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Micropollutants of Emerging Concern

Micropollutants are biological or chemical contaminants that make their way into ground and surface waters in trace quantities (at or below the microgram per liter level) as a result of human activities. These contaminants include a myriad of natural and synthetic organic compounds, many of which are labeled as “emerging” largely due to traditionally being unmonitored or unregulated in environmental samples. The manufacturing, use, and subsequent disposal of chemical substances including pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs), industrial chemicals (including per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)), cleaning detergents, steroid hormones, and pesticides, has led to their detection in treated water and in wastewater effluents. Similarly, heavy metals, such as lead (Pb), arsenic (As), cadmium (Cd), chromium (Cr), and others, have been found in the environments of children and in drinking water across the US. Source waters can also be contaminated with micropollutants that are biological in nature, such as viruses (see here and here) and protozoa, mycoplasms, and bacteria. Due to the potential of these contaminants to cause health, economic, and environmental impacts, they have become an issue of growing public concern. WRI is involved in conducting and funding research into the source, transport, and fate of micropollutants with the main focus on NYS water systems. 

Research Goals

  • Use national data and the literature to identify the major contributors and the possible environmental conditions of the formation of micropollutants in source waters.

  • Assist in the development and execution of a sampling plan to measure micropollutants of emerging concern.

  • Determine the degree of success of conventional water and wastewater treatment plants in removing micropollutants.

Outreach Goals

  • Create research summaries to effectively communicate the findings of WRI work to local communities, municipalities, and state and local government agencies. This can be in the form of resource lists (e.g., see here), fact sheets (e.g., see here), and short communications (e.g., see here).

  • Synthesize the research findings on micropollutants in NYS to create an ArcGIS StoryMap (see examples here, and here) that can be presented to the staff of state and federal agencies. This can be used to: 1) create an effective means of outreach on topics of great concern (e.g., lead, PFAS, and 1,4-dioxane in water) to stakeholders; 2) justify the potential upgrade of aging water and wastewater treatment plants across the state; and 3) incentivize agricultural and industrial businesses to move towards environmentally sustainable management practices.

Select Projects & Publications

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Staying Ahead of the Curve: Wastewater Surveillance for Monitoring COVID-19 Outbreaks in New York State

Sep 25, 2020

One method for community level monitoring of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus causing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is wastewater surveillance – a powerful and relatively inexpensive informational tool that can provide data on how the virus is circulating within a community. This short communication explores the possibilities and limitations of wastewater surveillance for SARS-CoV-2.

Using multivariate analysis and USGS stream gage data to improve source tracking of micropollutants in the Hudson River Estuary

Apr 1, 2017

Damian Helbling, Cornell University. For a publication based on this work, read here