UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Using a network of up to 60 citizen scientists, a team of Penn State researchers will assess the levels of endocrine-disrupting compounds in the Susquehanna River next year, and in turn empower those volunteers to become part of the solution to water-quality problems related to emerging contaminants.
The one-year project, funded by the National Science Foundation, will address growing public concern about the presence of trace-level unregulated chemicals in the river. The Susquehanna's problems are well known — a recent analysis conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection indicated that the presence of endocrine-disrupting compounds such as pesticides, pharmaceuticals and personal care products are contributing to the decline of smallmouth bass in the river.
The Susquehanna situation is not unique, according to lead researcher Heather Gall, assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering, College of Agricultural Sciences. A significant factor contributing to the presence of these compounds in surface water is that wastewater treatment plants across the country were not designed to remove endocrine-disrupting compounds. Therefore, the chemicals and their metabolites often persist in the wastewater effluent, which is typically discharged into rivers.
Although the wastewater must be treated to meet permit requirements, most endocrine-disrupting compounds currently are not regulated and therefore the extent to which treatment plants remove them prior to effluent discharge varies widely, she pointed out.
"Given the link between the usage of pesticides, pharmaceuticals and personal care products and the presence of endocrine-disrupting compounds in the environment, citizens can play a major role in the scientific discovery process," Gall said.
"With the lack of current water regulations or standards and the pressing need for research to better understand the chemicals' presence, fate, transport, and impacts, citizen scientists can participate in identifying potential courses of action and desired legislation."
In collaboration with the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, researchers will recruit 50-60 volunteer citizen scientists to participate in data generation and focus group meetings to identify ways to reduce endocrine-disrupting compounds in the environment.
In addition, the citizen scientists will be asked to use an online tool recently developed by Gall's research group to help them understand their current consumption of products containing endocrine-disrupting compounds, so they can make informed choices about how best to reduce their inadvertent, undesirable usage of these compounds.
Currently available at https://sites.psu.edu/EDCcalculator, the tool can be used to estimate the mass of endocrine-disrupting compounds in the products that they use in their everyday household activities associated with personal hygiene and household cleaning. The calculator is divided into sections for each of three major categories: health and beauty products, laundry products, and household cleaners.