• by Dr. Sarah Oktay, Director, University of Massachusetts Nantucket Field Station •
A few months ago I attended a water quality presentation up at the Massachusetts State House at the invitation of my friend and our most excellent Cape and island House Representative Tim Madden and island buddy Bob Patterson. The subject was a new water quality initiative with students at the Cape Cod Community College launched by the non-profit group Water Defense http://waterdefense.org/. Founded by actor, director, and clean water advocate, Mark Ruffalo, Water Defense is a non-profit organization dedicated to clean water. From their website at www.waterdefense.org: “Our mission is to use technology and public engagement to keep our waterways and drinking water sources free from contamination and industrial degradation. We believe it is a fundamental human right for people to have access to clean water, as well as to know what’s in it. Water Defense utilizes state of the art Environmental Indicators to measure contamination and the accumulation of contaminants over time, which include but are not limited to oil and related chemicals and organometallic compounds. Our water testing methods are the first line of defense in protecting clean water sources.”
I was pleasantly surprised at how knowledgeable Mr. Ruffalo and the Water Defense team, including Executive Director John Pratt and Chief Scientist Scott Smith, were about water quality issues and source functions, in situ (in place) water testing, and environmental impacts. Their passion and dedication to responding quickly to environmental disasters and their need to get information out to the public quickly impressed me. As a chemical oceanographer with over twenty years of experience (starting at the age of twelve of course) in trace metal, radioisotope, and carbon tracking chemistry in natural systems, I also was naturally curious as to whether their methods were reliable and viable. If CeeLo Green was writing this he’d throw in “undeniable, classifiable, and verifiable” and make this article sound not only cooler but even more scientific. Fortunately, this is a serious group that wants to make a difference by engaging and enabling people to find out what is in their water and helping them remediate or remove these toxins.
Water Defense specifically concentrates on tracking leftover oil and contaminants from oil spills, oil related accidents, and fracking operations around the U.S. Scott Smith started deploying his company’s (http://www.opflex.com/) open cell foam boom material at these sites to see if it could sequester (collect and entrain) oil pollutants. One design uses an artificial eelgrass structure to effectively mimic high surface area materials in nature http://www.opflex.com/index.php/opflex-foam/eelgrass-mops.) This is a type of biomimicry (http://yesterdaysisland.com/biomimicry/). The open cell nature of this foam means that it has tons of sponge-like holes that are formed haphazardly, giving the material a surface area of two square feet for every cubic inch of material. The material is naturally “biophilic” or organic loving and is in effect hydrophobic, which means it attracts organically bound contaminants while releasing or repelling water. It also is relatively inert, and a “green material” with a low carbon footprint and the ability to attract particle reactive materials. Opflex is a petrochemical, like many plastics, so in essence we are fighting fire with fire. OPFLEX materials are much lighter than traditional oil boom material and able to absorb up to 30 times their weight in oil. We are investigating whether they can be used to collect other organic contaminants like pesticides, paints, or construction and cleaning chemicals.
There are two problems that Water Defense and Scott and Mark are trying to address with this new technology. One is that many water sampling groups can only afford to do “snap-shot” type water testing, taking grab samples via trained volunteers at the surface of a pond, lake, bay or river. Often they don’t have the means to do water column testing which requires that special sampling containers called Niskin, Beta, or Van Dorn bottles are used. When researchers want to take a sample of seawater from within the water column they often use a relatively simple device called a Niskin Bottle that can be opened at both ends. The open bottle is lowered into the ocean (or into a pond or bay) on a wire from a boat until it reaches a certain depth and then the bottle is closed by a weighted trigger (called a “messenger”) that is sent down the cable from the surface. My students and I use these in the harbor and in some of our ponds and are able to deploy them from small boats. Although oceanographers and limnologists (those who study freshwater systems) usually take samples from multiple depths and from the sediment too, it is often not possible or affordable for municipalities, civic associations, and citizen science groups who do the lion’s share of water testing in this country to follow suit.
The second issue is that most testing is episodic and only records the instantaneous concentration of pollutant. Fish, shellfish, plants, and other biota spend their whole lives in water and they bioaccumulate toxins, storing them up in either their muscles, brain, fatty tissues or reproductive organs depending on the type of contaminant ( heavy metals, pesticides, PCBs etc. all have different affinities for different parts of the body). Land based creatures drinking water and eating potentially contaminated animals or plants also sequester materials within their bodies, building up higher levels of toxins over time. When I did research on radioactive iodine around the world I used Spanish moss as a biophilic organic atmospheric sampling device that could passively scavenge iodine from the air as it grew, even epiphytes like moss are not immune from natural or manmade elements in the air. Long term cumulative testing is often expensive and involves either 1) using live animals from oysters to marine mammals as reservoirs that must have tissue samples extracted to test for contaminants or 2) installing equipment that sample water bodies frequently over time. As we mentioned above, live animals concentrate metals and chemicals in various parts of the body and keep some things in their tissues while excreting or breaking down other compound. As a result it takes a fair amount of detective work to figure out how they ended up with x amount of y in their bodies. Underwater sampling “robots” and devices are finicky and expensive and they require maintenance and underwater chemical use too that can be a big pain in the gas chromatograph if you get my drift.
This is where materials like Opflex can be helpful in addition to its use as a media for absorbing oil. The Opflex material can be deployed on moorings, docks, in ponds and along shorelines to passively filter water; individual sections can be removed from the eelgrass mops and sampled over time for gas derivatives, organic pollutants such as pesticides and particle reactive molecules like phosphate who can’t pass by a substrate without wanting to join the party. This material could be placed in filters to extract contaminants from the water column. If you have ever run an aquarium, you will recall that you use a lot of different substances for filtration like charcoal for organic matter, cation exchange columns for metals and biological bacteria present on the surface of bioballs to remove hydrophobic stuff.
The Opflex material is relatively innocuous and inert and easy to deploy by untrained personnel. Here on Nantucket at the UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station, we are evaluating the Opflex material in natural systems by deploying it in different water bodies around the island to see if we can measure specific contaminates of concern (CECs). We want to understand what it records in pure water (intrinsic background levels), what its detection limits are and how it holds up in real world environments. We will also be retrieving and testing it throughout the season to evaluate its effectiveness as a time capsule for long term sampling. Evaluating long term chemical burdens can help us understand what scallops or fish or osprey may be dealing with as well as what types of issues (or non issues) humans may encounter. Toxic chemicals can have sudden or acute effects or long term chronic effects. Starting in a controlled environment such as Nantucket with no industry and identifiable sources of contaminants makes it much easier to apply these tools worldwide.
Come see for yourself this Saturday June 28th at 10:00 am at the Nantucket Field Station at 180 Polpis Road. You can meet Mark Ruffalo and the rest of his team, hear about recent Cape and Island testing results, and see a demonstration of how Opflex’s material can be used as a long term water sampler. We will have a short press conference from 10-11 am; feel free to email me at email@example.com for more information. I hope you can also catch the Nantucket Film Festival’s Spotlight Film, Begin Again, starring Keira Knightley, Adam Levine and Mark Ruffalo and written and directed by John Carney at the Dreamland’s Main Theatre at 12:45 pm. Come early to hear Mark Ruffalo introduce the film. Go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CwLuDO_Cxfc to see the trailer. Last but not least, please do your part to keep our water clean and our environment healthy.