Research Finds Drugs in Lake Michigan, Miles from Shore

Feb. 26, 2014 UW Wednesday Nite @ the Lab talk about the research – Video


With their large size and water volume, it’s long been assumed by researchers that the Great Lakes would dilute compounds that flow into them from sewage outfalls.

But research recently published in the journal Chemosphere by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences and the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene (WSLH) shows that pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) are contaminating Lake Michigan two miles offshore from Milwaukee, indicating a potential threat to the health of the Great Lakes, particularly near shore aquatic organisms.

The research also was written about in Environmental Health News.

The overall research project was led by Dr. Rebecca Klaper, an associate professor at the UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences. At the WSLH, Research Scientist Dr. Curtis Hedman, Advanced Microbiologist Archie (Alan) Degnan and three UW-Madison students – Steven Quinlan, Nicole Nicksic and Yajaira Pluess – performed testing and provided analysis of the water samples.

Below is a quick Q&A with Dr. Hedman about the study and the WSLH’s role in PPCP research.

What surprised you or didn’t surprise you about the study results?

The biggest surprise in the study results was the presence of PPCPs in concentrations that are estimated to cause environmental concern for aquatic organisms 3.2 km into Lake Michigan. The previous consensus was that large lake dilution effects would render these compounds innocuous.

A question people often ask about this type of research is “So what? You found stuff in the water. How does that affect me?” Is there a way to answer that question with this research or are further studies needed?

Protecting aquatic organisms is important in that even a subtle change in the behavior or survival of one aquatic population can cause large scale problems or even collapse of an ecosystem. These aquatic organisms are also considered ‘sentinels’ for eventual human health effects if contaminant levels continue to occur and potentially rise, unchecked.

The WSLH has been involved in PPCP research before. Was this project similar to others or different?

The WSLH has performed PPCP and hormone analysis for other research projects in the past, but the analysis was focused upon groundwater and small streams and lakes. This was the first time that this type of monitoring was performed on Lake Michigan by the WSLH.

How did the WSLH become involved in the project? Are there plans for further research about PPCPs in Lake Michigan and will the WSLH be involved?

Dr. Rebecca Klaper became aware of the WSLH Environmental Health Division’s testing capabilities for PPCPs and hormones through previous WSLH collaborations with her colleagues at UW-Milwaukee’s Center for Great Lakes Studies. Researchers from Dr. Klaper’s lab continue to collaborate with the WSLH on projects related to this work. We are currently testing different wastewater treatment techniques to improve sequestration and breakdown of these compounds prior to their release to the environment. Our hope is that the Lake Michigan findings published in Chemosphere may raise awareness and result in additional funding to continue Great Lakes monitoring for these compounds.

Specifically, what type of analytical testing work did the WSLH perform?

The WSLH performed the analysis of these samples by methods based upon US EPA Method 1694 (Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products in Water, Soil, Sediment, and Biosolids) and US EPA Method 1698 (Steroids and Hormones in Water, Soil, Sediment, and Biosolids). Dr. Klaper’s research group performed the sample collections on Lake Michigan using the research vessel Neeskay. Sample preparation procedures were performed both at WSLH and at the UW-Milwaukee Center for Great Lakes Studies (also known as the Wisconsin Aquatic Technology and Environmental Research (WATER) Institute).