Apr 16, 2009

UW-Whitewater Receives Grant to Study Effects of Personal Care Products on Water Quality

Grant of $60,000 will allow faculty and students to conduct nine-week study

A $60,000 grant from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) will allow three faculty members and six undergraduate students at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater to study the effects of personal care products and over-the-counter drugs on water quality and plants this summer.

UW-Whitewater was one of 14 institutions nationwide to receive funding from the Merck Institute for Science Education and the AAAS.

“It feels good to have the support of the prestigious AAAS and the Merck Foundation,” said Catherine Chan, an assistant professor of biology and chemistry.

She and two other faculty members, Paul House of chemistry and Elisabeth Harrahy of biology, will oversee the project, slated to begin June 1.

According to Harrahy, American families have embraced personal care products with little thought about how their soap, sanitizers and cosmetics have negative effects on the water they drink. She said that the environmental impact of these products is a growing concern for scientists. The U.S. Geological Survey in 2002 found measurable amounts of substances, including the triclocarbon commonly used in soaps and hand sanitizers, as well as caffeine, in streams across the country.

“Traces of Prozac have even been found in the brain tissue of fish,” Harrahy said.

“We as people take a lot of medication and pharmaceutical ingredients are often excreted unchanged,” Harrahy said. Those same ingredients then pass through wastewater treatment plants to rivers and streams. In some cases, chlorine used during the wastewater treatment process makes pharmaceutical compounds more harmful.

House and his student researchers will look at exactly how chlorine reacts with triclocarbon, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, aspirin and caffeine. Using a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer, the team will measure the reaction of the chlorine with the pharmaceutical compounds as it happens.

“Micropollutants, in this case, chlorine, in even small amounts can have unexpected effects and produce unanticipated toxic end products,” House said.

Those end products, in addition to the compounds already in question, will be the subjects of Chan’s research. She and her students will study how the compounds affect the size and growth of the small flowering land plant Arabidopsis thaliana, a member of the mustard family.

“Little to no research has been done in this area,” Chan said. “This research will help us better predict the effects of these chemicals on other species, including fish and agricultural crops.”

Harrahy’s team will collect samples from waters upstream and downstream from four area wastewater treatment plants. They will measure the concentrations of the compounds and determine their effects on the water flea and other freshwater organisms.

Data collection will begin in early June and will run for nine weeks. In early August, the student researchers will present their initial findings during UW-Whitewater’s Summer Undergraduate Research Day.

For more information, contact Chan at 262.472.5133 or [email protected].