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Down the drain: Emerging Contaminants in the Marine Environment

Edward T. Furlong, Ph.D.
United States Geological Survey

Lecture Summary

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Emerging contaminants are synthetic or naturally occurring chemicals or microorganisms not currently monitored in the environment but with the potential to cause adverse ecological or human health effects. They encompass a broad range of substances, including pathogens, surfactants (such as detergents), estrogens, plastics, fire retardants, medications, and even caffeine. These are potent, persistent chemicals which, while typically non-lethal, are likely to have chronic effects on individual organisms to populations and even whole ecosystems.

Dr. Edward Furlong, U.S. Geological Survey, spoke on June 6, 2012, for the Metcalf Institute at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography about the role of pharmaceuticals and personal care products in the marine environment. According to Furlong, initial interest in emerging contaminants was sparked when clofibric acid, a cholesterol-reducing drug and plant growth regulator, was identified in Swiss lakes and the North Sea in the mid-1990s. Since then, more focused research and an exponentially growing body of literature on emerging contaminants has emerged.

Sources of emerging contaminants include both point sources, such as sewage, and non-point sources like agricultural run-off. Furlong explained that water treatment plants, especially those using activated carbon to remove contaminants, do a reasonable job of removing pharmaceuticals from potable water sources. However, many contaminants fall out of the water column and are retained over long time scales in sediments.

Furlong explained that climate change might influence the amount of emerging contaminants in several ways. Global warming is predicted to result in greater annual precipitation totals in the northeast, and lower amounts in southwestern United States. Because of changes in water discharge seasonality at water treatment facilities, this could result in increased emerging contaminant retention in the water. Warmer water temperatures could also make it easier for them to dissolve in various water sources. Increased urbanization could cause centralized water demand and thereby increased wastewater production, resulting in increased concentrations in water discharge. Changes in pharmaceutical composition in the environment from development of new drugs, combined with an aging population, could result in an increase of new and different kinds of emerging contaminants in the environment.

It is important to note, Furlong stressed, that emerging contaminants are in extremely low concentrations in the natural environment. Furthermore, their biological impacts on organisms, if any, have been poorly researched, especially in the marine environment. This is an area of environmental research that is in the very early stages, but one that may drive some noticeable changes to infrastructure and environmental policies in the near future.

Edward T. Furlong received a B.S. in marine science from Long Island University and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in chemical oceanography (geochemistry) from the University of Washington. In 1986 and 1987, Furlong was a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs and the Department of Chemistry at Indiana University working with Professor Ronald A. Hites. He joined the U.S. Geological Survey in 1987 as a research chemist in the Methods Research and Development Program of the National Water Quality Laboratory. His research focuses on the development of new mass spectrometry techniques for analysis of trace organic compounds of environmental interest, including pharmaceuticals, hormones, pesticides, and their degradation products, and the application of these techniques to surface water, ground water, and wastewater studies.

Lecture summary prepared by Al Nyack, Ph.D.