Let's talk about lab water
Let's talk about lab water
Potentially the most important aspect of any good conservation plan is a sound monitoring program. The aquatic environment often bears the brunt of human impacts and so that’s typically a great place to start.
Wastewater is a common output from numerous industries around the globe. It can contain a variety of contaminants: bacteria, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and whatever else finds its way into sewage! Thankfully, wastewater treatment (WWT) plants are diligently cleaning this up before it enters the aquatic environment… Right? Just to be sure, there are groups of scientist monitoring WWT outputs just in case.
A team from AstraZeneca and the University of Portsmouth have been looking at sludge. Yep, sludge – that’s the term for the solid stuff that accumulates at WWT plants. They’ve been wading through this sticky topic to better understand where pharmaceutical products end up when they make their way into wastewater. This is important, as these pharmaceuticals can be adsorbed onto other components of the sludge, potentially escaping detection.
Existing models for predicting where and how these factors disappear often fall short, which is why this recent research collaboration has been so important. The team has been using a solid-phase extraction method to determine which interactions are needed for monitoring and predicting how these pharmaceuticals interact with the sludge. It turns out that while the interactions included in standard models are key, there also happens to be a host of additional interactions that researchers hadn’t really considered, like ion-exchange and H-bonding, which are just as important. Work like this means we can keep a much closer eye on where potentially toxic pharmaceutical compounds might end up in the sludge and thus eventually the environment. Just make sure you wash your hands after examining anything with a name like ‘sludge’ for any length of time!
Importantly, there’s also work being done to clean up the various toxic odds and ends that are introduced into the environment. Early management strategies led to some believing that that aquatic pollution wasn’t really a big deal, and that there’s a lot of water out there anyway so the issues would just be diluted. Well, the common consensus is that this theory is wrong: the solution to pollution is not dilution.
A huge amount of research is being pumped into the area of environmental clean-up and it’s producing some really interesting results. One such avenue of study is looking at using existing microorganisms in the environment to do much of the heavy lifting: hardy bacteria like Rhodococcus for example, are being investigated as hired bioremediation experts, capable of helping to literally eat up (well, break down) oil spills. Others have been trying to improve and scale up existing solutions, like the use of activated carbon at a scale beyond that of the filter in your fish tank! A phenomenal number of contaminants can be adsorbed by activated carbon thanks to its amazingly porous structure – just one gram can have a surface area of up to 1000 square meters!
These are exciting times for environmental science. Through the combination of rapidly growing public interest and the recent explosion of interdisciplinary research, we are constantly discovering new and powerful ways to understand and protect our environment. With the right tools in hand, we can help fuel great environmental science for a better future.
For the full story, including detecting endocrine disrupting chemicals, understanding why pollution can vary seasonally and why some of the researchers are carrying out extreme sampling in the Antarctic, download the latest issue of ‘The Solution Behind Great Science.’