After Hurricane Florence devastated parts of North and South Carolina in September, current and former NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) grantees hit the ground running to test for pollution. As soon as they could reach areas affected by severe flooding, SRP researchers teamed up to take air, soil, and water samples in an effort to characterize contaminants that might be present, including concentrations and likely sources.
“With tens of thousands of homes damaged, it is likely that the storm also damaged industrial facilities and waste sites, increasing the potential risk for exposure to harmful pollution,” said Elena Craft, Ph.D., a senior director at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).
Craft is a former Duke University SRP Center trainee and winner of the 2002 SRP Wetterhahn Award. She coordinates the sampling team, which consists of researchers from SRP centers at Duke and Texas A&M University, as well as SRP small business grantee Entanglement Technologies.
After the first few days of testing, the team was happy to report that they did not detect dangerous levels of benzene, trichloroethylene (TCE), mercury, perfluorooctanoic acid, and other specific contaminants. They sampled air, soil, and water at locations in North Carolina, including around Fayetteville, Wilmington, Lumberton, and Maxton. As they continue their work, the researchers are looking for additional contaminants around the Neuse River basin.
“Because of the hog farming and the other types of agriculture, especially in the Neuse River watershed, we’re going to be looking for signatures of agriculture,” said Lee Ferguson, Ph.D., an associate professor of environmental chemistry at Duke and member of the Duke SRP Center. “For example, pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, and other kinds of contaminants might be associated with hog farming or other intensive agriculture.”
Combining SRP expertise
Gaston Casillas, a trainee from Texas A&M University SRP Center(https://tools.niehs.nih.gov/srp/programs/Program_detail.cfm?Project_ID=P42ES027704), worked on the response team. Texas A&M researchers plan to compare samples taken after Hurricane Harvey in Houston — an area widely known to be affected by chemical manufacturing and other industrial facilities — with those taken in rural North Carolina.
“In participating in responses to these events, we can truly put our basic research and development of our sampling methods, analysis methods, and communication methods to the test,” Casillas said.
Duke SRP Center researchers Ferguson and Abigail Joyce, Ph.D., collected floodwater samples along the Neuse River and some of its tributaries. Using these samples, the Duke SRP Center(https://tools.niehs.nih.gov/srp/programs/sbrp_Project_list.cfm?Project_ID=P42ES010356) Analytical Chemistry Core will conduct a nontargeted analysis on the samples.
That approach allows them to look for and measure multiple chemicals, without focusing on specific contaminants. Ferguson and Joyce were back out in the field conducting sampling at the same sites on October 10, after flooding receded.
To test for specific contaminants, researchers are using other cutting-edge tools. Entanglement Technologies(https://tools.niehs.nih.gov/srp/programs/Program_detail.cfm?Project_ID=R44ES022538) CEO Tony Miller, Ph.D., is sampling volatile organic contaminants, including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, and TCE, in air and floodwaters using a mobile unit.
The team is testing for mercury in the soil and water with a sensor that uses a nanotechnology-based sensor that is made by Picoyune(https://tools.niehs.nih.gov/srp/programs/Program_detail.cfm?Project_ID=R44ES023729), another SRP small business grantee.
(Sara Amolegbe is a research and communication specialist for MDB Inc., a contractor for the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training.)