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UW scientist studies how pharmaceuticals impact the environment

University of Washington scientist Edward Kolidziej
University of Washington scientist Edward Kolodziej

Dr. Ed Kolodziej is one of the Puget Sound Institute’s newest collaborators. Kolodziej began his appointment at the University of Washington Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering last fall with a joint appointment at Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at UW Tacoma. His research looks at some of the ways that organic compounds like steroids and other pharmaceuticals persist in the environment. Known as contaminants of emerging concern (CECs), these compounds are flushed into Puget Sound and other natural systems every day.​

Kolodziej’s studies of steroids in particular have led him down some unusual and unexpected paths. He remembers the time he came across a freelance chemist who seemed to have a remarkable knowledge of designer drugs—particularly steroid-related compounds.

Kolodziej was studying trenbolone, a steroid heavily used by farmers to increase muscle mass and appetite in livestock. It also happens to be popular with bodybuilders and cheating athletes, which makes it a popular topic on some of the shadier corners of the internet.  “There’s information out there that doesn’t always show up in the scientific literature,” he says wryly.

Because trenbolone is illegal for use by humans, chemists on the black market have been interested in changing some of its molecular structure, a hallmark of so-called “designer drugs.” These drugs can have similar effects as the originals, but are meant to skirt drug testing, or to exploit loopholes in the law.

Kolodziej is also interested in how these drugs are transformed, but not by mysterious, underground labs overseas. He wants to know what happens when chemicals change or interact within natural systems like Puget Sound. Kolodziej says steroids are just some of the bioactive compounds that are constantly entering the environment, either through improper disposal, or by passing through wastewater like agricultural runoff. As these chemicals are metabolized or interact with other agents—anything from air and water, to other organic compounds—they tend to break down into different forms.

Many risk assessments assume that this degradation makes these compounds benign. But in many cases, the chemicals can remain active. Kolodziej says this is similar to what happens with designer drugs, where “different types of bioactivity could be maintained through small structural modifications [in chemical structure].”

Early research into persistent contaminants focused on chemicals like DDT or PCBs, but new studies by Kolodziej and other scientists are showing that there are thousands of varieties of chemicals that can have persistent and wide-ranging impacts on the animals—including humans—that are exposed to them. Known as endocrine disruptors, they can directly alter biological processes like development or reproduction.

Finding these impacts is the key, says Kolodziej. As chemical analysis becomes more sophisticated, he says it will be important to identify which of those chemicals have the greatest effect on wildlife and humans. “With a good enough instrument, I can find 1,000 different chemicals just outside in the waters here. But the big question is whether the water is unhealthy for the fish or other species that live here. And that includes us too.”

By focusing on bioactive compounds like steroids and other pharmaceuticals, Kolodziej says he hopes to better understand environmental contaminants “that really affect biology, and where we can focus our efforts on ecosystem protection.”

Read Ed Kolodziej’s full bio below:

Ed Kolodziej began his academic studies with a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the Johns Hopkins University (1998), after which he focused on environmental issues and went to the University of California at Berkeley where he received his M.S. (1999) and Ph.D (2004) in Environmental Engineering.  He came to CEE in 2014 as part of the UW Freshwater Science Initiative after seven years as faculty at the University of Nevada, Reno, also in Civil and Environmental Engineering.  He also holds a joint appointment with Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at UW Tacoma, and is affiliated with local and regional water quality efforts through The Center for Urban Waters (

Ed’s interests include water quality and contaminant fate in natural and engineered systems, especially focusing on interdisciplinary approaches to complex environmental issues affecting water and ecosystem health.  His research group works to characterize and control non-point source pollution, understand attenuation mechanisms in natural systems, and optimize engineered systems for trace contaminant removal.  His research has recently been published in Science, and featured in news media such as Nature, Scientific American, U.S. News and World Report, Yahoo Health News, BBC Radio’s “Inside Science”, and the Huffington Post among others.

Related papers:

Environmental Science and Technology: Environmental designer drugs: when transformation may not eliminate risk

Nature News: Hormone disruptors rise from the dead