What’s in my Water?!

By Danielle Deardorff


Imagine you just finished working in the garden with the hot summer sun beating on you for hours. You are very parched and go inside to pour yourself a glass of water from the tap. When you turn the faucet knob, brownish green slime fills the glass. Would you drink it? Of course not!

Unfortunately, it is not always as apparent that your drinking water has been contaminated. Many water contaminants exist in such small concentrations that you cannot tell that they are there by simply looking at a glass of water. You might be thinking if these things are in such low concentrations then they must not be harmful. Scientists are still unsure of the long term effects of these contaminants.

Our drinking water comes from two different sources. Groundwater makes up about forty percent of America’s drinking water. This is basically collected rainwater that has been stored underground. The other sixty percent of America’s water is provided from lakes and rivers.

About half of our freshwater sources are so badly polluted that they are unfit for swimming and fishing. These bodies of water have been contaminated with waste, fertilizer, and other toxic chemicals. We are polluting and limiting our own drinking water that we need to survive.

Do not lose hope just yet! You can help by educating yourself on how to properly dispose of waste and cleaning up what you can see. I am going to share with you some of the specific contaminants being studied and how we plan to get rid of them.

I am studying a wide variety of pharmaceuticals and personal care products. We use these products daily without thought. Our bodies do not absorb the entire product, so we excrete or throw out what we do not need.

These water contaminants are affecting the environment and our health. The chemicals used to make these products are harmful and toxic. The low concentrations of these pharmaceuticals and personal care products are killing aquatic life and affecting their reproductive biology.

I have been reading scientific literature to learn more about specific contaminants that are in pharmaceuticals and personal care products.  The readings have given me a better understanding of their concentrations in our water, and how they are impacting the environment and our health. I am researching amlodipine, beta-estradiol, 4-propylphenol, atorvastatin calcium and sulfamethoxazole. These compounds have been detected in our water sources.

Amlodipine is used to treat high blood pressure. Beta-estradiol is an estrogen hormone. 4-Propylphenol is a food flavoring additive. Atorvastatin calcium is used to treat high cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Sulfamethoxazole is an antibiotic used to treat infections.

My research includes characterizing these contaminants by using ultraviolet and visual light spectroscopy. The diagram above shows how this type of spectrometer works. The light travels through the lens and then to the monochromator which  diffracts the beams of light into different wavelengths. The beam of light  goes through the sample and the detector senses what wavelengths were absorbed by the sample. Ultraviolet and visual light spectroscopy is used to determine the amount of light being absorbed based on the concentration of a sample. Each contaminant absorbs different wavelengths of light.

Another way to characterize these contaminants is by using fluorescence spectroscopy. This type of spectroscopy measures the amount of light emitted by a sample. A light excites the electrons in the target compound, which then drop back down to a stable electronic state. In the process, the energy is released in the form of light. The intensity and the wavelength of light emitted depends on the concentration and type of contaminant.

These tools help us quantify and characterize some of the contaminants in our water. With further research, we will know the long term effects of these contaminants on our health and on our environment.