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What's in Our Water?  Student Research Seeks Answers and Yields Honors

Honors Alumni Spotlight

What's in Our Water? 
Student Research Seeks Answers and Yields Honors

How safe is the water you drink? Do you really know what's in bottled or fountain drinking water? What impact does water contamination have on human health and the environment?

At NSU, junior biology major Roshni Patel (class of 2015) and Karem Molinares (B.S. in Biology, 2014) sought answers to these questions by measuring various ion concentrations in samples of bottled and fountain drinking water. Their research, based on work completed for independent study courses, won first-place honors at the 2014 Undergraduate Student Symposium.

"Our project ["Evaluating Common Ion Concentrations in Bottled Drinking Water and Local Marine Water"] was focused on the presence of contaminants in drinking water, specifically with an interest in human toxicology and environmental hazards," said Patel, a member of the Undergraduate Honors Program  and NSU's Dual Admission Program for osteopathic medicine.

The students' goals were to measure concentrations of common ions, metals, and bacteria in drinking water samples presumed to be clean and safe; evaluate cases in which chemicals exceeded regulated standards; and assess the differences in drinking water quality from different sources and processes.

As part of the study, the students collected samples of bottled drinking water from two common brands and fountain drinking water from four college campuses (NSU, University of South Florida, Rutgers University, and Hillsborough Community College).

The samples were tested for concentrations of ions including chloride and sulfate. The results were compared to the values reported by the water distributing companies and national standards set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). EPA standards determine drinking water's allowed "maximum contaminant level" (MCL) deemed safe for human health, and secondary MCL for known contaminants that may cause changes in the taste, odor, or color of the water, or to consumers' skin or teeth.

Through their research, the students found a small fraction of drinking water samples that met or exceeded these contaminant levels, as well as some discrepancies between the measured levels of nitrate, fluoride, and sulfate and those values reported by the water manufacturers.

"Some [contaminant levels] were above the EPA regulated values," said Molinares, who is applying to dental schools and plans to begin studies in fall 2015. "A significant part of this study was raising awareness about the contents of our drinking water. This is very important because water is a major component of life, and we need to know what is safe for us to drink."

"I am very excited that the students' findings have generated new research directions to pursue," said Song Gao, Ph.D., associate professor at NSU and the faculty advisor for the students' independent study courses. "The quality of their work was very high.

"While the majority of samples show chemical levels below EPA regulated values, cases where certain chemicals exceeded MCLs and secondary MCLs did occur occasionally in certain brands of bottled water.

"In the campus water samples, the chemical contaminants did not exceed regulated values, although several samples from one campus did show bacteria counts far exceeding EPA mandated values. This should make people wary of the public drinking fountains on college campuses in terms of health hazards.

"We also observed the fascinating link between low bacteria counts and high copper concentrations. Antimicrobial agents, and their roles in helping increase water quality, warrant further investigation," Gao said.  

Josh Loomis, Ph.D., assistant professor at NSU, also worked with the students by assisting with the bacteria analysis.

On behalf of the research team, Patel presented the results of the study at the 2014 Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences Conference in New York City in June 2014. Patel became interested in water contamination issues while attending the annual Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference as a National Science Foundation scholar in 2012.

"Although the field of green chemistry is relatively new, the science is rooted in simple but modern ideas about sustainability," said Patel, who is pursuing a minor in chemistry. "As a premedical student, I'm interested in the potential toxicological effects and health hazards of different water contaminants such as organic pharmaceuticals or inorganic ions. Independent study has given me an opportunity to continue pursuing this topic." 

"I believe independent study at NSU provides a very unique and powerful opportunity for the student to have a taste of cutting-edge, first-hand experience in scientific research or other scholarly pursuits," Gao said. "It links classroom learning with research discovery and real-world problem solving and develops teamwork working with faculty and fellow students. All of these are added value to their college education and future careers."

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