Chemical Contaminants: A Collective Problem
Our lab is a leader. We recently spoke to our experts about contaminants emerging in the environment — and how our industry is reacting.
Contaminants are everywhere: Plastic drinking bottles, nonstick pans, in the caffeine you drink and the microwavable popcorn bags you pop. It’s a big problem.
Our Supervising Chemist Debmalya Bhattacharyya oversees Advanced Instrumentation in our lab and says, “It’s our job to monitor water quality and make sure companies are not dumping excess pollutants.” But he said these contributors aren’t the only ones.
Restaurants, doctors’ offices, manufacturing facilities, oil companies and other organizations create waste in their day-to-day operations, and once it’s created, it has to be handled properly. Some waste breaks down naturally — but other compounds last indefinitely.
“Forever chemicals,” more technically known as PFAS (Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances), are a group of over 9,000 substances that have bonds stronger than most anything in nature. So strong, that even time and erosion don’t phase them.
Debmalya and Manager of Environmental Health & Safety Robin Halperin have been sharing resources about PFAS this year, including a discussion on Clean Water Works Podcast episode 11, a presentation to Trustees May 18, and a Speaker Series forum for employees June 8. More commonly a topic in drinking water circles, more attention is being paid recently on the wastewater side of the cycle, and our team is closely involved in the national dialogue.
“The reason that PFAS are so stable is that they have a carbon-fluorine chain,” Bradley Williams, a Senior Chemist in Analytical Services, explained. Remediating PFAS is a real challenge. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, it takes extreme heat, sorbents or microorganisms to break them down, which is usually costly, inefficient and creates secondary pollutants.
But why are PFAS-containing products so prevalent? PFAS are excellent at repelling stains, oil, and water. But research also suggests they can be linked to cancer, kidney problems, hormonal disruption, and a slew of other health concerns. These chemicals are so abundant that they’re found in most humans’ blood.
Legislative efforts have encouraged phase-outs of some of the more harmful PFAS, but it doesn’t take long for companies to adapt. “Chemists find alternative formulations, many of which are equally harmful,” Debmalya explained, stating that the vicious cycle continues.
While the topic of PFAS has been around for quite some time, it wasn’t until the last few years that it’s been given some more serious consideration. New U.S. EPA limits proposed in June 2022 tightened the belt on allowable limits for two of the more harmful forever chemicals. However, there’s more to the story.
Emerging contaminants, which were previously unknown pollutants, are also coming on the radar. While they don’t fall under the umbrella of PFAS and are not generally included in legislative efforts, they can affect our health. This includes contamination from microplastics, natural and synthetic hormones, and personal care products — among others.
Prescription drugs are also a major concern. “Post-World War II, antibiotics and pharmaceutical medications have saved countless lives, but the problem is people flush medications down their toilet, and then all of this is going back into the environment. If these things kill microbes and fungi, they’ll naturally have a negative effect when they go back into the environment,” Debmalya said.
“If these things kill microbes and fungi, they’ll naturally have a negative effect when they go back into the environment.”
And that morning coffee? What goes in, must come out. Studies have found upwards of 1.55 to 344.9 parts per billion of caffeine contamination in environmental waters, which has a negative impact on fish, algae, bacteria, and single molecule organisms. “These contaminants are harmful to the aquatic environment, human health and the ecosystem — both freshwater and marine,” Debmalya explained. “Caffeine affects everything from reproduction and development, to oxidative stress and metabolic activity and can even be lethal to aquatic species and terrestrial insects,” he added.
Our lab tests samples from lakes, rivers, and streams 360 days out of the year, working to target problems before they run ramped. Testing for PFAS is one of the more challenging endeavors. Analysts have to use a specific class of plastic when testing, or they risk getting a false positive from chemicals that leach from testing containers. “It’s not an easy test to do. You need specialized people with specific knowledge and a specialized lab,” Debmalya said. And when it comes to testing for many of the emerging contaminates, there just aren’t enough tried and true testing methods.
The solution? It’s a cumulative problem, with a collective solution.
“There is a lot we can do at the consumer level. I use stainless steel cookware and glass storage containers, and I think critically about the products I use. My family jokes that I’m regressing, but I know that I’m progressive. If we don’t control the sources, we’re all going to see the impact,” Debmalya said.
Story by Kyla Presto