Monday, June 22, 2020

Grant Allows Citizen Scientists To Study Emerging Contaminants In Susquehanna River Watershed

Bryan Swistock, Extension Water Resources Coordinator and Dr. Heather Preisendanz, Associate Professor, Penn State, Katie Hayden, PhD Candidate Penn State

Studying emerging contaminants gives insight to how they are introduced to our waterways.

Emerging contaminants are chemicals found in a variety of consumer products that can enter streams and groundwater. 

These include chemicals found in personal care products (fragrances, insect repellents, sunscreens, deodorant), household cleaning products (detergents, soaps), and pharmaceuticals (prescription and over the counter). 

One common pathway into the environment is simply rinsing these products off our bodies in the shower or flushing them down the drain. As a result, many of these chemicals can be detected in surface waters downstream of wastewater treatment plants.

Though they are generally detected at trace concentrations in the environment (nanograms to micrograms/liter), many of these compounds are classified or suspected to be endocrine disruptors. In this sense, they can mimic or alter hormone levels. 

In fish and amphibians, endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs) contribute to physical deformities and even intersex characteristics where male organisms develop female primary and/or secondary sex characteristics. 

Given that EDCs are not currently regulated under water quality standards, one of the most effective ways to reduce their presence in the environment is by reducing the use of products containing EDCs.

Citizen Scientists Approach

A group of Penn State researchers received funding in 2018 from the National Science Foundation (Award # 1743981) to raise awareness of the presence of EDCs in the Susquehanna River Basin and to empower citizen scientists to become part of the solution by making connections between the presence of these chemicals in their household products and presence in surface water samples the volunteers collected across the watershed.

The project developed a network of 60 citizen scientist volunteers across the Susquehanna River Basin that generated EDC footprint data for their households, collected water samples, and engaged in focus group meetings. 

Citizen scientists were solicited in fall 2018 and again in spring 2019 to take part in surface water sampling and calculating their EDC footprint. 

To generate an EDC footprint, volunteers were asked to input the amounts of select cleaning, laundry, and health/beauty products they own into an online calculator

The calculator considers 55 common EDCs found in these products and generates an overall EDC footprint score (mass). 

Users are informed about which 10 products contribute the most to their overall footprint so they can understand how to best reduce their footprint. Additionally, users are informed about the contribution of each category of products (laundry, cleaning, or health and beauty) to their overall household footprint.

After completing the calculator, volunteers chose one of about 60 stream locations within the Susquehanna River Basin to collect water samples in 2018 and 2019. 

The 60 sampling sites were identified based on land use, presence of upstream influences, and some were inspired by previous data conducted at the locations, including by the U.S. Geological Survey and Department of Environmental Protection. Overall, in 2018, 52 sites were sampled whereas, in 2019, 59 sites were sampled.

Each citizen scientist was mailed a water sample collection kit with detailed instructions and supplies along with an overnight shipping label, and a survey to complete while at their site. Samples were shipped overnight back to Penn State where they were processed and analyzed. Water samples were screened for the following:

-- Two antimicrobials commonly found in hand soaps

-- Three UV filters found in sunscreens

-- Nine phthalates used in detergents, air fresheners, and personal care products

-- Cyclosiloxane, which is used in washing/cleaning products, polishes and waxes, and cosmetics

-- Two parabens used as preservatives in cosmetics

-- Ethanolamine, which is used in cosmetics, hair, and skincare products

-- 19 soluble fragrances used in laundry and personal hygiene products

Samples were analyzed at Penn State’s Energy and Environmental Sustainability Laboratory and the USDA-ARS facility at Penn State. 

Once water samples were analyzed, final reports were sent to each citizen scientist to help them connect the products they use that contain common EDCs to the compounds found in the surface water samples. 

Each report provided information to the citizen scientists regarding how the participant’s EDC footprint and water sample results compared to others and how they could reduce their personal EDC footprint.

In 2018, in conjunction with the distribution of final reports, about 20 percent of the citizen scientists participated in focus group meetings during which they were asked about how the study impacted their understanding of EDCs, what concerns they might have about the presence of EDCs in water, and what research studies or policies they would like to see implemented to address the presence of EDCs in the Susquehanna River Basin.

EDC Footprint Results

Among the citizen scientists who took part in the water sampling, 50 calculated their EDC footprint in 2018 and 43 people calculated theirs in 2019. 

Ten citizen scientists calculated their footprints in both 2018 and 2019; therefore, EDC footprints were calculated for a total of 83 households. Overall results from the citizen scientists’ inputs to the web-based EDC footprint calculator are illustrated in Figure 1.

Considering both years, cleaning products contributed the most to citizen scientist’s EDC footprint results. In 2019, glass cleaner was the top-ranked product that contributed to EDC footprints, while in 2018, it was laundry detergent. 

Carpet cleaners and air fresheners were moderate contributors to the EDC footprints in both years while bar soap and sunscreens were smaller sources of EDCs.

Connecting EDC Footprints to Stream Testing Results

One of the goals of this project was to help citizen scientists make links between the EDCs in their footprint results and the EDCs present in the surface water samples they collected. Sampling of EDCs in stream water found that parabens occurred at the highest concentrations (Figure 1) followed by soluble fragrances. 

Phthalates, cyclosiloxane and UV filters were commonly detected but at lower concentrations while antimicrobials were absent from all stream samples.

The earlier EDC footprint results showed that fragrances were in five of the six most frequently reported products. Fragrances were also among the highest concentrations found in stream samples collected by the citizen scientists in 2018. 

Similarly, phthalates had the third-highest concentrations in the water samples and are also prevalent in three of the top products in the EDC footprint tool results. 

Interesting, ethanolamine was in two of the top products in the EDC results, but they were not frequently detected in the surface water samples. 

While antimicrobials are featured in one of the top EDC footprint products (soap), no antimicrobials were detected in 2018 water samples. 

The differences between the prevalence of specific EDCs in the footprint tool results and surface water samples could be at least in part due to the varied ability of wastewater treatment plants to break down EDCs in the influent prior to their discharge to surface water in the treated effluent. 

However, it was important that the citizen scientists were able to make some connections between the presence of EDCs in the products they use and the presence of the same EDCs in the surface water samples.

Focus Group Results

Approximately 20 percent of the citizen scientists participated in in-person focus group meetings after receiving their EDC footprint and stream testing results. Results from focus group interviews were:

-- Citizen scientists were largely unaware of the impact they had as consumers in contributing to the presence of EDCs in the Susquehanna River Basin.

-- The EDC footprint calculator was helpful in identifying which products in their household contributed to their overall footprint.

-- They were unaware that EDCs could persist through water treatment plants.

-- Their major concerns were ecosystem health and the actions of others who do not understand their impact as consumers on water quality.

-- They were interested in research and data generation to inform policy makers on the human consumption/human health impacts of the EDCs that persist in our drinking water, as well as research that would assess the seasonality of EDCs in surface water.

-- They felt future research should focus on ways people can reduce their EDC footprint, what acceptable EDC levels in surface water bodies are, and how specific EDC levels impact human health.

-- They voiced a need for more citizen science sampling projects to raise awareness that could help consumers make more informed choices about the products they purchase.

-- They would like to see policies developed around water quality standards for EDCs, and the banning/phasing out of most impactful EDCs in consumer products.

What Can You Do?

Much of the research and educational materials on EDCs currently available stoke fear in the public, given that EDCs are present in drinking water sources, finished drinking water, and aquatic water bodies critical for supporting fish and amphibian populations. 

While the concerns regarding the presence of EDCs in the environment should not be under-estimated, this project focused on what people can learn about these issues, and importantly, what they can do about it. 

The EDC footprint tool provides an important first step to help concerned citizens recognize and potentially reduce their EDC footprint on the environment. 

To calculate your own EDC footprint and learn how to reduce your footprint, visit the EDC footprint calculator.

[Visit DEP’s Contaminants of Emerging Concern webpage for more information on Pennsylvania efforts to study the impacts of contaminants.]

(Photo: Katie Hayen prepares to ship test kids to citizen scientists.)

Bryan Swistock is Senior Extension Associate, Water Resources Coordinator.

Dr. Heather Preisendanz, Associate professor, Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, Penn State University

Katie Hayden, Phd candidate, BioRenewable Systems, Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, Penn State University

(Reprinted from the June 22 Penn State Extension Watershed Winds newsletter. Click Here to sign up for your own copy.)

Related Articles:

-- Citizen Science Opportunity: Penn State Looking For 60 Volunteers For Endocrine Disrupter Study In Susquehanna Watershed

-- DEP Water Resources Advisory Committee July Meeting Includes Presentation On DEP’s Research Into Contaminants Of Emerging Concern   Click Here for a PDF of the presentation.

-- Regulations Being Considered By PUC To Encourage Water, Wastewater System Consolidation In Light Of PFAS, Lead, Emerging Contaminants

-- Emerging Organic Contaminant Levels In PA At Higher Concentrations In Colder Seasons, Pesticide Concentrations Increase During High Stream Flows

[Posted: June 22, 2020]  PA Environment Digest

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