KCRG-TV: EmCon 2014 Brings Together Scientists from Around the Globe at UI

Wednesday, August 20, 2014
By Brady Smith

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Scientists are gathering at the University of Iowa for an international conference on emerging contaminants. They’re looking at the effects of everyday products like shampoo, soap, and over-the-counter drugs on our environment, and how they get there.

“When we’re done with them, when we flush them down the toilet or wash them down the drain, they’re not gone,” said David Cwiertny, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa.

The U.S. Geological Survey found some of those compounds are hurting wildlife.

“We documented that there’s uptake, for example, of anti-depressants into fish brains, and really understanding what does that mean having those kinds of exposures?” said Dana Kolpin with the USGS. “Is it having behavioral effects, or chronic toxicity issues, and so forth.”

Although EmCon involves a broad selection of environmental groups like the USGS, the EPA, and the DNR, some of the research here is specific, like what happens to illegal drugs after they leave the body.

“We excrete them in forms that are still potentially available to cause some harm if they’re at high enough quantities,” Cwiertny said.

Many of the discussions here have to do with research on how those compounds break down in nature, and whether they do more or less damage in their new forms.

“Understanding once a compound gets into a stream, how long is it going to reside in the stream?” Kolpin added.

That’s part of ongoing research at wastewater treatment plants, like the one in Cedar Rapids, according to utilities director Steve Hershner.

“The main thing we’re learning now is the testing it takes to even be able to measure some of those contaminants,” Hershner explained, adding that they’re often so diluted, they’re nearly impossible to detect. But he said the goal is make them nonexistent.

“Managing that material when you dispose of it properly is the best thing we can do at all, to not even have it get to this facility.”

Hershner said there are medication take-back and drop-off campaigns hosted by many police departments and pharmacies.