NSF makes award to study path of pollutants to the dinner table

August 26, 2008

CLEMSON -- The National Science Foundation has awarded $356,000 to Cindy Lee, environmental chemist and a professor of environmental engineering and earth sciences at Clemson University, to look at how pollutants cycle through fish and other organisms and wind up on the dinner table. The research will focus on PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), pollutants that have been implicated in problems with brain development in humans.

The study site will be Twelve Mile Creek, a major tributary to Hartwell Lake on the South Carolina-Georgia border that is contaminated with PCBs. PCBs are a persistent organic pollutant because they are resistant to transformation and can remain in the environment for many years. In Hartwell Lake, as in many places across the country and the world, it is estimated the contamination has been present for more than 50 years following manufacturing dumping.

Lee's group will study how PCBs change, their resistance to transformation and how they move through the food chain. An Environmental Protection Agency report once predicted that PCBs eventually would be buried safely in sediment, but researchers hypothesize that the movement of PCBs through the food chain actually is keeping the pollutants in circulation.

Lee says the structure of a few PCB compounds have mirror images that behave similarly under certain conditions, such as evaporation, but differently under other conditions, such as microbial degradation or metabolism in fish, spiders, frogs and other organisms.

"Because of this difference in behavior, we can track the changes with our analytical instruments," said Lee. "My research group is one of the few in the world to use these techniques."

Lee says the team uses the process of enantioselective chromatography to track the contamination through the food chain. With the technique, mirror images of PCBs can be separated by interacting with other compounds. Separation allows the researchers to determine the quantities of each and determine if they are different. Equal amounts of each mirror image were present when the PCBs were released into the environment.

"Any differences that are detected are due to metabolism or microbial degradation," Lee said. "Once the path of PCBs is known -- how they are circulating in the food web -- it is likely to be something that can be cleaned up with new methods and kept out of the food chain."
This material is based upon work supported by the NSF Grant No.0828699. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Clemson University

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