PULLMAN – A group of WSU researchers has received a $350,000 grant from the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust to better understand the effects of contaminated lake and river sediments on human and ecological health.
 
Led by Jeffrey L. Ullman, assistant professor in Biological Systems Engineering, the grant establishes the Sediment Analysis Laboratory to carefully identify and measure pollutants, including heavy metals and organic compounds. The researchers will also be looking at microbial-contaminant interactions and pollutant impacts on fish and wildlife.
 
“Depending on the chemicals, interactions can result in synergistic, additive or antagonistic effects,’’ said Ullman.
 
The researchers hope that the work will lead to better understanding of where contaminants may persist in waterways, characterization of potential health effects and improved remediation strategies.
 
“With its high levels of contaminants in waterways, this work is particularly relevant to the Pacific Northwest,’’ said Ullman.
 
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more than 80 percent of sediments in the Pacific Northwest are contaminated, posing potential health risks to humans and animals. To clean up such sediments, engineers typically either dredge them or cap them with fairly impermeable clay. Dredging can be expensive and can actually increase exposure to contaminants when sediments are stirred up. Capping the contaminants can also be problematic when the cap is disturbed and contaminants are released.
 
Limited research has been conducted on the potential health risks associated with contaminated sediments.  Isolating the individual and cumulative effects of the numerous contaminants found in sediments is difficult, particularly since the contaminants are resting at the bottom of lakes and streams.  Consequently, the work is highly interdisciplinary, involving environmental chemistry, ecology, modeling, aquatic toxicology and engineering.
 
The grant supports the purchase of a suite of state-of-the-art analytical equipment. An inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer (ICP-MS) connected to both a liquid chromatograph (LC) and a gas chromatograph (GC) represents one of only five such systems in the country that can effectively identify different forms of metals and organo-metal compounds.
 
The ability to investigate trace organic contaminants that can interfere with animal reproduction and development will be enhanced by the acquisition of exceptional liquid chromatography – tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS) capabilities. Finally, analysis of organic contaminants will be further improved by the addition of a newly released gas chromatograph – mass spectrometer (GC-MS) model. This funding builds upon on-going grants the researchers have received designed to improve sediment clean-up to improve fish habitat.
 
 “With this grant, we are positioned to be national leaders in research on contaminated sediments,’’ said Candis Claiborn, dean of the College of Engineering and Architecture. “This new laboratory elevates our analytical capabilities and research in this important area and significantly enhances our research program.’’