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New NSF grant supports toxics research

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Researchers at our affiliate organization the Center for Urban Waters have received a $797,107 National Science Foundation grant for the purchase of new equipment to identify toxic contaminants in Puget Sound. Ed Kolodziej is the project’s principal investigator. Co-principal investigators include David Beck, Allison Gardell, Jessica Ray, and Andy James.

The funds were awarded on July 8th and will cover the cost of a new Liquid Chromatograph-High Resolution Mass Spectrometer, an ultra-sensitive device that identifies molecules by their atomic weight. The spectrometer can measure the presence of chemical compounds at amounts in the parts per trillion and is a critical tool for finding what scientists refer to as contaminants of emerging concern. Those contaminants include compounds such as pharmaceuticals or industrial byproducts that enter Puget Sound through wastewater or stormwater. Some may occur in only trace amounts but have potentially significant effects on wildlife and humans.

The new spectrometer will replace an older model of the instrument that has been in use at the lab for the past seven years. That model contributed to several high-profile discoveries at the Center*, including last year’s identification, led by Kolodziej, of a previously unknown chemical from tire wear particles called 6-PPD-quinone. That compound has now been implicated in the deaths of large numbers of spawning coho salmon in Puget Sound and was the subject of congressional hearings earlier this month in Washington D.C.

The scientists anticipate that the new device will continue to support extensive collaborations with other groups working to unravel chemical mysteries in the region. Over the past several years, scientists at the lab have identified thousands of contaminants in Puget Sound waters ranging from opioids to birth control pills and flame retardants.

“This project will use advanced instrumentation to characterize contaminants in the environment and biological systems, enabling the design of appropriate mitigation strategies,” reads the grant’s project summary. The equipment will also “support undergraduate, graduate, and professional education and training in environmental and analytical chemistry, environmental engineering, environmental health, and data science.”

More details about the grant are available at the National Science Foundation website.

*The Center for Urban Waters is the Puget Sound Institute’s parent group and is housed at the University of Washington Tacoma.

Project summary (published as part of the NSF award)

Pollution discharged by industrial processes impacts human health and the health of ecosystems, and mitigating their effects requires considerable cost in time, effort, and dollars. This project will use advanced instrumentation to characterize contaminants in the environment and biological systems, enabling the design of appropriate mitigation strategies. It will support undergraduate, graduate, and professional education and training in environmental and analytical chemistry, environmental engineering, environmental health, and data science; and (3) foster new collaboration and community engagement opportunities, especially with the regional Native American communities, local and state government agencies, and industries impacting stormwater quality. UW-Tacoma is a primarily undergraduate institution, a non-PhD granting institution, an urban serving, a Carnegie community engaged, and an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institution. It has a student body comprised of many underrepresented minorities, veterans, and first-generation college students.

The system to be acquired is a Liquid Chromatograph-High Resolution Mass Spectrometer, specifically an Agilent 6546 UPLC-QTOF-HRMS instrument. The instrument will be used to understand and improve management of various forms of pollution, especially for stormwater and roadway systems, innovative treatment materials development, ecotoxicology and bioassay development, and water disinfection. For example, the instrument will be used to identify toxic transformation products from stormwater and quantify sources. Another use is to study the oxidation of persistent organic compounds in urban stormwater using ferrate-coated sand media and PFAS defluorination. Yet another study focuses on the fate of organic pollutants in the aquatic environment and their occurrence and impacts in the marine environment. With so many potential environmental pollutants, high throughput, analytical capacity, and reliability are critical limiting factors to research effectiveness. Because of the richness, depth and breadth of the data generated, screening techniques employing high resolution mass spectrometry have now become key methodologies for environmental chemistry and engineering studies.