Environmental Pollution – Are We All Doomed?

Have you ever stopped to enjoy a bright, vibrant sunset, only to have that really annoying friend interrupt your thoughts with a comment like “you know you’re just looking at all the pollution in the air, right?”

I used to wonder how someone could focus on pollution while looking at a stunning landscape, but it’s becoming a topic that more and more people are thinking about.

In fact, the results of Chapman University’s Survey of American Fears demonstrate that these thoughts are crossing the minds of more and more of us.  Each year, Chapman University randomly polls roughly 1,000 adults in the United States about what their greatest fears are.  To help them generate data that can be graphed and reviewed for trends, they ask participants to view 100 pre-selected items and rank them in order of how fearful each one makes them.  This produces results that can be grouped into categories like:

  • Government (government corruption, affordable health care)
  • Economic (social security funding, running out of money during retirement, crippling medical bills)
  • Crime (identity theft, credit card fraud)
  • Man-made Disasters (terrorist attacks, use of nuclear weapons)

In 2017, Chapman University had to publish a new category in the survey’s top ten results – Environment.  In 2017, 4 out of the top 10 responses were categorized as being environmental and by 2018, that category claimed 5 out of the top 10 responses.  People are still quite concerned about government corruption and having medical bills they can’t afford, but they’re becoming equally fearful of things like water pollution, air pollution and global warming/climate change.

I remember when environmental pollution was something I talked about and occasionally heard a news story about.  Now it’s something I hear about constantly and can see for myself.  Environmental pollution is hitting closer to home and it’s making me question the safety of things like my drinking water and my non-stick cookware.

It was only a few years ago that the prevalence of contaminated tap water in Flint, Michigan made news headlines.  The severity of the lead contamination and the resulting health effects caused cities and towns across the nation to examine their water, with a lot of emphasis being placed on the tap water in places where children are likely to drink it – like schools and daycare centers.

Plastic pollution is another topic that hit news headlines several years ago and stories were published with heartbreaking images of aquatic animals being injured or killed after being entangled in or ingesting plastic that had found its way into the ocean.  Based on the data that’s already been collected, estimates are being calculated to determine how quickly the weight of plastic in the ocean will be greater than (or at least equal to) the weight of all the fish living in those same ocean waters.  That’s a bit scary to think about!

Microplastics became a focal point, right around the same time that plastic pollution started being reported and monitored.  Technically, microplastic pollution is being included when you reference plastic pollution, but microplastics are a subset of plastics that are very small (a few millimeters in length, or less).  Microplastics aren’t a new thing – they’ve been added to things like household cleaners, beauty products and toothpastes for decades.  But their presence in our oceans and the negative impact on our health and the health of our aquatic life has been focused on in more recent years.  The harmful effects of microplastics are more subtle and potentially more damaging than those from larger plastics.  These small plastic pieces can be consumed by things like tiny zooplankton.  Then think about where zooplankton sits in the food chain.  And what if the species higher up in the food chain have ingested some microplastic on their own?  Now you’ve got tiny pieces of plastic that are accumulating up through the food chain.  By the time you reach the top of the food chain (which could be us!), there could be a handful of different species that have been affected.

Now, let’s not forget about one of the hottest emerging contaminants in the news today – PFAS compounds.  Perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) headlines have been reporting contamination in everything from the water we drink to the air we breathe – even the compostable bowls that restaurants like Chipotle and Sweetgreen use have been found to contain measurable levels of PFAS.  Of course, these chemicals have been around for a long time and have been heavily used in products like nonstick coatings for cookware, firefighting foams and water-repellant clothing, so we’re all watching the headlines and feeling affected by the health concerns that are being reported.

With just these few examples, it’s easy to see why environmental concerns are on people’s minds.  Regardless of where the contaminants come from, they eventually seem to end up in our water supply and we can’t properly remove them if we don’t know they’re there.  Download this infographic to see the journey water takes as it travels from source to faucet.

While prevention is the best way to prevent these contaminants from getting into our waters, detection is the best way to determine what to do with the ones that are already there.

Solid phase extraction is a great technique for separating many of these contaminants from water samples.  Once the compounds are separated from the rest of the water matrix, you can use techniques like GC/MS and LC/MS to quantify them.  If you set these techniques up properly, you can separate and quantify a whole range of organic compounds that could be in your water sample.  Literally hundreds of compounds could be quantified in a single sample.

So, I’ll admit that environmental pollution is scary when you think about its potential widespread effects on our health.  But I’m confident in the power of the techniques that have been developed to help us separate and quantify these contaminants.

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