Antifungals, antibacterial soaps, herbicides, artificial sweeteners – they don’t always end up where they were intended. In recent years, researchers at Mercyhurst University have discovered evidence of assorted chemicals in the recreational waters of Lake Erie at Presque Isle State Park and have just announced receipt of a grant to further study these emerging contaminants and their environmental impact.
Principal investigators Steven Mauro, Ph.D., and Amy Parente, Ph.D., who wrote the grant; have received $20,000 from Pennsylvania Sea Grant to augment their ongoing research. Mauro has been studying contaminants in local beach waters for three years; Parente is newer to the charge, but just last fall earned a grant from the Regional Science Consortium to confirm levels of sucralose in Presque Isle waters.
The infusion of new funds will enable faculty and student researchers to extend their beach water research over a 15-month period to ascertain how levels of five emerging contaminants are trending over time, Parente said. Those chemicals, already under study in Mercyhurst labs, are fluoxetine (an antidepressant), triclosan (antibacterial and antifungal agent) estradiol (a sex hormone), diuron (herbicide) and sucralose (a chlorinated form of sucrose found in artificial sweeteners).
All of these chemicals have been shown to have negative health consequences in organisms, from bacteria to humans, Parente said. Besides gauging their levels in local beach waters, the expanded study will hone in on their ability to kill sentinel species like E. coli, a type of fecal coliform bacteria that comes from human and animal waste. The Enivronmental Protection Agency uses E. coli measurements to determine whether fresh water is safe for recreation, which is the practice followed at Presque Isle. Disease-causing bacteria, viruses and protozoans may be present in water that has elevated levels of E. coli.
Parente said Mercyhurst’s research has already shown four of the five chemicals under study to have toxic effects on E. coli and further analysis is needed to ascertain the extent to which they act individually or in concert to kill the bacteria. The data will help determine the ability of E. coli to serve as an indicator of water quality if chemicals within the water are affecting its survivability, she said. Of equal importance is an evaluation of the levels, potential hazards of, and need for risk assessment management of these chemicals of concern.