Water INTERface

An Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program United by the Central Focus of "Water for Health."

Water INTERface - An Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program United by the Central Focus of "Water for Health."

Our Water Infrastructure – An Interconnected Microbial Ecosystem

A recent AAAS symposium on Microbiomes of the Built Environment in Washington DC featured some of the prominent work being done on the frontiers of modern water science in the realms of drinking water distribution systems, waste water infrastructure, and premise (building) plumbing.

A Gizmodo feature discusses this idea of considering our water infrastructure (all three kinds) as interconnected microbial ecosystems – which indeed they are. Whether it is waterborne pathogens (like Legionella pneumophila) that might lurk in premise plumbing and infect you in the shower or harmful bacteria that propagate failures (corrosion) in concrete sewer pipes – identifying the role microbes play is critical to devise custom-fit solutions. Microbiological phenomena eating away ‘underground pipes’ may appear counter-intuitive but considering how they (microbes) are our numero uno public health enemy in causing diseases, one cannot but marvel at their proliferation and extent to which they do rule our lives.

It is in this context that the talk of Dr. Amy Pruden, among other distinguished researchers, at this symposium is worth mentioning. As we become disillusioned about what is in our drinking water, we might find ways of tweaking the microbiological environment (think pipe material, disinfectant chemical being added, temperature, even injecting ‘helpful’ microbes, etc.). If we find optimum ways of altering these variables to make a suitable water system that inhibits harmful bacteria growth and proliferate helpful ones – like fecal transplants for the human gut – the possibilities are indeed very encouraging.

Read the full Gizmodo article here: Concrete-Dissolving Bacteria are destroying our Nation’s sewers

Ooho! – The ‘edible and biodegradable’ alternative to bottled water

We, as a society, thrive on novelty and innovation. Not only for the rush it provides but also because they have the potential to (forgive my Bill Nye moment) “dare I say it – Change the world!”. Bottled water is ubiquitous and, despite concerns over plastic bottles, it is unlikely that we are moving away from them anytime soon.

Ooho! – a unique approach to ‘bottling’ water – was one of twelve winners at the Lexus Design Awards 2014. A blob-like container made from calcium chloride and sodium alginate (from brown algae), it allows water storage in different ‘drop’ like volumes. It is edible, if you choose to eat it, and biodegradable, if you throw it away.

Ooho! – The answer to bottled water?

These blobs are made using a process called ‘spherification’ that allows liquids to be shaped in spheres an, thus, can be custom-sized. The compound from calcium chloride-brown algae creates a gel around the water while it (the water) is frozen to allow creation of bigger spheres of the container. The cost? Two cents (at least that is what Fast Company reports).

Drinking or ‘eating’?

Check out the TIME magazine feature with a fun video on Ooho! and go to Designboom to see more cool photos!

Unravelling the environmental and public health impacts of the West Virginia Chemical Spill

It has been two months since over 10,000 gallons of a coal product separation chemical called crude 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (or MCHM) spilled in the Elk river and contaminated drinking water supplies of over 300 000 residents. While the ban on using tap water was lifted pretty soon after MCHM levels dropped below detection limits, consumers are still sensing the licorice-like odor of MCHM in their waters.

NSF gave out three RAPID grants of $50000 each to researchers from University of South Alabama (Dr. Andrew Whelton), West Virginia University (Dr. Jennifer Weidhaas), and Virginia Tech (Dr. Andrea Dietrich) to assess the contamination of the river, treatment plant and surrounding river areas, absorption of MCHM on plastic piping inside consumer homes, and physicochemical behaviors of MCHM itself in the environment respectively. Considering this spill is one of the largest human-caused contamination cases in history, its urgency and seriousness cannot be emphasized enough. NSF has previously awarded RAPID grants during the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill and 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

VT News recently featured this ongoing work at Virginia Tech that Dr. Dietrich, along with her graduate student Amanda Sain and students in her Environmental Analysis graduate-level course are doing to understand MCHM and its behavior in the environment. Very little is known about the toxicity and the fate of the chemical itself whether in the environment or within water systems which makes this a unique problem to tackle.

More importantly, this work directly impacts people’s lives in West Virginia and is an opportunity for students to not only take on real world problems but also contribute positively to society and its ever-changing needs.

CDC Research: Energy Drink Usage in Adolescents

 Just out today from the CDC – too many kids believe that energy drinks are safe to consume, and that they are a type of sports drink. More efforts to promote water consumption are needed, particularly among this age group! According to the CDC:
“A recent CDC study shows that more health promotion efforts may be needed to educate young people about the potential health dangers of consuming energy drinks. Energy drinks contain caffeine that ranges from 50 mg to 500 mg per can or bottle (compared with the average can of cola that has 35 mg), as well as other ingredients aimed at boosting energy. When used in excess, they can cause health problems such as elevated blood pressure and dehydration because of their high caffeine content. The American Academy of Pediatrics in 2011 recommended against energy drink intake by adolescents given their possible adverse health effects.

The study, “Perceptions About Energy Drinks Are Associated with Energy Drink Intake Among US Youth,” is available online in the American Journal of Health Promotion. It looks at factors associated with energy drink consumption among young people and the relationship between what young people perceive about energy drinks and their energy drink consumption.

CDC researchers used data from the 2011 Youth Styles Survey to conduct this analysis. Youth Styles is an online survey that looks at health beliefs and behaviors of young people between 12 and 17 years of age on important public health topics. The following are results of a survey taken from 779 youths:

  • Overall, 8% of young people drank energy drinks weekly—20% wrongly perceived that energy drinks are safe drinks for teens and 13% wrongly perceived that energy drinks are a type of sports drink.
  • Factors associated with energy drink intake among young people include alcohol use, increased physical activity, decreased vegetable and fruit consumption, and increased fast food consumption.
  • Factors associated with the belief that energy drinks are safe drinks for teens include being male, drinking alcohol, using marijuana, and drinking non-diet soda. These findings suggest that young people who believe that energy drinks are safe are more likely to participate in unhealthy behaviors, possibly because of a lack of awareness or education, peer influence, or deliberate risk-taking behavior.
  • Energy drink consumption was higher among young people who perceived that energy drinks are safe drinks for teens and that they are a type of sports drink.

Energy drinks are growing in popularity among young people with about half of the energy drink market consisting of adolescents and young adults. Given their potential harmful effects, it is important to examine how young people perceive the health risks of energy drinks. The findings from this study suggest that many young people wrongly perceive that energy drinks are safe and may need additional information about them.”

For More Information


Probiotic approaches to pathogen control in premise plumbing – Featured Research Snippet

The Berkeley Science Review recently featured the ongoing work of Dr. Amy Pruden (and her collaborators) here at Virginia Tech on devising probiotic approaches to controlling pathogens in premise plumbing* (i.e. potable and hot water piping systems in buildings which are the private property of homeowners).

The idea is to understand the complex microbiome prevailing in plumbing systems by studying the role of important variables (like pipe materials, water chemistry, disinfection, water flow and temperature) on microbes. This can provide insights into altering the microbial ecology inside pipes and creating suitable conditions which include, among others, prevention of opportunistic pathogens from proliferating in the pipe systems inside biofilms. Opportunistic pathogens are harmful microorganisms like Legionella pneumophila that can affect immunocompromised populations like the young, elderly and HIV-affected among others and cause life-threatening diseases like Legionnaire’s disease (About 8000 – 18000 people are hospitalized each year  due to this disease although the actual number of infections could be much higher).

What is immensely fascinating is the possibility of changing conditions in pipe materials that inhibits growth of such pathogens and perhaps encourages that of harmless microbes. This would be a novel methodology of ensuring drinking water safety and aid or perhaps even surpass conventional disinfection from the treatment plant. Even more interesting is Dr. Pruden’s observation of the idea emerging from fecal transplants and their phenomenal success in treating gut infections by Clostridium difficile.

Check out the Berkeley article here: Researchers consider a probiotic approach to plumbing

Collaborators: Dr. Marc A. Edwards, Dr. Joseph Falkinham III

Students: Dr. Hong Wang, Pan Ji, Caitlin Proctor

And the original ES&T review paper: Wang H, Edwards MA, Falkinham JO 3rd and Pruden, A. Probiotic approach to pathogen control in premise plumbing systems? A review. Environ Sci Technol. 2013 Sep 17;47(18):10117-28. doi: 10.1021/es402455r

Dr. Pruden, Dr. Edwards and Dr. Falkinham are core Water INTERface IGEP Faculty.

*If you are interested to learn more about premise plumbing and associated problems, watch this seminar by Dr. Marc Edwards

My ‘Water IGEP’ journey so far: Reflections

I stumbled upon the Water INTERface IGEP program by accident. It was never a part of my “MS To-Do List” to begin with. I heard of it during the first ‘Engineering Ethics and the Public’ (see launch info here) class in Fall ’12 when students talked of Ethics being a requirement for an “IGEP” or a certain ‘Professoriate’ certificate. I took Engineering Ethics because it was a welcome breather in the whirlwind of interesting yet primarily technical courses and, in retrospect, was one of the most rewarding classes I have ever taken. It gave me my current advisor – Dr. Marc Edwards, a fantastic research group but most importantly a platform of sound values on which I have the choice to build my career and my life. Fascinating ongoing and past cases of questionable ethics, their implications to public health and the taxpayer’s money and a whole new way of approaching the way scientists and engineers operate in the 21st century and what is missing in their education and their decision making. Ethics changed my life for the better and I wouldn’t be surprised if I hear the same from others who have taken it over the years.

In Spring ’13, ‘Water For Health: Seminar’ was advertised as a 1-credit course and the title was all it took for me to sign up. While understanding the nitty-gritties of drinking water, wastewater – their associated technical and regulatory elements in regular classes, this 1-hour/week breeze of a class was what I needed to just go to and listen to people from different ‘water’ backgrounds and, essentially, help expand my binoculars of understanding the role of water in society and our lives. Having the chance to “create” one’s own white paper in a group was so much fun! “Do the benefits of water reuse/recycling outweigh perceived and real risks?” was what we worked on.

It paid off later (well, kinda) at a banquet during the 50th Association of Environmental Engineering Scientists and Professors (AEESP) Conference in Golden, CO in June ’13 when one of the pioneers of the water field, Dr. Richard Luthy (Stanford) talked about the critical role ‘water reuse’ was going to play in the coming years in the US and around the world. I got up to ask a question on public perception of why ‘direct reuse’ was not so readily accepted in the US like Singapore (because ‘direct reuse’ = ‘Singapore’ was what my research had revealed while working on the white paper) and while I got a good answer from him, another industry leader (He Who Shalt Not Be Named) shot my question down stating Singapore was ‘indirect’ reuse and that projects were coming up in Texas which were ‘direct’ reuse. A little red-faced, I understood how there can be differing viewpoints about the ‘technical’ way the water reuse technology, or for that matter any technology, is viewed. Dr. Pruden (CEE) did come by later chuckling and pointing out that the ‘Water for Health’ class should be given credit for that question coming up in a room full of industrial stalwarts by a student; this, while, I struggled with getting over being shot down for the next hour or two.

I was now familiar with how the IGEP operated and that unknowingly I had completed two requirements of the certificate. It dawned on me that getting into the Water IGEP should definitely be put on my ‘MS To-Do List’. It was a cool happenstance that the third requirement of the IGEP – working on an independent study with a core-IGEP faculty who’s not your advisor – was pretty straightforward. Dr. Davy (Water IGEP Director/HNFE) had an intriguing project lined up on evaluating the readability and clarity of EPA mandated water quality reports by water utilities across the US and Katherine (CEE) Phetxumphou and I put in the effort to analyzing reports from across the country using various tools to answer the question if an average American understood the content and context of the water quality reports s/he receives every year. The interdisciplinary nature of working on this research question (ranging from Environmental Engineering and Human Nutrition to Public Health and Communication Studies) was, I believe, an invaluable experience and a critical learning pitstop for me. The results are eye-opening and we hope to get them to larger audiences in the coming months.

The final piece of the Water IGEP puzzle is the ‘Interdisciplinary Research’ course being offered this semester (Spring ’14) and has a fantastic line-up of mini-projects and expert talks that has me all psyched. From personality tests to group NIH (National Institutes of Health) proposals, I’m curious to see how they help shape or shatter the ways I (and my fellow classmates) think on collaboration and winning sledge races in the roles of being at the helm as well as one of the sledge dogs (the metaphor belongs to Dr. John Little (CEE)).

This course will be the end of my IGEP journey but the connections, the insights and the collaborations I’ve made and have are hopefully going to contribute to a more holistic growth of my academic journey here at Virginia Tech: especially since my ‘MS To-Do List’ has become a lot longer. It has transformed into ‘The PhD Bucket List’.

Chemical Spill in West Virginia affects drinking water supply of 200, 000 citizens

The spillage of over 7500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) from a storage tank in the Elk river has contaminated the drinking water supply of over 200, 000 citizens in and around Charleston, West Virginia. President Obama declared a state of emergency for the state and the public has been instructed to not use tap water for drinking, bathing, brushing teeth and preparing infant formula. Toilet flushing is the only designated ‘safe’ activity for the water they are currently receiving in their homes.

The storage tank is owned by Freedom Industries which deals in specialty chemicals for mining, steel, and cement industries. MCHM is used to wash coal and separate impurities via a floatation process. MCHM is harmful if swallowed or inhaled. It causes skin and eye irritation. Although, it is not reportedly toxic, MCHM levels in the water are still above the safe 1 parts per million limit. It looks like cooking oil floating on water but being colorless it’d be hard to distinguish when it flows down from the taps.

Stores like Kroger have been swept clean of all their bottled water supply and people are relying on tankers to deliver drinking water and are into their third day without ‘drinkable’ water flowing from their taps.

So much for the facts.

It is mind boggling – the scale on which these environmental contamination disasters (or less) from industries and non-public entities occur and often render hundreds of thousands of people without safe water for days despite no fault of their own. It also raises important questions on the installation of factories near water bodies and the safety practices of these private entities along with the quality of federal oversight. Despite no reported hospitalizations and illness cases so far, it has impacted homes, businesses, restaurants, day care and all major forms of business-as-usual.

Drinking water is a fundamental need of the human population and we must do a better job at protecting any and all resources that fulfill this irreplaceable need of ours’.

The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/11/us/west-virginia-chemical-spill.html?hp&_r=0
CSM: http://www.csmonitor.com/Environment/Energy-Voices/2014/0110/West-Virginia-chemical-spill-What-is-4-methylcyclohexane-methanol
MCHM Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS): http://mediad.publicbroadcasting.net/p/wvpn/files/201401/MSDS-MCHM_I140109214955.pdf
Dallas News: http://www.dallasnews.com/news/metro/20140112-river-chemical-spill-in-west-virginia-larger-than-first-believed.ece

Celebrity Water Advocate-Matt Damon!

It’s great to see that water has a celebrity advocate-Matt Damon! In our graduate water seminar a few years back, the class came to the collective realization that celebrity advocates can really help to advance a cause  (think about the Got Milk? campaign!). His organization, located at water.org, raises funds to bring water and toilets to developing countries-a truly worthwhile cause given that Water and sanitation are linked to public health. how can we also get more attention to our domestic water challenges-crumbling infrastructure, awareness of the health benefits of water consumption? We need a domestic water advocate to help raise awareness!

A Primer to the water you flush down the toilet

Had I not been an Environmental Engineering student, I doubt I’d really think about what happens to the water after it leaves the kitchen sink. It is amazing – the technology out there in waste water treatment plants which incorporates both chemical and biological treatment processes and technologies to clean water to federal standards.

A short animated video, perhaps aimed at kids, but relevant to everyone is available on YouTube. Check it out here:
Beyond The Drain