Peg Van Patten, Connecticut Sea Grant
Mike Whitney, PhD and Penny Vlahos, PhD, Associate Professors of Marine Sciences at the University of Connecticut, are a physical and chemical oceanographer team—pollution detectives, really. Whitney studies the physics of coastal waters. Using observations and models, he tracks river plumes as they are transported and mixed through estuaries and onto the continental shelf. Vlahos seeks out organic compounds that are not the usual suspects, yet are found in our everyday lives in products such as pesticides and flame retardants. She has developed sampling and sensing tools to find evidence of these compounds in the air and water. She is particularly interested in perfluorinated compounds, (PFCs), the subject of the duo's Sea Grant-sponsored research project. PFCs are found in all sorts of places. They are extremely small molecules with a tightly packed structure that makes them resistant to water, grease, and other substances. Thus they have been used for non-stick cookware coatings such as Teflon, in food containers such as microwave popcorn bag lining, fire-fighting foam retardants, water-resistant clothing, carpets, and more.
The Housatonic River estuary as seen from the R/V Weicker during sampling for PFCs. Credit: Michael Whitney, UCONN
These products have seemingly miraculous properties—but that same resistance that makes them repel water, bacteria, and grease is what makes them persist in the environment without breaking down. Now we know that PFCs have travelled near and far around the globe. They are even found in Arctic polar bear tissue and in humans. So what? The problem is that these compounds can cause a range of health issues in animals, and one, PFOA, has been identified as causing cancer in humans. Many of the other types of PFCs have not been tested for their effects on animals or humans, although some have been linked to lower birth weight. Most are not regulated.
Vlahos and Whitney wondered if the sources of PFCs to coastal waters were clearly identifiable, or more diffuse. They suspected that wastewater treatment plants might be a major source of PFCs in the lower Housatonic River, which flows into Long Island Sound.
They sampled water and air at wastewater treatment facilities to determine whether they were a significant source, and where the pollutants would go. Somewhat to their surprise, Vlahos and Whitney found that plumes of effluent from the facilities only contributed about 10% of the PFCs. There clearly are larger sources upstream, but sadly, PFCs seemed to be ubiquitous in the air and water as well. The good news is that the concentrations in Long Island Sound, at least for now, are lower than those documented in other places. The model they developed shows where PFCs in the Housatonic River plume flow after entering Long Island Sound as the plume is transported and mixed by the tides and winds. To help cut down on PFCs, consumers can avoid products with PFCs and use alternatives.
For more information take a look at the National Institute of Health's Handout on PFCs and the Environmental Protection Agency's PFC Action Plan