From PFASs to Plastics, Earth’s Waters Need Our Help

TheISTC Director Kevin OBrien chats with conference attendees Yu Feng-Lin (ISGS) and Dr. Xuefei Zhou (Tongji University, China) Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois co-hosted the 2018 Emerging Contaminants in the Aquatic Environment Conference (ECACE18) which  was held on June 5-6 in Champaign, IL. The third annual conference highlighted research, education, and policies related to recently detected emerging contaminants and chemicals that are re-emerging as concerns.

This year’s conference focused on a variety of specific issues ranging from PFASs and microplastics to pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs), as well as many other types of emerging contaminants found in water and the environment.

PFASs, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of man-made chemicals that are typically found in fire-fighting foams, water- and stain-resistant textiles, and non-stick cookware. They were described by one of the keynote speakers, Dr. Rainer Lohmann who is professor of oceanography at University of Rhode Island and director of a new Superfund Research Center on PFASs, as being “an even bigger environmental problem than PCBs”. PCBs or polychlorinated biphenyl compounds have been a major contaminant in soil, water, and air since the 1970s and are still being cleaned up from old industrial sites and other areas.  PFASs are as persistent as PCBs, bioaccumulate, and are even more soluble in water than PCBs. Dr. Lohmann went on to discuss how PFASs have been found hundreds of feet below the surface of the oceans and have moved through air and water to remote areas such as the Arctic.

The conference not only featured national speakers such as Dr. Lohmann and presenters from as far away as Florida and California, but also international speakers. They included:

  • keynote speaker Dr. Stefan Krause from the University of Birmingham in the UK who discussed multi-contaminant interactions between aquifers and rivers;
  • keynote speaker Dr. Xuefei Zhou from Tongji University in China, who gave an overview of the problem of pharmaceutical pollution in China and potential advanced technology treatment options; and
  • Dr. Matt Taylor from the Port Stephens Fisheries Institute in New South Wales, Australia, whose research examines PFAS contamination in estuarine fisheries.

Prairie Research Institute scientists from ISTC, the Illinois State Water Survey, and the Illinois State Geological Survey also presented their research results on microplastics and PPCPs detected in karst groundwater in Illinois. This widespread participation of researchers, educators, and policy makers from across the globe illustrates the ubiquitous nature of emerging contaminants in water throughout the world and emphasizes that it will take a collective effort by all of us to solve these pollution issues.

The videos of the 3 keynote presentations will be available on the ISTC website within the next two weeks.

Toxics Reduction and Sustainability in Paper Manufacturing

Pulp and paper manufacturing companies usually are very resource-intensive and utilize large quantities of water and wood in their operations. In order to help them be more sustainable as well as reduce operational costs, the NY State Pollution Prevention Institute (NYSP2I) is leading a multi-agency effort working with four pulp and paper mills in New York’s Great Lakes watershed region that has resulted in toxic chemical reductions as well as improvements to energy and water usage at those companies.

The four-year program, titled “Toxics Reduction and Sustainability in Paper Manufacturing,” is part of a vast Great Lakes Restoration Initiative led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and includes the efforts of many federal agencies.

The first of four case studies has recently been published.  The initial case study is about sustainability efforts at Finch Paper LLC which specializes in uncoated paper for digital and traditional printing markets. Finch Paper turned to NYSP2I for an analysis of two areas within their operations: ammonia recovery and heat recovery.  Other case studies from this program will be published soon and will be available on the NYSP2I case study website.

Webinars on Sediment Remediation

Environmental researchers interested in the assessment and treatment of contaminated sediments may wish to tune into the new webinar series being offered by SERDP and ESTCP, Department of Defense’s environmental research programs. On Thursday, October 29, 2015 at 11 am – 12:30 pm (CT) there will be two presentations on sediment remediation. The first is “The Roles of Biology, Chemistry and Exposure in the Development of Resilient Remedies” by Dr. Todd Bridges (U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center). Following that will be a talk on “In Situ Treatment of Polychlorinated Biphenyl Impacted Sediments by Microbial Bioaugmentation” by Dr. Kevin Sowers (University of Maryland).

Advanced registration for this webinar is required. To register, visit A recording of the online seminar and the presentation will be posted afterwards.

ISTC hosts Events on Environmental Effects of Pharmaceutical and Personal Care Products

As P2 Week kicks off this week, we are reminded of the important legislation of the past that has helped achieve cleaner waters in the U.S.; however, there is still work to be done. The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 in response to the growing awareness that raw sewage, industrial wastes, and other pollutants were regularly being dumped into waterways. The goal of the Clean Water Act was to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of our nation’s waters.” The law called for “zero discharge of pollutants into navigable waters” and water quality was to be improved so waters were both fishable and swimmable again. Progress has been made, but even after more than 40 years, water pollution is still a problem in many areas of the U.S. with excess nutrient runoff, mine drainage, oil or chemical spills, overflow of sewage during high rain events, etc.


In the past 10 years, the widespread occurrence of emerging contaminants, including pharmaceutical and personal care products (PPCPs) and steroid hormones, in waterways has been recognized as a critical environmental issue. To learn more about new research in that area and to provide opportunities for collaborations, ISTC is arranging a meeting on Thurs., Sept. 24 from 11 a.m.- noon for U of I faculty and staff from campus units studying PPCPs to discuss their projects. At noon, Dr. Wei Zheng from ISTC will present a talk on his PPCP research work. The talk will be broadcast live and also archived on the ISTC website. To register for the Sept. 24th webinar, visit


In addition, on April 4, 2016, ISTC is organizing a conference, along with IL-IN Sea Grant and funded by the U of I Extension, titled ”PPCPs in the Environment”. The event will be held at the I-Hotel Conference Center in Champaign. The call for abstracts will be announced in December. More information on the conference will be available on the ISTC website at that time.