Antoinette Kuzminski: Wetlands upgrade may be key to water improvements

Wetlands upgrade may be key to water improvements

The Biological Field Station, since its founding in 1967, has nurtured the good health of our beautiful lakes, streams and river in myriad ways. There have been constant challenges: invasive species, new technologies, effects of climate change, and changes in land use to name a few.

In 2018 the BFS and the United States Geological Survey completed a study to evaluate “emerging contaminants” in the Otsego Lake and the Susquehanna River. There are virtually thousands of these compounds, mostly man made but some naturally occurring.

As measuring devices have become increasingly sensitive over the past decades, there has been new recognition of these compounds as microcontaminants in water worldwide.

The 2018 study showed minimal contamination in Otsego Lake. In the Susquehanna River, however, the drainage from the Village’s Waste Water Treatment Plant contained numerous contaminants.

The substances found in the lake were trace amounts of metformin, (a commonly used diabetes drug) and two pesticides, atrazine and metolachlor. Although the amounts measured were orders of magnitude below the thresholds known to be harmful to human health or the environment, clearly it would best for none of this to be present in our waters. And it should be noted that traditional toxicology is inadequate to deal with relatively newly recognized concepts such as endocrine disruption and epigenetics.

For this study, the USGS provided sophisticated panels for detection of approximately 100 representative pharmaceuticals and 100 representative pesticides/herbicides. It would be exorbitantly expensive to repeat panels like this routinely. However, the BFS has obtained an alternative technology: enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). This provides less sensitive detection, and of only one compound at a time, but at a much lower cost.

The BSF staff is gaining experience with this device, using systems to detect atrazine, (a known carcinogen), glyphosate, (a widely used pesticide whose environmental impact may be broad but not well understood) and natural and synthetic estrogens. The estrogens not only feminize male fish and reduce fertility, but disrupt numerous other elements of growth and development. If there is a blue-green algae bloom this summer, this device will be useful to assay the toxins generated by these blooms.

As with any new technology, there is a steep learning curve before achievement of consistent and reliable data. But this device does open a new avenue of investigation.

Regarding the inadequacy of the WWTP to clear emerging contaminants, this is not unexpected, as WWTPs are designed to remove nutrients and traditional human pathogens.

Interestingly, the wetlands located between the WWTP and the Susquehanna River are somewhat more effective, despite the fact that they were designed as a wildlife refuge, not a water purification area. Their effectiveness could be enhanced by altering the depth and dwell time there of the waste stream. Such changes would require a cooperative effort among the responsible state and local agencies. An upgrade of the wetlands, compared to the costly and energy consumptive alternative technologies for removing microcontaminants from water, would be highly desirable.

Antoinette Kuzminski, M.D., is a member of Sustainable Otsego.

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