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Study Finds Pharmaceuticals, Other Micropollutants In Hudson Estuary

A first-of-its-kind study released Friday points to a long and varied list of micropollutants in the Hudson River estuary. Dozens of products were detected, from pesticides to pharmaceuticals.


Two scientists from the Cornell University School of Civil and Environmental Engineering conducted the study in partnership with Riverkeeper, analyzing 24 water samples drawn from eight locations between the Mohawk River’s confluence with the Hudson and the Tappan Zee Bridge. The samples were collected in June, July, September and October of 2015. Dr. Damian Helbling is assistant professor at Cornell University’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

“What we found among these 24 samples was that 83 of these 117 compounds that we suspected might be in there were actually in at least one of those samples,” Helbling says. “I believe there was eight compounds of those 83 that were present in all 24 samples. So these can be considered to be extremely ubiquitous or extremely persistent types of chemicals.”

One substance that showed up in all the samples was caffeine.

“I would probably have to drink the volume of the Hudson River in order to get the amount of caffeine that’s just in one cup of coffee,” says Helbling. “So there are very, very, very, very trace concentrations of caffeine.”

He says that while this may not have an ecological effect, it could indicate human impact on water, or wastewater impact. Helbling says it comes down to parts per trillion, akin to dropping an aspirin into an Olympic-size swimming pool. Helbling says all 24 samples turned up measurable concentrations of the insect repellent DEET.

“Again, parts per trillion, so incredibly minute amount of DEET, but DEET nevertheless,” Helbling says.

He says samples at three wastewater treatment plant outfalls —  Kingston, Orangetown and West Point — yielded pharmaceutical residues.

“So we found, I would say, tens, in some cases, dozens of pharmaceutical residues coming out of wastewater treatment plants along the Hudson River estuary. That’s maybe the slightly unsettling news,” says Helbling. “The good news is that we don’t find those same compounds just downstream from the wastewater treatment plants. So the volume of water that is in the Hudson does an adequate job at diluting. So that’s a great feature of the Hudson is that there’s so much darn water.”

Dan Shapley is Riverkeeper water quality program manager.

“This is the first study of its kind in the Hudson so we didn’t know anything really before. Now we have a sense of what is out there,” Shapley says. “And we know you can more pharmaceuticals at outfalls than other places.”

He says the study outcome delivers a baseline of information.

“Our concern is always the health of the water and, of course, our uses of it. But we want the life in the river to be healthy and thrive,” Shapley says. “And if fish and frogs and everything else is getting dosed with our pharmaceuticals, what does that mean for them. And this gives us baseline information to understand where we can go next to understand the impacts.”

Helbling says where to go next is widening the breadth of the study. In fact, Helbling stepped aboard the Riverkeeper patrol boat in the Rondout in Kingston, watching samples being taken for the continuation of the micropollutant study. 

“So now as they cruise from the Tappan Zee Bridge north to the Mohawk River, they’re collecting samples for us for micropollutant analysis at all of the sewage treatment plant outfalls and all of the tributaries that they go into,” says Helbling.

James Tierney says wastewater treatment plants are a source of micropollutants. Tierney is deputy commissioner for water resources with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. He says the state invested $20,000 into the Cornell study and will fund another $30,000 next year to broaden the study on micropollutants.

“These compounds at the level identified by the professor in this study don’t violate state water quality standards developed under state law or the Clean Water Act. They don’t violate drinking water maximum contaminant levels under the Safe Drinking Water Act or state programs,” Tierney says. “But what they do is they provide evidence of impacts and they allow us, over time, to understand whether or not this is impact to people, impact to fish, impact to other aquatic species.”

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