UB scientists receive funding for Great Lakes pollution research

The projects — funded by the Great Lakes Research Consortium — explore important questions about the health of area waterways

Release Date: May 24, 2018

BUFFALO, N.Y. — How can public officials improve decision-making related to beach closures, and identify sources of bacterial pollution in Lake Erie?

How can treatment plants remove antidepressants from wastewater before it is discharged into local waterways?

Two scientific teams led or co-led by University at Buffalo researchers have received new funding through the Great Lakes Research Consortium to explore these questions, with the potential to improve the health of regional waters — one of Western New York’s most precious natural resources. SUNY Buffalo State is co-leading one of the projects.

The Great Lakes Research Consortium is a group of 18 colleges and universities in New York that are dedicated to collaborative research and education on the Great Lakes.

The two new projects — supported with a total of $50,000 — are among five proposals that will receive a total of over $111,000 from the consortium to address critical issues affecting waterways. Funding for the grants is provided through the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the New York State Environmental Protection Fund’s Ocean and Great Lakes Ecosystem Conservation Act program.

The two projects with UB leadership are:

Investigating the removal of antidepressants from wastewater

University at Buffalo chemical pollution expert Diana Aga.

Diana Aga

Grant funding: $25,000

Principal investigators: Diana Aga, PhD, Henry M. Woodburn Professor of Chemistry in the UB College of Arts and Sciences; Ning Dai, PhD, assistant professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering in the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; Alicia Pérez-Fuentetaja, PhD, a professor in the Department of Biology and Great Lakes Center at SUNY Buffalo State.

University at Buffalo wastewater expert Ning Dai.

Ning Dai

Project details: In 2017, scientists from UB, SUNY Buffalo State and partner institutions published research that revealed build-ups of antidepressants in the brains of fish common to the Great Lakes region. The drugs or their breakdown products, which are found in the urine of people who use them, enter rivers and lakes when the compounds are discharged from wastewater treatment plants, which do not adequately remove pharmaceuticals.

The new project funded by the Great Lakes Research Consortium will test how well innovative wastewater treatment techniques called advanced oxidation processes (AOPs) remove antidepressants from wastewater.

SUNY Buffalo State aquatic ecosystem expert Alicia Pérez-Fuentetaja.

Alicia Pérez-Fuentetaja

The project aims to identify effective AOPs that can successfully perform this task and that are easy to install in wastewater treatment plants. The scientists will also run laboratory experiments that compare the levels of antidepressant compounds and their breakdown products in the organs of fish living in water treated through AOPs and through conventional wastewater treatment methods.

In addition to Aga, Dai and Pérez-Fuentetaja, project collaborators include staff in the Erie County Division of Sewage Management and the New York Sea Grant and the Great Lakes Program at UB.

Identifying sources of bacterial pollution and improving water quality predictions at Lake Erie beaches

University at Buffalo Environmental and Water Resources Engineering expert Lauren Sassoubre.

Lauren Sassoubre

Grant funding: $25,000

Principal investigators: Lauren Sassoubre, PhD, and Zhenduo Zhu, PhD, both assistant professors of civil, structural and environmental engineering in the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Project details: Lake Erie beaches are a focal point of summer fun in Western New York, with swimming and fishing among popular activities. To protect public health, however, beaches must be closed when sewage system overflows or other sources of fecal pollution pose a potential risk to humans.

University at Buffalo Environmental and Water Resources Engineering expert Zhenduo Zhu.

Zhenduo Zhu

The new project funded by the Great Lakes Research Consortium aims to pinpoint where this pollution originates, with the goal of enhancing restoration efforts. The research could also improve decision-making related to beach closures.

During the summer of 2018, researchers will monitor water quality along Rush Creek, which flows into Lake Erie, and at several local beaches. The team will regularly measure levels of two types of bacteria — E. coli and Enterococcus species — that are associated with fecal waste. The scientists will also analyze water samples for bits of bacterial DNA that may help to identify where the microbes are coming from.

If the study is successful in pinpointing sources of fecal pollution in Lake Erie, the project could ultimately guide restoration efforts that improve the health of the lake and its beaches.

The data will also inform the development of better models that can be used to predict when water quality problems warrant a beach closure. Current models sometimes shut beaches down on days when E. coli concentrations end up being lower than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s criteria for closures. More accurate predictions could lead to fewer such discrepancies.

In addition to Sassoubre and Zhu, project collaborators include Chris Lowry, PhD, associate professor of geology in the UB College of Arts and Sciences, and staff in the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and the Erie County Department of Health.

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