Contaminant Monitoring

Charleston Waterkeeper, NOAA begin pilot study that tests local waters for contaminants

By Caroline Balchunas ABC News 4  February 17, 2021

CHARLESTON, SC (WCIV) — There’s a lot of things lurking in our waterways, but now, there’s a new effort to uncover the unknown using a simple method—a wristband.

The Charleston Waterkeeper normally keeps tabs on bacteria levels, but they’re now tracking something new. The non-profit is part of a new pilot study with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science.

“This is a great pilot study because it’s a lot of bang for the buck,” said Andrew Wunderley, CEO of Charleston Waterkeeper. “The passive samplers are simple silicone wristbands. They’re freely and cheaply available.”

Wunderly and his team spent Wednesday morning collecting samples they deployed 28 days ago. They deployed 30 wristbands at 15 different sites around the Charleston Harbor. Each band is secured to a buoy using several zip ties. The bands are sent to a local lab at the Hollings Marine Laboratory.

“The wristband technology has been used for about the last 15 to 20 years in a variety of different ways,” said Ed Wirth, Ph.D., Chemical Contaminants Research Program Lead for NOAA’s Ecotoxicolgy Branch. He said the silicone bands are highly absorbent and may provide some insight into pollutants in the waterways.

“We’re looking at this technology in kind of a novel way, but we’re trying to use it in the environment to track passively what’s in coastal waters and we chose Charleston for the simple fact that it’s in our backyard,” Wirth said. “It’s really hard to get a sense of where your hotspots might be, where something’s occurring that really might have to be looked at further, so this gives us a way, you know, to involve a community.”

The wristbands will be tested for three things: polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which are oils, gases and grease, and pyrethroids and fipronil, two pesticides.

“Polyaromatic hydrocarbons are a known carcinogen, and fipronils are a suspected carcinogen but also a big problem for marine invertebrates,” Wunderley said. “We know these things are likely washing into the water during floods and rainstorms, but we don’t know where the hotspots are and don’t know in what amount.”

Wirth said the two pesticides are emerging pesticides used for the day to day control of insects from fire ants to mosquitos.

“PAHs are also very tied to development in any given place, so we look at PAHs as a kind of marker for urbanization,” said Wirth. “There’s a current use for these pesticides because they’re not necessarily specifically mandated and regulated for restricted for use; they’re not strongly restricted for use by the EPA.”

Wirth said the study will last one year providing data from all four seasons. He said the results won’t be released anytime soon, adding the analysis is still in the early stages.”

“We’re going through the quality control process now to make sure the data meets our standards and expectations so that we can then begin to evaluate what the data looks like and what stories it can tell us,” he said.

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