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The Impacts of Pharmaceuticals in a Temperate Stream Dominated By Wastewater Effluent

Each year, the Iowa Water Center (IWC) offers two grant research competitions for the water community, with one being restricted to Iowa while the other is open to nationwide projects.

One of the national projects that we [IWC] have funded is centered around the ecological impacts of pharmaceuticals in effluent-dominated streams. The primary investigator of this project is Gregory LeFevre, with assistance from graduate student Hui Zhi.

This has been an ongoing project for multiple years, with the first year of earning the grant being 2017. You can read their initial abstract from 2017 here. This research project was also recently published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, which you can read here.

Over two years, the team measured and monitored the spatiotemporal, or the dynamic of changes in space and time, of the levels of different pharmaceutical compounds in the wastewater treatment plant that is nearby North Liberty, Iowa. After gathering the necessary data, they then analyzed the information to figure out exactly what occurred when the pharmaceuticals entered the effluent-dominated stream.

“Most of the time, people think about effluent dominated streams being in a dry region,” explained LeFevre, “but they’re actually much more common than people would expect in temperate regions.”

North Liberty is considered a medium sized community, with relatively small streams, which is quite common to find in temperate regions of the United States. LeFevre explained that this can change the dynamic of the chemicals in the stream, which is what inspired the goal behind this project.

The main objective when this project was initially coming to life was to understand how chemical mixtures occur, but then also how they change throughout time and space along the stream. The idea is to understand specifically what these mixtures are, how they evolve, and then connect those patterns with biological effects.

After collecting water samples from the stream, the team sent these samples to the School of Freshwater Sciences at UW-Milwaukee, where a co-investigator of this project, Rebecca Klaper, is the Director of the Great Lakes Genomics Center. Klaper and her team, consisting of Dana Kolpin and Luke Iwanowicz, added these water samples to laboratory raised fish in order to test the effects that the water had, or didn’t have, on the fish at the genetic level.

In addition to this investigation portion of the project, Klaper and her team also raised native fish in a laboratory, then caged and added them to the same stream for four days. After the four days, the fish were then dissected and are currently undergoing genetic analysis.

“Chronic exposures can have long-term biological effects to fish,” said LeFevre. “What we’re interested in is how these potential mixtures might accidentally change through the aquatic environment for the fish, as well as how the mixtures themselves might change because of other variables.”

Even though they have gathered everything necessary for this particular study, the team is not finished yet. Along with assessing the data that they have collected; the team is planning on utilizing this stream site to its maximum potential for future projects relating to fish habitats non-target analysis.

Gregory LeFevre is an assistant professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa, as well as an assistant faculty research engineer at IIHR – Hydroscience & Engineering. If you would like to learn more about his work, you can visit his laboratory website here, and his Google Scholar page here.


By: Meghan Hanley, Outreach and Engagement Assistant

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