Through understanding the source, we may be able to better understand the persistence and ability of certain chemicals to travel, which may be harmful to us and the environment.
Although she started her work looking at metolachlor, an herbicide often used on grasses, Dr. Faust’s work now focuses on identifying and quantifying per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (P.F.A.S.) and identifying pesticides in rainwater. P.F.A.S. are used to make coatings for consumer products that resist oils, such as fast food containers/wrappers, nonstick cookware and waterproof clothing. If you look out of your car window on the highway, it is likely that you will see a product containing P.F.A.S. on the side of the road.
It is common knowledge that both pesticides and fast food containers are found littered around the environment. According to Dr. Faust, P.F.A.S. are known as “forever chemicals” because they are long lived and persist in the environment. Why do we care about P.F.A.S.? They have dangerous health effects in humans and they are found everywhere. In her Independent Study, now graduated student Kyndalanne Pike ’20, organized volunteers to collect rainwater at six sites in the Ohio-Indiana region and one in Wyoming. She found P.F.A.S. at all sites, with the greatest concentrations being in our very own Wooster, Ohio, with amounts exceeding the EPA’s health advisory of parts per trillion.
Knowing that there are potentially harmful chemicals in our rainwater, Dr. Rebekah Gray, postdoctoral researcher in the Faust group at Wooster, asks how long these chemicals can actually persist in our atmosphere. Dr. Gray has been analyzing precipitation samples dating back to 2018 and confirmed the presence of almost 20 pesticides. The more common of these include atrazine—which is largely used on corn fields and golf courses to minimize weeds—metachlore, and simazine which are both used for weed control. The more unusual and exciting finding was organophosphate pesticide, Dimefox, which is related to D.D.T. and has been discontinued by the World Health Organization in the early 2000s. If you have heard of D.D.T. and the D.D.T. – inspired Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, you know that D.D.T.-like chemicals have the potential to cause great harm to the environment, and can also have cancer-causing effects in humans. Although this finding is nerve-wracking, it is a reminder of the importance of studying how long these chemicals can persist in the environment, especially if we are still finding them in water today.
Why might Ohio have such high quantities of these chemicals? It could be due to manufacturing and agriculture. Many towns along bodies of water popped up due to a rise in factories and good soil conditions for farming. While this is beneficial to the economy of the surrounding area, it has shaped the landscape in more ways than just new buildings. Chemicals released from factories before they were regulated can persist for decades. Dr. Gray states that, “understanding the role of different compounds (whether beneficial, harmful or sometimes both) was really interesting and felt like a fulfilling pursuit.” It is important to study and understand the consequences of pharmaceutical and industrial compounds on our water systems, especially with it being so impactful in the geographical area of Wooster and Northeast Ohio in general. Research in this area is still being done and will continue to increase our knowledge on what is in the water we drink, swim in, and collect in rain gauges. To learn more about the creation of the EPA, scan this QR code!
It’s here in link form. -Ed.