Water issues are getting their time in the spotlight, and lead is not the only problem people are worried about. Micropollutants, contaminants that are not completely biodegradable and are not removed from wastewater with conventional techniques, have become a bigger problem than perhaps anyone predicted. We’re learning now more than ever about how lifestyle decisions are impacting the conditions of our waterways as micropollutants from over-the-counter and prescription medications, cosmetics, soaps, caffeine, and pesticides wind up in our waterways.
In partnership with the New York State Water Resources Institute, Amy Pochodylo and Damian E. Helbling from Cornell’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, performed a study testing eight sites along the Hudson River Estuary from the Mohawk River confluence to the Tappan Zee Bridge during the 2015 recreational season (May-October). The studies from sampling at these sites yielded results of 117 micropollutants per sample. Scientists tested for pharmaceutical, pesticide, and industrial contaminants to get a full-scale view of the impact of micropollutants on the river.
On a daily basis, over 84,000 synthetic organic compounds are used across all borders, from your daily household products, to industrial/commercial products. As recent studies have shown, many chemicals in these products have an unknown impact on our environment; and in waterbodies, an array of micropollutants may pose threat to aquatic and human life.
The range of concentration and quantity of micropollutants found varies on the land usage, weather patterns, population density, and size or type of sewer and wastewater treatment plants. Most of the micropollutants found in our waterbodies are caused by combined sewer overflows, runoff from agricultural land, wastewater treatment plant discharges (both domestic and industrial), and sewer outfalls.
Despite the impacts they may have on the overall well-being for all organisms, including humans, micropollutants are rather understudied. Local environmental group, Riverkeeper, has been testing the waters of the Hudson River Estuary from over 70 test sites since 2008, mostly testing the pH, turbidity, and bacterial load found in the waterway. Through their partnership, Amy Pochodylo and Damian Helbling were able to use 8 of these test sites for four months of the recreational season, yielding 32 samples.
The results of the sampling may be shocking for residents that live along and recreationally use the waters of the Hudson River Estuary. On average, there are 8-10 pesticides found during the recreational season, indicating that the application season of the pesticide does not have an impact on the concentration of pesticides in the water. However, when looking at the pharmaceutical industry, sewer outfalls had the highest concentration of the pharmaceutical micropollutants, with up to 50 of the 64 targeted found in a sampling site.
The fact that so many of these chemicals are not filtered by the treatment plants causes concern for the communities living downstream when it comes to their drinking water, and possible groundwater contamination.