News > News > Water Quality > Study finds diverse set of pharmaceuticals and other ‘micropollutants’ in Hudson River Estuary

Study finds diverse set of pharmaceuticals and other ‘micropollutants’ in Hudson River Estuary

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Carol Knudson of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Jennifer Epstein of Riverkeeper rig a bottle to a pole for sampling associated with “micropollutant” analysis by Cornell researchers. (Photo: Dan Shapley)
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Cornell scientists test for pesticides, pharmaceuticals and personal care products;
83 of 117 substances are detected

For Immediate Release: July 15, 2016

Contacts:
Leah Rae, Riverkeeper media specialist, (914) 478-4501, ext. 238, lrae@riverkeeper.org
Damian E. Helbling, assistant professor, Cornell University, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, (607) 255-5146, deh262@cornell.edu

Kingston, N.Y. – A first-of-its-kind study of the Hudson River Estuary has found a long and varied list of pharmaceuticals, pesticides and personal care products in the water – 83 out of 117 micropollutants targeted – ranging from the anti-depressant venlafaxine to the insect repellant DEET.

IMG_7076 (2)Two scientists from the Cornell University School of Civil and Environmental Engineering conducted the study in partnership with Riverkeeper, which conducts regular water quality monitoring at 74 locations in the estuary. The Cornell scientists analyzed 24 water samples drawn from eight of the 74 locations, between the Mohawk River’s confluence with the Hudson and the Tappan Zee Bridge. The samples were collected in June, July, September and October of 2015.

Pharmaceuticals, personal care products and pesticides are often called ‘micropollutants’ because they are present at low concentrations, typically at micro to nanogram per liter levels. To provide a rough comparison, concentrations measured in the Hudson were on the order of one aspirin tablet dissolved in an olympic-sized swimming pool.

These chemicals in the water may affect aquatic life even at these low concentrations. For example, some chemicals are known to inhibit photosynthesis in algae or disrupt the nervous system of aquatic organisms. Other chemicals may impair the reproduction of fish. These processes can have cascading effects through food chains and ecosystems. The effects of many of these chemicals on human health are largely unknown, and relatively little data exist to characterize their presence in most waters, including the Hudson River.

Damian E. Helbling, one of the authors, from the Cornell University School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, said: “The results of this study are not surprising. We use chemicals in nearly every facet of our daily lives. The fact is, many of the chemicals we use are excreted in toilets, washed down the drain, or transported by rainfall from urban or agricultural landscapes.”

“These are compounds the public often asks about as we patrol the river and gather water samples: ‘What about pesticides? What about pharmaceuticals? What about personal care products?’” said Dan Shapley, Riverkeeper Water Quality Program Manager. “And they’re right to ask, because we know that these are important, but largely undocumented categories of pollution that could have impacts on aquatic life or human health. This study gives us some important baseline information.”

Helbling added: “It is essential to understand the occurrence of these chemicals in an important water body like the Hudson River. We’re interested in further study to identify sources of these micropollutants and to prevent their occurrence or mitigate their effects.”

“Recent events in New York and elsewhere have highlighted the need for continued diligence to assessing and protecting surface and ground water quality,” said Todd Walter, director of Cornell Water Resources Institute, which provided funding for the project. “The New York State Water Resources Institute (WRI) is committed to supporting and engaging in research like this that advances our ability to identify and address micropollutants in our state’s waters.”

Among the findings:

• 83 micropollutants were detected in at least one of the 24 samples, including 20 pesticides and 50 pharmaceuticals.

• Eight micropollutants were present in all of the samples: atenolol (beta blocker), atenolol acid (metabolite of atenolol), velafaxine (anti-depressant), caffeine (stimulant), paraxanthine (metabolite of caffeine), sucralose (artificial sweetener), methyl benzotriazole (an industrial chemical), and DEET (insect repellant).

• The samples taken near wastewater treatment plant outfalls showed higher numbers of pharmaceuticals. This highlights the importance of sewage outfalls as a source of certain micropollutants in the estuary.

• Overall, the diversity and concentration of micropollutants in the Hudson were similar to those observed in other large surface water systems around the world.

The study was the first comprehensive survey of micropollutants in the Hudson River Estuary and will assist in developing future research on this type of pollution and the related environmental risk. Further sampling in 2016 will seek to determine whether and how tributaries may act as sources of micropollutants, in comparison with sewage treatment plant outfalls on the river.

Riverkeeper provided support for the research through coordination with its water quality monitoring program, which tests primarily for the fecal indicator bacteria Enterococcus. Samples are collected from the Riverkeeper patrol boat at 74 locations along the Hudson and from community science partners at hundreds of other locations along the tributaries and the New York City shoreline. The data is publicly available and posted on interactive maps at riverkeeper.org/water-quality.

Further funding was provided by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Hudson River Estuary Program, with support from the New York State Environmental Protection Fund.

Read the study:

Target Screening for Micropollutants in the Hudson River Estuary

See a Facebook Live video of the news conference, July 15 in Kingston:

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Carol Knudson of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Jennifer Epstein of Riverkeeper rig a bottle to a pole for sampling associated with “micropollutant” analysis by Cornell researchers. (Photo: Dan Shapley)

Carol Knudson of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Jennifer Epstein of Riverkeeper rig a bottle to a pole for sampling associated with “micropollutant” analysis by Cornell researchers. (Photo: Dan Shapley)

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