Environment in the news

How a massive fatberg went from sewer to science museum

Tracie Baker wasn’t sure what tools she would need for the dissection. Baker, an environmental toxicologist at Wayne State University, studies the presence and effects of toxins and endocrine-disrupting compounds in water. She’d cut up fish before, but never anything quite like the tangled mess of fats, oils, grease, and trash that had arrived in her lab. It was two 10-pound chunks of fatberg, taken from a massive sewer-clogging bolus. Baker figured she’d need gloves, probably the thick rubber kind people use for washing dishes, and elbow-length seemed safest. Beyond that, she says, “We weren’t exactly sure what was going to work.” Baker and her colleagues were trying to learn as much as they could about the fatberg, which had been hauled from a sewer in Clinton Township, a suburban Michigan community about 25 miles northeast of Detroit in Macomb County, while it was still fetid and fairly fresh. When they were done, it would be enshrined in a new exhibit at the Michigan Science Center. Pieces of the fatberg were worth keeping around for analysis because “so few fatbergs have been characterized,” Baker says. With the exception of a handful extracted in London, studied with gas chromatography or forensically prodded in front of television cameras, the usual approach to them is, “Let’s get this out of here, throw it in the trash, and move on,” Baker says. Along with her Wayne State colleague Carol Miller, a civil and environmental engineer, Baker applied for National Science Foundation funding to take a closer look at the Macomb County fatberg. The team wanted to know exactly what the mess was made of and how it might affect the ecosystem both inside and outside of the sewer.
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Why native fish matter

The fish populations of the Great Lakes have changed dramatically in the years since invasive species first arrived. Bloodsucking sea lampreys have decimated native lake trout, and tiny alewives have feasted on the eggs and young of trout and other native species. But there’s good news too, as researchers roll out solutions to help manage invasive fish populations and maintain the diversity of species. Donna Kashian, SciFri Book Club reader and biology professor at Wayne State University said, “I have so many wonderful memories of the Great Lakes, both as a child whose parents had a cabin near Lake Michigan and as an adult doing research on the lakes. But one in particular stands out. I was doing research on Lake Huron, I don’t even remember what we were looking at on that particular day. It was late in the season, maybe August. We were in the middle of the lake—flat water, clear blue skies—and monarch butterflies were just flying everywhere. We’re in the middle of their migration south. It was so surreal and beautiful. I knew birds use the lake as a flyway in their migration, but I never knew monarchs did.
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Expert says 'quite a bit' of contamination left behind causing green ooze in Madison Heights

We’re getting a clearer picture of what’s causing the green ooze toxic contamination that is flowing from the closed Electro-Plating Services site in Madison Heights and onto I-696. State and federal officials have said rainwater and groundwater flowing through a vat in the basement caused Hexavalent Chromium to leak out. Bill Shuster takes it a step further telling 7 Action News, “This water is picking up the contaminants that are still in the soil there.” Shuster is the Chair of the Wayne State University Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. The EPA spent $1.4 million to do a massive cleanup inside the facility after the state shut it down in 2016. How much contamination was left behind? Shuster speculated, “We would have to look at the data and analyze what’s in the affluent. Well, the gut instinct there was quite a bit left in there.” Shuster says the green ooze is colored by a marker added to the cancer causing Hexavalent Chromium. And he says options to prevent trouble after the cleanup included excavating the vat, making sure it is not coming in contact with groundwater and he says, “I probably would have capped it, ensured that water wouldn’t be getting in from the top. Into the pit. I can’t criticize EPA or MEDQ EGLE but if I was in charge, these are the things I would be looking at.”
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Is winter miserable for wildlife?

Bridget B. Baker, clinical veterinarian and deputy director of the Warrior Aquatic, Translational, and Environmental Research (WATER) Lab at Wayne State, wrote a piece earlier this year for The Conversation regarding how wildlife adapt to winter weather. Wildlife can succumb to frostbite and hypothermia, just like people and pets. In the northern United States, the unfurred tails of opossums are a common casualty of cold exposure. Every so often an unusual cold snap in Florida results in iguanas falling from trees and manatees dying from cold stress. Avoiding the cold is important for preserving life or limb (or, in the opossum’s case, tail) and the opportunity to reproduce. These biological imperatives mean that wildlife must be able to feel cold, in order to try to avoid the damaging effects of its extremes. Animal species have their own equivalent to what human beings experience as that unpleasant biting mixed with pins-and-needles sensation that urges us to warm up soon or suffer the consequences.
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Researchers discover natural toxin fatal to invasive mussels

Researchers at Wayne State University believe they may have found a way to stop invasive species of mussels from spreading throughout the Great Lakes by using algae. The find, a toxin released by dying algae called Microcystin LR, which when placed in direct contact with juvenile mussels can be fatal. Algal blooms which commonly flourish in the Great Lakes every summer are filled with toxins. Microcystin LR is the most common and also the most toxic, however some researchers don’t believe the application is practical. Scientists remain optimistic over the find as the invaders had been largely left unchecked since their introduction to the Great Lakes through ballast water in the 1980’s.
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Lego starts recycling program for unwanted bricks

Danish toymaker Lego is testing a new way for customers to return their unwanted bricks in an effort to move closer to its goal of switching to 100 percent sustainable materials in the next decade. U.S. customers can now print out a mailing label on its site, dump their used Lego bricks in a box and ship them off for free, the company announced. The pieces will be cleaned, put in a box and given to Teach for America, a nonprofit that will donate them to classrooms across the United States. Some bricks will be sent to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston for its after-school programs. In 2015, the Lego Group announced its ambition to use 100 percent sustainable materials in both its bricks and packaging by 2030. Now the company is speeding up that plan, announcing that it's aiming for 100 percent sustainable packaging by 2025 in an effort to make a "positive impact on the lives of children, our colleagues, our community and the planet." Plastic does not disintegrate. It breaks into smaller pieces, called microplastics, and can be eaten by animals and fish, putting their health at serious risk. It's a problem in all bodies of water, from the oceans to the Great Lakes. Earlier this year, Wayne State University was given a $1 million grant to hopefully find a solution to microplastics.
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Researchers progressing in fatberg study

A fatberg discovered in a Macomb County sewer had led to a more introspective look on the subject, courtesy of a pair of Wayne State University researchers. Barely more than a year ago, Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller stood at a podium and discussed how a 100-foot long, 19-ton fatberg was discovered in a sewer 50 feet underground as part of the Lakeshore Interceptor along Interstate 94. A few months later, Wayne State University researchers acquired an $86,000 National Science Foundation grant that has allowed them to study how fats, oil and greases, or FOGs, lend themselves toward these environmental blobs. It also helps compile a model, aimed to predict future situations when fatbergs might arise — not just in Macomb County, but anywhere. “We’ve been working very closely with the Macomb County Department of Public Works to investigate the whole fatberg phenomena,” said Carol Miller, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of Healthy Urban Waters at WSU. “Macomb County has been really helpful, and we have a wealth of information regarding system characters, and data regarding pressure flows of pipes before and after the fatberg.” Carol Miller works alongside Tracie Baker, assistant professor in WSU’s Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Their research as part of the grant will continue for about another four months.
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Texas hospital tries to stop birds living in nearby trees, accidentally creates haven for North America's most venomous caterpillar

Texas hospital's attempts to deter birds have accidentally created a haven for North American's most venomous caterpillar species, whose painful sting has been compared to breaking a bone. Nets were put up on the oak trees that line the sidewalks of Texas Medical Center in Houston to stop birds like grackles and pigeons—which can carry diseases and create a mess—from gathering. But by putting the birds off from landing on the trees, the institution created a new problem. With no birds to eat them, the population of bugs commonly known as "asps" exploded. After studying the area for three years, researchers found the caterpillars were 7,300 percent more abundant on netted trees compared to those without protection. Also known as Megalopyge opercularis or puss moth caterpillars, the insects are the most poisonous caterpillars in North America. The creatures are covered in spines linked to a sac filled with poison. If someone brushes against an asp, the protrusions break off and stick into the skin, releasing venom. After around five minutes, the victim will experience an intense throbbing pain, which then spreads. Stings can be accompanied by headaches, vomiting and nausea, as well as stomach pains. Glen Hood, who led the study at Rice University and is a research assistant professor of biological sciences at Wayne State University, said in a statement: "There are a lot of people that congregate in the green spaces of TMC [Texas Medical Center]. It becomes this scenario of what's worse—bird guano or venomous asps—and is there a happy medium?" Hood commented: "It's highly suggestive that when you don't take into account the natural interactions taking place within a community or ecosystem, even in an urban setting, it can cause unforeseen consequences."
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How to make sure your water filter really removes lead

A problem with high levels of lead in Newark’s drinking water led the city last year to distribute water filters to residents. But that plan hit a snag this week when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) alerted the city that drinking water in two of three homes it tested still had high levels of lead, despite the filters. The EPA advised Newark residents to stop drinking tap water and urged the city to supply bottled water instead (though that solution also ran into problems when the city learned some of the water had passed its expiration date). Filters certified to remove lead must undergo rigorous testing by NSF or other labs. The Water Quality Association, for instance, tests the filters with water contaminated at 150 parts per billion—10 times higher than the EPA’s action level of 15 ppb. Researchers in Flint even pushed filters to the extreme, testing with water contaminated to 1,000 ppb, and found they still removed all lead from the water. The filters distributed in Newark were activated carbon filters certified to remove lead. But not all filters can do that. “Activated carbon has a lot of surface area with nooks and crannies where chemicals can stick,” says Shawn McElmurry, a Wayne State University professor who did extensive field research during the Flint water crisis. “But it’s not infinite.” To add to the chaos, McElmurry says there could be other contaminants in the water competing for those attachment sites. And if some of those contaminants have more mass or energy, they could knock some lead loose—like throwing softballs at your Velcro wall of tennis balls. Faucet-mount filters, like those used in Flint and Newark, typically cost $20 to $40 and require several installation steps that can go awry. “These filters are not easy to get onto the faucets,” McElmurry says. “We found that a lot of people in Flint with arthritis or poor motor function in their hands couldn’t attach them.” 
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Understanding the ‘why’ of higher water levels in the Great Lakes

Climate scientists may not be shouting from the housetops when it comes to the effect of global warming on water levels in the Great Lakes, but they’re also not saying that everything will be fine. Reaction to a recent study produced by Canada’s federal environmental agency asserts that Canada is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, and that the country’s northern regions are warming three times as fast. The impact on Michigan has much to do with water levels, which are impacted by many factors, including precipitation, the rate of evaporation and water temperatures. Shirley Papuga, associate professor in the geology and environmental science program at Wayne State, referred to the work done by one of her undergraduate students, Alex Eklund, who has plotted out data on 20-year average temperatures. “For 2019, for instance, compared to the 20-year average minimum temperatures, those were lower in the winter,” said Papuga. “But the minimum temperatures are actually higher now in the spring and summer, which suggests a seasonality is in play.”
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Wayne State preps water study participants

An independent study by Wayne State University into Adrian’s water got underway Tuesday night as representatives prepped participants on what to expect. The meeting with Adrian residents was closed to the media but Wayne State student Andrew James briefed media ahead of the meeting on his study. James will test water samples throughout Adrian for the presence of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) and certain toxins affiliated with the bacteria, specifically microsystin and anatoxin. James said the study was suggested by Thomas Prychitko, due to the previous findings. The Wayne State professor will help supervise James through the project. “The gist of it is, yes, we are testing to see if there is any harmful bacteria in the water of these fine people in Adrian, Michigan,” James said. The study is for James’ master’s degree and thesis, he said. The study is not in conjunction with any other agency, nor is it affiliated with the city of Adrian and its water study being conducted by Tetra Tech. Wayne State is funding the project. “This is a significant investment by Wayne State,” Taylor said as each water sample can cost up to $225. James said the purpose is to identify if there is cyanobacteria in the water and where in Adrian it might be. The university put a call out in April for participants.
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Toilet paps, cotton swabs, tampons, and baby wipes hurt the environment: Here’s how to do better

Toilet paper, tampons, cotton swabs, and baby wipes are all personal care staples that, perhaps surprisingly, come with hefty environmental costs. From upstream problems, like logging crucial boreal forests for wood pulp that becomes toilet paper, to post-use issues like the centuries it can take a tampon to biodegrade, many of these single-use products come with serious environmental costs. There are smarter, more ecologically sound choices to make for almost every item, and some may even be upgrades. Here’s how to choose personal products wisely. Cotton swabs have a disposal issue. They are often flushed down the toilet after use and end up in waterways, in the bellies of birds and other aquatic creatures, and even in the tails of seahorses. This one is easy—follow the advice of doctors and stop using cotton swabs altogether. Dr. Peter Svider, an otolaryngology resident at Wayne State University in Michigan, told Time magazine that cotton swab injuries were responsible for a large portion of adult emergency-room visits for ear trauma in the US. And they’re not even that good at cleaning ears. “The way the cotton swab is designed—it’s really not a good tool for removing wax,” he said. “You tend to push more in than you pull out.”   
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Activists host faith, WSU leaders for ‘World Water Day’ in Detroit

Dozens of grassroots organizations on Friday are hosting interfaith leaders in Detroit to speak about water shutoffs, concerns over environmental contamination and other water-related issues across the state. Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith leaders plan to speak at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History about water access and affordability, privatization, environmental contamination and Line 5 — an Enbridge oil pipeline that runs through the Straits of Mackinac. Wayne State University also has agreed to offer a 90-minute workshop at the event, with professors and graduate students educating attendees on how to “advocate for the sustainable management of freshwater resources,” according to the university.
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$1M grant to fight Great Lakes growing microplastic problem

Could the solution to microplastic pollution come from Wayne State University? Principal researcher Yongli Zhang, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, certainly hopes so. With the help of a recently awarded grant totaling $929,000 from the Great Lakes Protection Fund, Zhang will lead a team of engineers and biologists in mitigating the micro-contaminants from entering the water. "The issue of plastic pollution, and more specifically microplastic pollution, is beginning to get more attention," said Zhang in a press release. "However, this is still a relatively new issue for more people, and a great deal of research and outreach is still needed to make positive changes to public awareness and engagement.”
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Rolling the dice with Enbridge, Line 5 and the Great Lakes

It's hard to look at a deal announced this week between the State of Michigan and Canadian oil giant Enbridge and not feel like Gov. Rick Snyder is really rolling the dice: Gambling that aging, damaged Line 5, an oil pipeline running through the Straits of Mackinac, won't have a significant breach or rupture in the 7 to 10 years. "This is a state and a department of environmental quality that have an absolutely horrendous record of everything from technical judgement to oversight, to, frankly, fundamentally protecting people’s water and people themselves. It’s like a bad deal between the two worst actors," says Noah Hall, a professor at Wayne State University Law School and founder of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center.
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How long can Great Lakes fend off thirsty world from water diversions?

Noah Hall, an environmental lawyer from Wayne State University, said the changes wrought by climate alterations could require amendments to water compacts. “The Great Lakes Compact states made a rare move to address a problem before it became a problem," Hall said. "While some of these reforms can happen at the state level," Hall wrote, "or through operational changes in compact administration, more fundamental changes will require revision of existing compacts." Such changes will not come easy, he added, and “will require leadership and political will."