Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Newly Discovered Bacterium Rids Problematic Pair of Toxic Groundwater Contaminants

Date: October 9, 2018
Source: New Jersey Institute of Technology
Summary: Researchers have detailed the discovery of the first bacterium known capable of simultaneously degrading the pair of chemical contaminants -- 1,4-Dioxane and 1,1-DCE.


Image of DD4 cells.
Credit: NJIT, Mengyan Li

Known as a chemical manufacturing by-product of many cosmetics and home cleaning products, the industrial solvent 1,4-Dioxane is now considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to be an "emerging contaminant" and "likely human carcinogen" that can be found at thousands of groundwater sites nationally -- potentially representing a multi-billion dollar environmental remediation challenge.

However, it is the contaminant's frequent co-existence with another toxic chemical -- 1,1-Dichloroethylene (1,1-DCE) -- that has been found to aid in 1,4-dioxane's resistance to certain remediation strategies, including degradation by naturally-occurring microbes.

Now, New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) researchers have detailed the discovery of the first bacterium known capable of simultaneously degrading the pair of chemical contaminants -- 1,4-Dioxane and 1,1-DCE. The study, published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters, also showcases the efficiency of the microbe, called Azoarcus sp. DD4 (DD4), in reducing 1,4-dioxane and 1,1-DCE levels in co-contaminated groundwater samples.

"Nationwide, researchers have found that more than 80% of the groundwater sites contaminated with 1,4-dioxane also contain 1,1-DCE," said Mengyan Li, assistant professor of chemistry and environmental science at NJIT. "This pair of chemicals are toxic and costly to remove from the environment because the pair have very different properties that typically require separate treatment solutions. Biodegradation by DD4 is the first biological method we have found for treating both compounds concurrently, and it is also environmentally-friendly and cost-efficient."

Li's research team initially discovered the DD4 microbe from activated sludge samples collected from a municipal wastewater treatment facility. In the lab, Li's team was able to isolate and analyze DD4's ability to degrade 1,4-dioxane and 1,1-DCE simultaneously in contaminated groundwater samples over a two-week period.

Applying the microbe to the field samples, Li's team observed that concentration of 1,4-dioxane was degraded from 10 parts-per-million (10 ppm) -- or 3,000 times the limit of the EPA's guidance level of 0.35 parts-per-billion (0.35 ppb) -- to under 0.38 ppb. The lab also found 1,1-DCE concentration levels reduced from over 3 ppm to below 0.02 ppm.

Notably, DD4 displayed resistance to cellular toxicity produced by the metabolites of 1,1-DCE, which typically inhibit the ability of other bacteria capable of degrading 1,4-dioxane. Li's team observed that although DD4 was partially inhibited in its ability to degrade 1,4-dioxane when excessive amounts of 1,1-DCE were artificially spiked in the water samples, 1,4-dioxane degradation capability immediately recovered once the microbe had depleted 1,1-DCE.

"Overall, we were impressed by the performance of DD4," said Li. "We did not add nutrients like ammonia for the microbe to feed on, or other facilitators that might enhance the bacterium's activity. This demonstrated to us the potential of this bacterium for future use in the field."

In an analysis of the genetic makeup of DD4, Li's lab identified a potentially key gene related to the microbe's chemical degradation activity. Li says that the gene encodes for an enzyme, called soluble di-iron monooxygenase (SDIMO), with versatile capabilities of breaking down chemical pollutants. "We want to characterize it (this enzyme) further to see if we can better learn the mechanism underlying how DD4 degrades these contaminants." said Li.

Along with DD4's 1,1-DCE-resistance and ability to degrade the co-contaminants concurrently, Li says the bacterium possesses several other key traits that make it conducive as a potential bioremediation solution at contaminated groundwater sites -- such as its ability to disperse freely through water to remediate larger areas of contamination, rather than aggregating like other bacterial treatments. The microbe can also be cultured rapidly and can sustain for extended periods with limited nutrient source.

"We tested the bacterium in normal refrigerated temperature over three days and its viability remained above 80%," said Li. "After a week, half were still alive. This makes it even more desirable because it would be able to survive the delivery time from the lab to contaminated sites."

Li's lab is now conducting further tests of the bacterium in the lab to better understand how DD4 might perform at contaminated water sites. With feasibility tests already underway, Li says his team could begin field demonstrations of DD4 as a water treatment solution for 1,4-dioxane and 1,1-DCE contamination sites as early as next year.

"Ideally, we may inject the bacteria into the center of a contamination zone, or try growing them on the surface of bio-barriers that help stop spread of contamination," said Li. "First, we'd like to do more tests and possibly develop a gene marker that helps us assess the bacteria's performance. Then, we would like to move into the field."

Story Source:
New Jersey Institute of Technology. "Newly discovered bacterium rids problematic pair of toxic groundwater contaminants." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 9 October 2018. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/10/181009115019.htm

Monday, August 13, 2018

Rethinking Ketchup Packets: New Approach to Slippery Packaging Aims to Cut Food Waste

Benefits Also Include Consumer Safety and Comfort

Date: August 3, 2018
Source: Virginia Tech
Summary: New research aims to cut down on waste -- and consumer frustration -- with a novel approach to creating super slippery industrial packaging. The study establishes a method for wicking chemically compatible vegetable oils into the surfaces of common extruded plastics, like those used for ketchup packets and other condiments.


Virginia Tech doctoral student Ranit Mukherjee observes a dollop of ketchup as it moves on a super slippery plastic film. Mukherjee is the lead author on a study that yielded a novel approach to creating super slippery industrial packaging.
Credit: Virginia Tech

Almost everyone who eats fast food is familiar with the frustration of trying to squeeze every last drop of ketchup out of the small packets that accompany french fries.

What most consumers don't realize, however, is that food left behind in plastic packaging is not simply a nuisance. It also contributes to the millions of pounds of perfectly edible food that Americans throw out every year. These small, incremental amounts of sticky foods like condiments, dairy products, beverages, and some meat products that remain trapped in their packaging can add up to big numbers over time, even for a single household.

New research from Virginia Tech aims to cut down on that waste -- and consumer frustration -- with a novel approach to creating super slippery industrial packaging.

The study, which was published in Scientific Reports and has yielded a provisional patent, establishes a method for wicking chemically compatible vegetable oils into the surfaces of common extruded plastics.

Not only will the technique help sticky foods release from their packaging much more easily, but for the first time, it can also be applied to inexpensive and readily available plastics such as polyethylene and polypropylene.

These hydrocarbon-based polymers make up 55 percent of the total demand for plastics in the world today, meaning potential applications for the research stretch far beyond just ketchup packets. They're also among the easiest plastics to recycle.

"Previous SLIPS, or slippery liquid-infused porous surfaces, have been made using silicon- or fluorine-based polymers, which are very expensive," said Ranit Mukherjee, a doctoral student in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics within the College of Engineering and the study's lead author. "But we can make our SLIPS out of these hydrocarbon-based polymers, which are widely applicable to everyday packaged products."

First created by Harvard University researchers in 2011, SLIPS are porous surfaces or absorbent polymers that can hold a chemically compatible oil within their surfaces via the process of wicking. These surfaces are not only very slippery, but they're also self-cleaning, self-healing, and more durable than traditional superhydrophobic surfaces.

In order for SLIPS to hold these oils, the surfaces must have some sort of nano- or micro-roughness, which keeps the oil in place by way of surface tension. This roughness can be achieved two ways: the surface material is roughened with a type of applied coating, or the surface material consists of an absorbent polymer. In the latter case, the molecular structure of the material itself exhibits the necessary nano-roughness.

Both techniques have recently gained traction with startups and in limited commercial applications. But current SLIPS that use silicone- and fluorine-based absorbent polymers aren't attractive for industrial applications due to their high cost, while the method of adding roughness to surfaces can likewise be an expensive and complicated process.

"We had two big breakthroughs," said Jonathan Boreyko, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics and a study co-author. "Not only are we using these hydrocarbon-based polymers that are cheap and in high demand, but we don't have to add any surface roughness, either. We actually found oils that are naturally compatible with the plastics, so these oils are wicking into the plastic itself, not into a roughness we have to apply."

In addition to minimizing food waste, Boreyko cited other benefits to the improved design, including consumer safety and comfort.

"We're not adding any mystery nanoparticles to the surfaces of these plastics that could make people uncomfortable," he said. "We use natural oils like cottonseed oil, so there are no health concerns whatsoever. There's no fancy recipe required."

While the method has obvious implications for industrial food and product packaging, it could also find widespread use in the pharmaceutical industry. The oil-infused plastic surfaces are naturally anti-fouling, meaning they resist bacterial adhesion and growth.

Although the technique may sound very high-tech, it actually finds its roots in the pitcher plant, a carnivorous plant that entices insects to the edge of a deep cavity filled with nectar and digestive enzymes. The leaves that form the plant's eponymous shape have a slippery ring, created by a secreted liquid, around the periphery of the cavity. When the insects move onto this slippery ring, they slide into the belly of the plants.

"This slippery periphery on the pitcher plant actually inspired our SLIPS product," said Mukherjee.

The pitcher plant's innovation -- which engineers are now copying with great success -- is the combination of a lubricant with some type of surface roughness that can lock that lubricant into place very stably with surface tension.

"We're taking that same concept, but the roughness we're using is just a common attribute of everyday plastics, which means maximal practicality," said Boreyko.

This research was funded through an industrial collaboration with Bemis North America. Additional co-authors of the study include Mohammad Habibi, a Virginia Tech mechanical engineering graduate student; Ziad Rashed, an engineering science and mechanics 2018 graduate from Virginia Tech's undergraduate program; and Otacilio Berbert and Xiangke Shi, both of Bemis North America.



Reprinted From:
Virginia Tech. "Rethinking ketchup packets: New approach to slippery packaging aims to cut food waste: Benefits also include consumer safety and comfort." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 August 2018. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/08/180803103302.htm

Friday, August 3, 2018

Small Amounts of Pharmaceuticals Found in North Central Pa. Rural Well Water

Date: July 31, 2018
Source: Penn State
Summary: Drinking water from wells in rural north central Pennsylvania had low levels of pharmaceuticals, according to a new study.



While septic tanks are generally installed downgradient of wells, contaminant from septic systems can impact well water quality, especially if the septic systems are not maintained or were improperly installed. Pharmaceuticals that are incompletely degraded in septic tanks and leaching fields can travel with wastewater and infiltrate groundwater.
Credit: Heather Gall Research Group / Penn State


Drinking water from wells in rural north central Pennsylvania had low levels of pharmaceuticals, according to a study led by Penn State researchers.

Partnering with volunteers in the University's Pennsylvania Master Well Owner Network, researchers tested water samples from 26 households with private wells in nine counties in the basin of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River. All samples were analyzed for seven over-the-counter and prescription pharmaceuticals: acetaminophen, ampicillin, caffeine, naproxen, ofloxacin, sulfamethoxazole and trimethoprim.

At least one compound was detected at all sites. Ofloxacin and sulfamethoxazole -- antibiotics prescribed for the treatment of a number of bacterial infections -- were the most frequently detected compounds. Caffeine was detected in approximately half of the samples, while naproxen -- an anti-inflammatory drug used for the management of pain, fever and inflammation -- was not detected in any samples.

"It is now widely known that over-the-counter and prescription medications are routinely present at detectable levels in surface and groundwater bodies," said Heather Gall, assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering, whose research group in the Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences conducted the study. "The presence of these emerging contaminants has raised both environmental and public health concerns, particularly when these water supplies are used as drinking water sources."

The good news, Gall pointed out, is that the concentrations of the pharmaceuticals in groundwater sampled were extremely low -- at parts per billion levels. However, given that sampling with the Master Well Owner Network only occurred once, the frequency of occurrence, range of concentrations and potential health risks are not yet well understood, especially for these private groundwater supplies.

The researchers used a simple modeling approach based on the pharmaceuticals' physicochemical parameters -- degradation rates and sorption factors -- to provide insight into the differences in frequency of detection for the target pharmaceuticals, noted lead researcher Faith Kibuye, who will graduate with a doctoral degree in biorenewable systems next year.

She explained that calculations revealed that none of the concentrations observed in the groundwater wells posed any significant human health risk, with risk quotients that are well below the minimal value. However, the risk assessment does not address the potential effect of exposure to mixtures of pharmaceuticals that are likely present in water simultaneously, she said. For example, as many as six of the analyzed pharmaceuticals were detected in some groundwater samples.

"There remains a major concern that even at low concentrations, pharmaceuticals could interact together and influence the biochemical functioning of the human body, so even at very low concentrations they might have some kind of synergistic effect," Kibuye said. "We only analyzed for seven pharmaceuticals but the chances are that there may have been many more."

The findings of the research -- which Kibuye will present today (July 31) at the annual meeting of the American Association of Agricultural and Biological Engineers in Detroit -- should be of interest the world over because groundwater is a critical supply of drinking water globally.

It is estimated that half of the population accesses potable water from groundwater aquifers. In the United States, approximately 13 million households use private wells as their drinking water source, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In Pennsylvania, approximately one-third of the residents receive their drinking water from private groundwater wells, Penn State Extension surveys show.

It is common for homeowners with private wells to also have septic tanks on their properties for treatment of their wastewater. And while septic tanks are generally installed downgradient of the well, it is possible that contaminant from septic systems can impact well-water quality, especially if the septic systems are not maintained or were improperly installed.

"While common contaminant issues include fecal coliform, E. coli and nitrate, pharmaceuticals and other compounds of emerging concern pose potential threats to well water quality," Kibuye said. "Pharmaceuticals that are incompletely degraded in septic tanks and leaching fields can therefore travel with wastewater plumes and impact groundwater, potentially making septic systems important point sources to surrounding domestic groundwater sources."

Story Source:

Penn State. "Small amounts of pharmaceuticals found in north central Pa. rural well water." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 31 July 2018. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/07/180731141630.htm

Friday, July 20, 2018

Could water-saving "shade balls" have a shady side?

By Ben Coxworth

July 17th, 2018


The shade balls getting dispersed into the LA Reservoir
(Credit: Eric Garcetti/CC 2.0)


Three years ago, the drought-stricken city of Los Angeles covered the surface of the LA Basin with 96 million shade-providing floating balls, in order to keep the water beneath from evaporating. Now, an international study suggests that the making of the plastic balls may have have used up more water than they saved.

The "shade balls" were left in place on the reservoir for approximately one and a half years, during the latter part of the 2011 - 2017 California drought. According to the study, they kept an estimated 1.7 million cubic meters (60 million cubic feet) of water from evaporating. Unfortunately, however, it is also estimated that production of the balls used up 2.9 million cubic meters of water (102 million cubic feet). This happened at locations where the oil and natural gas used to produce the plastic were refined, and where the electricity necessary for production was generated.

In order for the shade balls to save as much water as was used in manufacturing them, they would reportedly have to be left on the reservoir for at least two and a half years – and that's only if drought conditions persisted for the entire period.

Additionally, the study points out that the manufacturing process would have had other negative environmental costs, such as the generation of carbon emissions and water pollution.

"We are very good at quick technological fixes, but we often overlook the long-term and secondary impacts of our solutions," says study co-author Dr. Kaveh Madani, from Imperial College London. "This is how the engineering community has been solving problems; solving one problem somewhere and creating a new problem elsewhere … We are not suggesting that shade balls are bad and must not be used. We are just highlighting the fact that the environmental cost of shade balls must be considered together with their benefits."

The findings of the study, which also included scientists from MIT in the US and the University of Twente in the Netherlands, were recently published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

Source: Imperial College London
Story Source: https://newatlas.com/shade-balls-water-usage/55499/

Friday, July 13, 2018

Using Coal Waste to Create Sustainable Concrete

New Coal Concrete Reduces Energy Demand, Greenhouse Emissions

Date: July 12, 2018
Source: Washington State University
Summary: Researchers have created a sustainable alternative to traditional concrete using coal fly ash, a waste product of coal-based electricity generation.


Chemical engineering student Ka Fung Wong looks at the data log, which is used to gather data from sensors buried under the concrete test plot.
Credit: WSU

Washington State University researchers have created a sustainable alternative to traditional concrete using coal fly ash, a waste product of coal-based electricity generation.

The advance tackles two major environmental problems at once by making use of coal production waste and by significantly reducing the environmental impact of concrete production.

Xianming Shi, associate professor in WSU's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and graduate student Gang Xu, have developed a strong, durable concrete that uses fly ash as a binder and eliminates the use of environmentally intensive cement. They report on their work in the August issue of the journal, Fuel.

Reduces Energy Demand, Greenhouse Emissions

Production of traditional concrete, which is made by combining cement with sand and gravel, contributes between five and eight percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. That's because cement, the key ingredient in concrete, requires high temperatures and a tremendous amount of energy to produce.

Fly ash, the material that remains after coal dust is burned, meanwhile has become a significant waste management issue in the United States. More than 50 percent of fly ash ends up in landfills, where it can easily leach into the nearby environment.

While some researchers have used fly ash in concrete, they haven't been able to eliminate the intense heating methods that are traditionally needed to make a strong material.

"Our production method does not require heating or the use of any cement," said Xu.

Molecular Engineering

This work is also significant because the researchers are using nano-sized materials to engineer concrete at the molecular level.

"To sustainably advance the construction industry, we need to utilize the 'bottom-up' capability of nanomaterials," said Shi.

The team used graphene oxide, a recently discovered nanomaterial, to manipulate the reaction of fly ash with water and turn the activated fly ash into a strong cement-like material. The graphene oxide rearranges atoms and molecules in a solution of fly ash and chemical activators like sodium silicate and calcium oxide. The process creates a calcium-aluminate-silicate-hydrate molecule chain with strongly bonded atoms that form an inorganic polymer network more durable than (hydrated) cement.

Aids Groundwater, Mitigates Flooding

The team designed the fly ash concrete to be pervious, which means water can pass through it to replenish groundwater and to mitigate flooding potential.

Researchers have demonstrated the strength and behavior of the material in test plots on the WSU campus under a variety of load and temperature conditions. They are still conducting infiltration tests and gathering data using sensors buried under the concrete. They eventually hope to commercialize the patented technology.

"After further testing, we would like to build some structures with this concrete to serve as a proof of concept," said Xu.

The research was funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation's University Transportation Centers and the WSU Office of Commercialization.

Story Source: Washington State University. "Using coal waste to create sustainable concrete: New coal concrete reduces energy demand, greenhouse emissions." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 July 2018. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/07/180712100513.htm.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Wastewater Treatment Plants are Key Route into UK Rivers for Microplastics

Date: June 11, 2018
Source: University of Leeds
Summary: Water samples from UK rivers contained significantly higher concentrations of microplastics downstream from wastewater treatment plants, according to one of the first studies to determine potential sources of microplastics pollution.


Water samples from UK rivers contained significantly higher concentrations of microplastics downstream from wastewater treatment plants, according to one of the first studies to determine potential sources of microplastics pollution.

Scientists from the University of Leeds measured microplastics concentrations up and downstream of six wastewater treatment plants and found that all of the plants were linked to an increase in microplastics in the rivers -- on average up to three times higher but in one instance by a factor of 69.

Lead author Dr Paul Kay, from the School of Geography at Leeds, said: "Microplastics are one of the least studied groups of contaminants in river systems. These tiny plastic fragments and flakes may prove to be one of the biggest challenges in repairing the widespread environmental harm plastics have caused. Finding key entry points of microplastics, such as wastewater treatment plants, can provide focus points to combating their distribution.

"However, pervasive microplastics were also found in our upstream water samples. So while strengthening environmental procedures at treatment plants could be a big step in halting their spread, we cannot ignore the other ways microplastics are getting into our rivers."

Microplastics are pieces of plastic with a diameter less than five millimetres. They come from a wide range of materials including tiny plastic beads found in health and beauty products, plastic fibres from clothing and plastic flakes that break down from packaging.

In addition to exposing river ecosystems to the pollutants found in microplastics, a huge quantity continues to flow downstream and is then flushed into the ocean, posing a further threat to marine environments. Recent research has also found microplastics in fish stocks eaten by humans.

The researchers examined 28 river samples from six different field sites across Northern England. The treatment plants included in the study varied in the size of the population they served, the treatment technologies used and the river's characteristics. These variations allowed for a broader understanding of how different factors could affect how much wastewater treatment plants contribute to microplastic pollution.

In addition to treatment plants providing an entry point for microplastics found in both commercial and domestic wastewater, such as clothing and textile microfibers that shed into washing machines, wastewater treatment plants may also contribute secondary microplastics as a result of plastics caught in the treatment process breaking down further.

The study categorised the types of microplastics found, into pellets/beads, fibres and fragments/flakes. Fragment and fibres made up nearly 90% of the microplastics found in the river samples.

"By categorising the types of microplastics we can identify what aspects of our lifestyle are contributing to river pollution," said Dr Kay.

"Not that long ago microbeads in toiletries and cosmetics were the microplastics getting all the public attention. Seeing the amount of plastic microfibres from clothing and textiles polluting our rivers, we need to think seriously about the role of our synthetic fabrics in long-term environmental harm."

Story Source: University of Leeds. "Wastewater treatment plants are key route into UK rivers for microplastics." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 June 2018. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/06/180611133455.htm

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Groundwater Pumping Can Increase Arsenic Levels in Irrigation and Drinking Water

Date: June 5, 2018
Source: Stanford University
Summary: Pumping an aquifer to the last drop squeezes out more than water. A new study finds it can also unlock dangerous arsenic from buried clays -- and reveals how sinking land can provide an early warning and measure of contamination.

For decades, intensive groundwater pumping has caused ground beneath California's San Joaquin Valley to sink, damaging infrastructure. Now research published in the journal Nature Communications suggests that as pumping makes the ground sink, it also unleashes an invisible threat to human health and food production: It allows arsenic to move into groundwater aquifers that supply drinking water for 1 million people and irrigation for crops in some of the nation's richest farmland.

The group found that satellite-derived measurements of ground sinking could predict arsenic concentrations in groundwater. This technique could be an early warning system to prevent dangerous levels of arsenic contamination in aquifers with certain characteristics worldwide.

"Arsenic in groundwater has been a problem for a really long time," said lead author Ryan Smith, a doctoral candidate in geophysics at the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth). It's naturally present in Earth's crust and a frequent concern in groundwater management because of its ubiquity and links to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other illnesses. "But the idea that overpumping for irrigation could increase arsenic concentrations is new," Smith said.

Importantly, the group found signs that aquifers contaminated as a result of overpumping can recover if withdrawals stop. Areas that showed slower sinking compared to 15 years earlier also had lower arsenic levels. "Groundwater must have been largely turned over," said study co-author Scott Fendorf, a professor of Earth system science and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Releasing Arsenic from Clay

The research team analyzed arsenic data for hundreds of wells in two different drought periods alongside centimeter-level estimates of land subsidence, or sinking, captured by satellites. They found that when land in the San Joaquin Valley's Tulare basin sinks faster than 3 inches per year, the risk of finding hazardous arsenic levels in groundwater as much as triples.

Aquifers in the Tulare basin are made up of sand and gravel zones separated by thin layers of clay. The clay acts like a sponge, holding tight to water as well as arsenic soaked up from ancient river sediments. Unlike the sand and gravel layers, these clays contain relatively little oxygen, which creates conditions for arsenic to be in a form that dissolves easily in water.

When pumping draws too much water from the sand and gravel areas, the aquifer compresses and land sinks. "Sands and gravels that were being propped apart by water pressure are now starting to squeeze down on that sponge," Fendorf explained. Arsenic-rich water then starts to seep out and mix with water in the main aquifer.

When water pumping slows enough to put the brakes on subsidence -- and relieve the squeeze on trapped arsenic -- clean water soaking in from streams, rain and natural runoff at the surface can gradually flush the system clean.

However, study co-author Rosemary Knight, a professor of geophysics and affiliated faculty at the Woods Institute, warns against banking too much on a predictable recovery from overpumping. "How long it takes to recover is going to be highly variable and dependent upon so many factors," she said.

The researchers said overpumping in other aquifers could produce the same contamination issues seen in the San Joaquin Valley if they have three attributes: alternating layers of clay and sand; a source of arsenic; and relatively low oxygen content, which is common in aquifers located beneath thick clays.

The threat may be more widespread than once thought. Only in the last few years have scientists discovered that otherwise well-aerated aquifers considered largely immune to arsenic problems can in fact be laced with clays that have the low oxygen levels necessary for arsenic to move into most groundwater. "We're just starting to recognize that this is a danger," said Fendorf.

Satellite Insights

The revelation that remote sensing can raise an alarm before contamination threatens human health offers hope for better water monitoring. "Instead of having to drill wells and take water samples back to the lab, we have a satellite getting the data we need," said Knight.

While well data is important to validate and calibrate satellite data, she explained, on-the-ground monitoring can never match the breadth and speed of remote sensing. "You're never sampling a well frequently enough to catch that arsenic the moment it's in the well," said Knight. "So how fantastic to have this remote sensing early warning system to let people realize that they're approaching a critical point in terms of water quality."

The study builds on research led in 2013 by Laura Erban, then a doctoral student working in Vietnam's Mekong Delta. "That's where we started saying, 'Oh no,'" said Fendorf, who co-authored that paper.

As in the San Joaquin Valley, areas of the Mekong Delta where land was sinking more showed higher arsenic concentrations. "Now we have two sites in totally different geographic regions where the same mechanisms appear to be operating," said Fendorf. "That sends a trigger that we need to be thinking about managing groundwater and making sure that we're not overdrafting the aquifers."

Story Source:
Stanford University. "Groundwater pumping can increase arsenic levels in irrigation and drinking water." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 June 2018.