NASA grant enables U of O students to study river pollution

Release Date: 3/18/2011

If you thought the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was only interested in sending people into outer space, you would be wrong.

“NASA is also interested in learning more about how human development affects the environment,” says senior Biology major Hannah Oakes. “They have an entire institute in Maryland that works on natural resources.”

As a result of this interest, and a grant acquired last semester with the help of Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Sean Coleman and Associate Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies Dr. Jesse Weiss, a handful of Ozarks students led by Oakes are studying hormone levels (primarily two forms of estrogen) and Triclosan levels (an antibacterial and antifungal agent) in the White and Buffalo rivers in Arkansas.

Biology major Hannah Oakes tests water samples taken from the White and Buffalo rivers.

Senior Biology major Hannah Oakes tests water samples taken from the White and Buffalo rivers. Oakes is part of a team of students examining both rivers for pollutants. Their project is funded by a grant from NASA.

“Estrogen and Triclosan are both disrupting compounds in the environment.” Oakes said. “Estrogen leads to feminization or hemaphoridism in fish and wildlife. Sometimes feminization is natural due to defects in species maturing, but with increased estrogen you’ve got increased feminization. The use of Triclosan in household antibacterial products introduces the chemical to surface waters where its presence can cause bacteria to form immunity to it. You don’t want bacteria that’s immune to the products you’re using to fight them. Mostly these pollutants are from either  pharmaceuticals or personal care products.”

As Dr. Coleman explained, the students want to see if residential and commercial development on the White River has resulted in higher levels of estrogen or Triclosan, when compared to the levels of the compounds in the relatively undeveloped Buffalo.  The study will also attempt to determine what effect these compounds have had on fecal coliform bacteria numbers and resistance profile.  They hope that it will eventually lead to further studies measuring the amount of estrogen in fish species found in these waterways.  

Oakes said that testing for hormone levels in waterways is a common practice in some parts of the country.  But what makes this project different is the comparison of two rivers, one of which has been protected, and one of which is heavily developed. Oakes said their plan is to sample the headwaters of both rivers. “For the White River, we'll collect samples at Elkins or near Fayetteville, and where it’s dammed at Eureka Springs.  We'll also take samples at Buffalo City, where the White and Buffalo meet,” she added.  “For the Buffalo River, we'll be sampling near Boxely Valley.”

The project is a collaborative effort between the university's sociology and environmental science programs. “Megan Fincannon will be running the environmental studies part of it,” Oakes said. “Her plan is to do a survey of residents in the test areas to find out amounts of products they use which contribute to the pollution. Tyler Bazyk will be testing the samples to determine the different types of organisms which can survive in the water. I will be testing for resistance to commonly used chemical pollutants containing estrogen. Freshmen students Katie Klepfer, Nitza Vara, and Emily Toombs will be helping us with sampling, which will include lots of travel and learning the testing protocols for the project.”

Sampling began earlier in the spring, and the group has already begun their analysis, using ELISA testing assays, antibiotic resistance testing, and multiplex PCR organism identification.  “We have several presentations coming up at local high schools,” says Oakes, “and we are presenting at the NASA conference and the Tri-Beta Regional conference in April. Fortunately the tests aren’t too time consuming.”

Oakes praised Dr. Coleman for his help in getting the project going. “He’s the mastermind who got us that money. The idea for this project originally started with Brooks Fiser, a senior from last year. He did a project testing for E. coli in the Buffalo and White rivers. His project wasn’t funded, but through his research, Dr. Coleman and Dr. Weiss were able to get our funding.”

She hopes later students will be able to do further work with their results, for example testing fish tissue directly. “These projects build on one another,” she said. “We all learn from what people have done before.”