Clean That Dirty Water
The art and science of removing trace pharmaceuticals from water supplies
It’s a quiet but nasty and growing problem: the contamination of our nation’s drinking water by over-the-counter and prescription drugs. But now, with the help of some equipment donated by a famously generous alumnus, UMass Amherst scientists are confirming the extent of the problem and helping to find solutions.
David Reckhow, professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Kathleen Arcaro, associate professor of veterinary and animal sciences, head the initiative. One of their key assets is a highly sensitive, $350,000 liquid chromatograph mass spectrometer donated by Waters Corporation of Milford. That company’s president and CEO, Douglas Berthiaume ’71, is among the most generous donors in UMass Amherst history and has long seen to it that campus laboratories are stocked with Waters equipment.
The new instrument allows Reckhow and Arcaro to quickly detect minute traces of contaminants. “This equipment was the missing piece for us,” says Reckhow. “Now we can complete this project and provide much-needed information about these new concerns.”
Concern about water safety was elevated in the spring of 2008, when confirmed levels of antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers, and sex hormones were reported in the water supplies of 24 major metropolitan areas. In the summer of 2008, working with graduate students, Reckhow and Arcaro began field-testing water supplies at a dozen sites across the country, including reservoirs, underground water, and rivers in urban and rural areas. The sites represent typical U.S. water sources, giving national significance to the research findings. After completing their analysis the researchers will recommend treatment methods to eliminate the drugs.
Funded by the Water Research Foundation and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, the project is expected to take approximately 18 months. “This collaboration will bring a lot of visibility to UMass Amherst,” Reckhow says, “but more importantly it will put us in the forefront of keeping water safe for our citizens.”