News Feature | April 2, 2015

Young Scientist Probes Drugs In Water

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Young people, who are sure to inherit the world's water problems, may also be the ones to solve some of them.

At a recent science fair in Montana, students displayed their water technology know-how — and even the experts were impressed.

Brenna DeMarois, a junior at Sentinel High School in Missoula, was one of the standouts, according to the Montana Standard. She examined the challenging issue of pharmaceuticals seeping into the water supply.

“It pertains to what’s going on in the environment now,” DeMarois said, per the report. “Wastewater treatment plants don’t have to test or monitor the amount of contamination in water.”

Her experiment focused on a plant in Missoula. "Her hypothesis tested the amount of caffeine, Aspirin, estrogen, acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) and pseudoephedrine (like Claritin) following a three-stage algae treatment at a Missoula water treatment plant," the report said.

The findings?

"Turns out, the amount of those pharmaceuticals proved to be significantly less in quantity following algae treatment — just as DeMarois predicted," according to the report.

She approved of the plant's practices, urging others towns to invest in similar technologies.

“The technology is amazing because algae will eat just about anything,” DeMarois said, per the report. “That plant is doing everything they need to do. It shows that water going through the spectrometer machine has very low levels of pharmaceuticals.”

For decades, tech experts and scientists have been drawn to innovations that use algae to improve the wastewater treatment process.

"The research of cultivation of algae...for wastewater treatment was conducted as early as the 1950s, and the symbiotic algal-bacterial relationship in waste stabilization ponds was first proposed in which algae were used as tiny aeration devices to provide large amounts of Oxygen (O2) through photosynthesis for aerobic bacteria to oxidize and degrade the organic compounds in wastewaters while heterotrophic bacteria concomitantly release CO2 and the nutrients needed by microalgae during photosynthesis," according to researchers at the University of Minnesota.

PPCPs are currently unregulated, but they are being tracked by the EPA’s radar via the Third Contaminant Candidate List (CCL3) and the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR). These are "precursors to possible regulatory action," Water Online previously reported.

According to the EPA, "to date, scientists have found no evidence of adverse human health effects from pharmaceuticals and personal care products as pollutants (PPCPs) in the environment."