Archive for Detection

WASHINGTON — The new PBS Frontline documentary “Poisoned Waters” reported on April 21st that a new wave of chemical compounds that scientists describe as raising dangers for human health have been found in drinking water systems of cities across the country by the U.S. Geological Survey.

“Poisoned Waters,” airing nationwide on PBS, (check local listings) reveals new evidence that today’s growing environmental threat comes not from the giant industrial polluters of old, but from chemicals in consumers’ face creams, deodorants, prescription medicines and household cleaners that find their way into sewers, storm drains, and eventually into America’s waterways and drinking water.

“The long-term, slow-motion risk is already being spelled out in large population studies,” Dr. Robert Lawrence of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health tells correspondent and Pulitzer-prize winner Hedrick Smith. Those studies correlate health risks with exposure to chemicals in the environment known as endocrine disrupters because they disrupt the body’s normal functioning.

“We can show that people with higher levels of some of these chemicals may have a higher incidence” of disease and such harmful effects such as lower male sperm count, asserts Linda Birnbaum, Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. “In most cases, we don’t know what the safe levels are.”

Tests by the U.S. Geological Survey of source waters for urban drinking water systems, have documented new contaminants coast to coast. Other scientists say these chemicals are causing fish kills, frogs with six legs, male fish with female eggs in their gonads and other mutations. They see these mutations as warnings to humans.

Millions of people are being exposed to endocrine disruptors, Lawrence explains, “and we don’t know precisely how many of them are going to develop premature breast cancer, going to have problems with reproduction, going to have all kinds of congenital anomalies of the male genitalia — things that are happening at a broad low level so that they don’t raise the alarm in the general public.”

Using Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound as case studies, “Poisoned Waters” examines how these emerging pollutants along with old industrial contaminants like PCBs, lead and mercury and agricultural pollution from concentrated hog, cattle and chicken growing operations, have kept America from making many of the nation’s waterways fishable and swimmable again — a goal set by Congress nearly four decades ago.

“The environment has slipped off our radar screen because it’s not a hot crisis like the financial meltdown,” says Smith. “But pollution is a ticking time bomb. It’s a chronic cancer that is slowly eating away the natural resources that are vital to our very lives.”

“Poisoned Waters” is a FRONTLINE co-production with Hedrick Smith Productions, Inc. Hedrick Smith is correspondent and senior producer. FRONTLINE is produced by WGBH Boston and is broadcast nationwide on PBS. For more info go to

SOURCE Hedrick Smith Productions

Southern Research Institute is a nonprofit 501(c) 3 scientific research organization that conducts preclinical drug discovery and development and advanced engineering research in materials, systems development, environment and energy. Their more than 600 scientific and engineering team members support clients and partners in the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, defense, aerospace, environmental and energy industries. Southern Research is headquartered in Birmingham, Ala., with facilities also located in Wilsonville, Ala., Anniston, Ala., Frederick, Md., and Durham, NC. For more information about Southern Research and its capabilities and accomplishments, visit

Led by Dr. Derek Eggert, Southern Research will now begin developing approaches to remediate problematic constituents contained in commercial and industrial effluents

BIRMINGHAM, Ala., May 11 — Southern Research Institute today announced that it is adding a new research capability focusing on the remediation of problematic constituents in water and wastewater sources. Environmental toxicologist Derek Eggert, Ph.D. will lead the new program that is located on Southern Research’s main campus in Birmingham.

“We are very pleased that Dr. Eggert has joined Southern Research, enabling us to expand our environmental services to industry,” said Michael D. Johns, vice-president of Engineering at Southern Research. “The remediation of industrial water is important to the quality of our water systems. Because of Derek’s expertise, Southern Research can now help develop environmentally and economically sound solutions to treat those problems.”

By creating the Water and Wastewater Treatment team, Southern Research will help remediate contaminants — such as arsenic, mercury, selenium, aluminum, copper, lead, zinc and oil and grease — from various waste streams in order to reuse or discharge into a local waterway.

Before joining Southern Research, Dr. Eggert was a research assistant in Environmental Toxicology at Clemson University. He received his Bachelor’s degree in Biology from The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina and his Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Environmental Toxicology from Clemson University. He is a member of The Wildlife Society, Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, and Sigma Xi.

Rhonda Jung, 205-337-9634

On March 25, the AWWA webcast series will continue with Perchlorate, Pharmaceuticals, and Other Emerging Contaminants—Where Are We Now? Emerging contaminants remain a concern, particularly for those most vulnerable in our population. Several environmental studies have sought to identify an association between drinking water contaminated with perchlorate and measures of thyroid impairment.

AWWA’s panel of experts will discuss perchlorate and other issues, as well as whether or not the new Administration will be able to address this situation given other competing priorities.

Webcast presenters include:

  • Alan Roberson – Director of Regulatory Affairs, AWWA Government Affairs
  • Zaid Chowdhury – Vice President, Malcolm Pirnie, Inc.
  • Dr. Shane A. Snyder – R&D Project Manager, Southern Nevada Water Authority
  • Brett Vanderford – Research Chemist, Southern Nevada Water Authority

For more information, visit

About AWWA
AWWA is the authoritative resource for knowledge, information, and advocacy to improve the quality and supply of water in North America and beyond. AWWA is the largest organization of water professionals in the world. AWWA advances public health, safety and welfare by uniting the efforts of the full spectrum of the entire water community. Through our collective strength we become better stewards of water for the greatest good of the people and the environment.


Cleaning up the dangerous contaminants — dry-cleaning fluids, solvents and petroleum hydrocarbons — found in underground water presents one of the most urgent challenges facing environmental science. A report issued January 30 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sheds light on a new way to monitor and improve the success of clean-up efforts using a technique developed at the University of Toronto.

“The most common method to clean-up groundwater is biodegradation — using microbes to consume the contaminants and break them down into more benign end products that are not harmful to the environment,” says U of T geochemist Barbara Sherwood Lollar, the scientist who initiated the concept and goals for the EPA report and is one of its five international authors.

The report outlines how this can be done using a novel technique called Compound Specific Isotope Analysis, developed in U of T’s Stable Isotope Laboratory. The elements of carbon that form the basis for the hydrocarbon contaminants actually come in two types called isotopes, explains Sherwood Lollar. “When microbes degrade contaminants, they prefer the lighter isotope carbon 12 over the heavier isotope carbon 13. The resulting change in the ratio of these isotopes in the contaminant itself is a dramatic and definitive indicator that the biodegradation is successfully taking place.”

Beginning in the 1990s, U of T’s Stable Isotope Laboratory has been an international pioneer in discovering how different carbon isotopes can be used to identify whether or not biodegradation is taking place. “Today, dozens of students in Canada have been trained in this method, drawn in by the fascinating combination of fundamental research that has important applications such as the clean-up of drinking water,” says Sherwood Lollar. Over the past decade, as the new technique has become more widespread, centres for research and education —- and even private companies — have blossomed worldwide.

“Much of the research on new methods of analyzing groundwater contamination has been published in scientific and professional journals but this report — written specifically for the practitioners in accessible language with clear procedural information and decision-making strategies — is a milestone,” says Sherwood Lollar.

“It is particularly gratifying to be able to take a technique out of the lab and to put it into the hands of the people working on this issue every day around the world,” she says.

The report can be found on the EPA website. It was funded by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria, the EPA and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

University of Toronto. “New Way To Monitor And Improve Clean-up Of Contaminated Groundwater.” ScienceDaily 1 February 2009. 3 February 2009 <­ /releases/2009/01/090130093405.htm>

In 1998 researchers in Sweden reported something alarming: concentrations of a class of compounds known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) have been increasing exponentially in human breast milk. PBDE concentrations in breast milk have doubled every five years for the past 25 years, though their concentrations are still an order of magnitude lower than polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PBDEs are widely used as fire retardants for plastics and textiles. PCBs are a now-banned toxin originally used in many electrical transformers.

PBDEs are so-called persistent organic pollutants (POPs), of concern to health officials worldwide because of their toxicity, tendency to accumulate in human and animal tissue, and their long lifetime in the environment. DDT and chlorinated dioxins are two better-known examples of POPs whose toxic properties have long been recognized. In contrast little is known about PBDEs, particularly in the U.S. Based on what little research has been done, PBDE may cause thyroid disease or neurological problems in children — but these links are far from proven. As of 2000, however, Denmark and Austria have imposed strict regulation on the substance’s use, and other European nations are considering doing likewise. “PBDE may be the PCB of the future,” write Kim Hooper and Thomas McDonald, researchers at the California Environmental Protection Agency.

Cancer, neurological development of children, thyroid disease — these are the types of health effects that make headlines. That puts PBDEs and similar chemicals on the top of any list of emerging contaminants: potentially toxic substances whose effects or presence are poorly known, often because these chemicals have only begun to enter the human water or food supply.

Keeping Up with the Joneses

One of the greatest challenges of keeping U.S. water supplies clean and safe to drink is that the mix of chemicals used by society is continually changing. New compounds, or their by-products, eventually find their way into the U.S. waste stream, and ultimately in some form they become part of what we drink. How do local and national agencies keep up with perpetual change? What emerging contaminants, unknown or virtually unnoticed just a few years ago, are just cropping up today?

Ever since the 1970s, U.S. clean water regulations have been attuned to mitigating the harmful effects of new chemicals. In fact, the Clean Water Act initially required the EPA to identify, monitor, and regulate 25 new toxins every three years, a process that led to an ever-lengthening list of contaminants subject to federal controls. In 1996 Congress modified this system by amending the Safe Drinking Water Act to require a more rational approach to emerging contaminants. In addition to requiring a cost-benefit approach to new contaminant regulation, the amendments focused on developing a prioritized list of new contaminants based on scientific studies of health effects. The result has been new research on emerging contaminants and an increased emphasis on methods of analyzing health effects of contaminants.

One area in which several advances have recently been made is related to long-term health effects of chemical exposure. Humans are constantly exposed to a variety of contaminants present at low levels. These include both new chemicals, with previously unknown effects and those with well-known acute (short-term exposure) human and ecological health effects. Arsenic and radionuclides are two examples where recent long-term health studies have led to increased concern about low-level exposure. As a consequence, regulators are now looking into appropriate responses. Other studies are now examining the impacts of organic compounds that may interfere with the endocrine systems of living organisms. These so-called endocrine disruptors can also be active at very low levels. The EPA’s Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program is helping identify endocrine disruptors from the estimated 87,000 chemicals used today. The consequences of these in humans are just now being studied. In animals, endocrine disruption has been shown to hinder sexual function, complicate pregnancy, and cause thyroid problems leading to metabolic disorders.

Another active area of research is focused on how chemicals interact with each other and the natural environment. In the past, studies have focused on the effects of single chemicals because chemicals are usually regulated singly. However, chemicals are always present as complex mixtures, thus some might say the regulation approach is naïve. Thus scientists are increasingly focusing on the toxicity of mixtures of chemicals, acknowledging that the toxicity expressed may be a result of additive or multiplicative effects, depending on interactions with other chemicals present in the environment. In addition, chemicals can have indirect impacts on humans. For example, antibiotics are considered an emerging contaminant because they may influence the development of resistance in microbes. Antibiotics enter the environment through human wastes. In addition, these products are increasingly being used for veterinary purposes and thus may enter from farm and feeding operations — ranging from poultry to hog farming operations.

Finally, researchers are continuing to find new chemicals that bioaccumulate in the food chain. Such chemicals can be present in water at very low levels, yet accumulate to higher concentrations in living tissue, substantially magnifying any health effects. Methylmercury, the most toxic form of mercury, is an example of such a bioaccumulating toxin. With methylmercury, public health officials have in some cases recommended against the consumption of fish by pregnant women.

Mercury emissions from fossil fuel power plants bioaccumulate in the fatty tissue of lake and river fish; its concentrations are biomagnified yet again in fetal tissue and can lead to neurological problems in children, though these neurological studies are somewhat controversial.

DDT is another example of a chemical that bioaccumulates in aquatic organisms. In the 1960s DDT was found to be endangering the bald eagle, peregrine falcon, osprey, brown pelican, and other bird populations reliant on fish diets. DDT and its metabolites reduced the thickness of eggshells, making them more susceptible to breaking during incubation. Since the banning of DDT in 1972 populations of these birds in the U.S. have rebounded dramatically — proof that the environmental levels of the chemicals were reduced, and thus their effects were reduced.

Another challenge faced by researchers is uncovering how widespread emerging contaminants are in the environment. After all, many of the contaminants being examined today are not released in easily measured quantities, like those initially targeted by environmental regulations. For example, pesticides are intentionally released in easily measured quantities. In contrast, household chemicals, drugs, animal feed, viruses, and parasites in fecal matter are all released into the environment after passing through municipal water treatment or solid waste systems, and they can also be released directly. The multiplicity of paths of entry complicates the study of such substances.

To help with this problem, the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the EPA, has launched the National Emerging Contaminants Reconnaissance, a project targeted at finding and monitoring locations where certain suspect chemicals are highly concentrated. USGS is focusing on four groups of compounds: veterinary and human antibiotics, human drugs, industrial and household products (examples include insecticides, detergents, fire retardants, and fuels), and sex and steroidal hormones. Many of the substances under study are familiar to everyday life: caffeine and ibuprofen, for example.

An Evolving Problem

Contamination of water supplies is an evolving problem and will remain an issue as long as technological change continues. Some of the contaminants now being targeted by researchers may come out with a clean slate, while others will require additional scrutiny. One of the hopes of today’s researchers is that more sophisticated science will help speed the process of identifying and remedying the problems, before damage to either human health or the environment can occur. In any case, science and regulation must continue to evolve and change, as it has in the past few years, to respond to new needs presented by chemicals and our increasing knowledge of them.