Microplastic contamination found in common source of groundwater, researchers report

by Lois Yoksoulian – Physical Sciences Editor of U of I News Bureau

Microplastics contaminate the world’s surface waters, yet scientists have only just begun to explore their presence in groundwater systems. A new study is the first to report microplastics in fractured limestone aquifers – a groundwater source that accounts for 25 percent of the global drinking water supply.

The study identified microplastic fibers, along with a variety of medicines and household contaminants, in two aquifer systems in Illinois. The findings are published in the journal Groundwater.

“Plastic in the environment breaks down into microscopic particles that can end up in the guts and gills of marine life, exposing the animals to chemicals in the plastic,” said John Scott, a researcher at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center and study co-author. “As the plastics break down, they act like sponges that soak up contaminants and microbes and can ultimately work their way into our food supply.”

ISTC Senior Analytical Chemist John W Scott loads water samples into an analytical pyroprobe that feeds into a gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer to analyze the water sample for the presence of plastic microfiber contamination. The testing work done in the labs at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has found that plastic polymers are now found in fractured limestone aquifers. Photo by Fred Zwicky, University of Illinois News Bureau
ISTC Senior Analytical Chemist John W Scott loads water samples into an analytical pyroprobe that feeds into a gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer to analyze the water sample for the presence of plastic microfiber contamination. The testing work done in the labs at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has found that plastic polymers are now found in fractured limestone aquifers. Photo by Fred Zwicky, University of Illinois News Bureau

Groundwater flows through the cracks and voids in limestone, sometimes carrying sewage and runoff from roads, landfills and agricultural areas into the aquifers below, Scott said.

The researchers collected 17 groundwater samples from wells and springs – 11 from a highly fractured limestone aquifer near the St. Louis metropolitan area and six from an aquifer containing much smaller fractures in rural northwestern Illinois.

All but one of the 17 samples contained microplastic particles, with a maximum concentration of 15.2 particles per liter from a spring in the St. Louis area, the study reports. However, deciphering what that concentration means is a challenge, Scott said. There are no published risk assessment studies or regulations.

The researchers did find, however, that concentrations from their field areas are comparable to those of surface water concentrations found in the rivers and streams in the Chicago area, said Samuel V. Panno, an Illinois State Geological Survey researcher and lead author of the study.

“The research on this topic is at a very early stage, so I am not convinced we have a frame of reference to state expectations or bounds on what is considered low or high levels,” said Tim Hoellein, a biology professor at Loyola University Chicago and study co-author. “Our questions are still basic – how much is there and where is it coming from?”

The researchers identified a variety of household and personal health contaminants along with the microplastics, a hint that the fibers may have originated from household septic systems.

“Imagine how many thousands of polyester fibers find their way into a septic system from just doing a load of laundry,” Scott said. “Then consider the potential for those fluids to leak into the groundwater supply, especially in these types of aquifers where surface water interacts so readily with groundwater.”

There is still a monumental amount of work to be done on this subject, Scott said. He anticipates that microplastic contamination in both surface water and groundwater will be a problem for years to come.

“Even if we quit plastics cold turkey today, we will still deal with this issue for years because plastic never really goes away,” Scott said. “It is estimated that 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste have been produced since the 1940s, and 79 percent of that is now in landfills or the natural environment. To me, it is such a weird concept that these materials are intended for single use, yet they are designed to last forever.”

ISTC Senior Analytical Chemist John W Scott, front left, is joined in the labs at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana by co-author, ISGS researcher Sam Panno, far right, and fellow research team members, back row from left, Walt Kelly, Nancy Holm and Wei Zheng. Their research documents the presence of plastic microfiber contamination in fractured limestone aquifers. Photo by Fred Zwicky, University of Illinois News Bureau
ISTC Senior Analytical Chemist John W Scott, front left, is joined in the labs at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana by co-author, ISGS researcher Sam Panno, far right, and fellow research team members, back row from left, Walt Kelly, Nancy Holm and Wei Zheng. Their research documents the presence of plastic microfiber contamination in fractured limestone aquifers. Photo by Fred Zwicky, University of Illinois News Bureau

Walton R. Kelly of the Illinois State Water SurveyWei Zhang and Nancy Holm of ISTC;  Rachel E. McNeish of California State University, Bakersfield; Timothy J. Hoellein of Loyola University, Chicago; and Elizabeth L. Baranski of the League of Women Voters of Jo Daviess County also contributed to this research. The ISGS, ISWS and ISTC are part of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.

The League of Women Voters of Jo Daviess County, ISGS, ISWS, ISTC, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation supported this research.

U of I scientists pitch $40M carbon capture project for CWLP

Read the full story in the Springfield State Journal-Register.

A research center with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is looking for support from the Springfield City Council on a $40 million pilot project that would retrofit City Water, Light and Power’s newest power plant to capture carbon dioxide.

Kevin O’Brien, director of the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, presented their proposal to council members during Monday’s Utilities Committee meeting. The project would study whether the method of capturing carbon dioxide from CWLP’s emissions is effective and cost-efficient.

Northwestern releases comprehensive integrated solid waste management plan

Northwestern University has launched its first Integrated Solid Waste Management Plan (ISWMP) aimed at reducing waste and protecting the environment by taking a greener approach to waste management.

This Plan supports the University’s Strategic Sustainability Plan, which establishes objectives for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, reducing waste and fostering environmental and ethical stewardship. The ISWMP identifies strategies for meeting the University’s objective of diverting 50 percent of campus waste from landfills by 2020 and further outlines waste reduction opportunities.

The Plan will guide the University’s efforts to achieve its Resource Conservation program vision within Northwestern’s Strategic Sustainability Plan “to adopt sustainable procurement practices for materials, food and services and take a comprehensive approach to conserving resources and reducing and managing waste.”

The ISWMP provides Northwestern’s schools and departments the opportunity to support increased diversion and reduced costs.

The results of a 2017 waste audit, with input received from students, faculty and staff, informed the Plan, targeting reasonable strategies for waste reduction and diversion. The waste audit consisted of more than 9,000 pounds of trash sorted from 20 buildings across the Evanston and Chicago campuses into 21 categories.

“By learning specifically what is in our waste stream, we now have the information needed to improve education, inform waste reduction and reuse efforts and expand recycling opportunities,” said Julie Cahillane, Northwestern sustainability associate director.

The audit team used an activity zone approach to capture waste from buildings by use, such as administrative offices, student housing and multi-activity spaces. A study team and a group of volunteers from throughout the University sorted the waste. The Plan breaks down campus waste to show what is avoidable, currently recyclable, compostable, potentially recyclable and nonrecoverable. The data revealed that Northwestern could recycle, avoid or compost nearly 70 percent of waste generated on campus.

In addition to the waste audit, the study team gathered input from more than 80 participants through focus groups, one-on-one interviews and workshops conducted throughout the study period. Discussions shed light on the overall campus culture surrounding resource recovery, waste-related priorities and challenges. The feedback was used to develop actions for increased recycling and waste reduction.

Over the past 22 months, Northwestern partnered with the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) to conduct the audit, engage stakeholders and develop a plan that would address the campus waste characterization and our stakeholder concerns.

“ISTC brought a wealth of knowledge to this process,” Cahillane said. “Their attention to the specifics of our campus and community were critical to the success of this effort. Working with them was a great experience.”

“ISTC is honored to have been part of an integrated solid waste plan that prioritizes resource conservation by utilizing data, understanding local realities and building on institutional successes to realize goals,” said Shantanu Pai, assistant sustainability researcher.

To help reach Northwestern’s goal of 50 percent diversion by 2020, learn what can be recycled on campus, participate in waste reduction efforts and understand your individual impact.

Illinois Researchers Take Novel Approach to Removing PPCPs from Water

When you dump expired cold syrup or rinse out an almost empty bottle of lotion into the sink, do you ever consider what chemicals are being introduced into the water supply?

The increase of pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) entering public water systems was a problem that researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign challenged themselves to solve thanks to seed funding from the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE).

“PPCPs pose dangerous ecological and health effects on chronic exposure even if they are present in low concentrations,” said Dipanjan Pan, Associate Professor and the Director of Professional MS Program in Bioengineering. “We believe we have found a low-cost way to remove these harmful chemicals — and by making it biodegradable, we won’t be introducing any complications to wildlife.”

A team led by Pan collaborated with Wei Zheng, Senior Research Scientist at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC, a Division of the Prairie Research Institute), and B.K. Sharma, Senior Research Engineer at ISTC, to develop a unique technology to alter the harmful chemicals introduced to water. The results of their study were recently published in Journal of Materials Chemistry A.

Team members from Pan Laboratory created a “smart filter,” called a Pharmaceutical Nano-CarboScavenger (PNC), that efficiently and safely removes carbamazepine (found in medications treating a wide-range of physical and mental health issues), gemfibrozil (found in cholesterol medication), and triclocarban (an antibacterial agent found in soaps and lotions) from water. 

This filter is vastly different from your average water filter. It places activated charcoal and sand on top of the PNCs, which are carbon-filled cores made from agave. Water is allowed in, the activated charcoal removes heavy metals, the sand helps remove impurities and contaminants, and the PNCs scavenge through the water to remove the PPCP pollutants.

“A nanoengineered system that is based on an environmentally degradable system is a major and unmet need,” Zheng said. “The materials are derived from inexpensive natural sources and completely biodegradable, making this approach highly adaptable and environmentally friendly for mass processes.”

Other collaborators on the project: Indu Tripathi, former Postdoctoral Visiting Scholar in Bioengineering; Laurel K. Dodgen, former Illinois Postdoc and current Physical Scientist for the U.S. Department of the Interior; Fatemeh Ostadhossein, M.S. and Ph.D. Candidate in Bioengineering; Santosh Misra, former iSEE Postdoctoral Researcher in Bioengineering; and Enrique Daza, a recent Bioengineering Ph.D. graduate and an M.B.A. Candidate from Pan’s lab.

Backed by iSEE funding, Pan’s Nano-CarboScavenger team also has explored remediating crude oil spills in water and had successes in the lab at clumping oil globules that could be scooped by a fine net — again, with the particles completely biodegradable and having no effect on wildlife if consumed. Pan and his team have also explored possible cancer treatments using nanoparticles.

Illinois Sustainability Awards in the news

CLC wins state sustainability award, listing on two prestigious media outlets (Lake County News-Sun)

In recognition of its efforts to promote environmental sustainability, the College of Lake County recently has made the list of top two-year colleges in Sierra magazine and the Princeton Review. Additionally, CLC received Oct. 23 the Illinois Sustainability Award from the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Smart Energy Design Assistance Center honored with Illinois Sustainability Award (University of Illinois News Bureau)

The Smart Energy Design Assistance Center at Illinois was among the 27 winners of the Illinois Sustainability Award. Since 2004, SEDAC has been reducing the energy footprint of the state of Illinois through design assistance, outreach, research and education. Housed in the College of Fine and Applied Arts, SEDAC is a public-private partnership with 360 Energy Group.

CU Mass Transit District wins award for sustainable practices (Daily Illini)

The Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District was awarded the Sustainability Award for environmentally sustainable practices for the second time in five years.

Village receives 2018 Illinois Sustainability Award (Village of Hoffman Estates)

The Village of Hoffman Estates was honored for its sustainability efforts on Oct. 23, along with twenty-six other Illinois companies and organizations. The state-wide Illinois Sustainability Awards were presented by the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The winners were announced during a ceremony at the Union League Club in Chicago. The Village previously received the award in 2011 and received an honorable mention in 2014.

Nicor Gas Emerging Technology Program Receives Sustainability Award (Nicor Gas)

Nicor Gas’ Emerging Technology Program (ETP) is the recipient of the 2018 Illinois Sustainability Award for its efforts to implement innovative and sustainable technologies and its demonstrated commitment to sustaining environmental, social and economic health. The ETP, a part of energySMART, Nicor Gas’ energy efficiency program, assesses promising new technologies that have the potential to generate natural gas savings. It is the only gas ETP program of its kind in Illinois and the largest in the Midwest.

IFB honored for NLRS activities (FarmWeek)

Hundreds of field days, workshops and webinars educating tens of thousands of individuals about sustainability resulted in the recognition of Illinois Farm Bureau as a winner of the 2018 Sustainability Award. The award, given by the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, honors IFB’s ongoing efforts to create awareness of, improve and implement environmental sustainability practices across the state.