News - Greenville University Research Team Examines Well Water In Southern Illinois

Greenville University Research Team Examines Well Water In Southern Illinois

By Carla Morris

water testingA dearth of data about water quality in southern Illinois turned into a wealth of hands-on research opportunities for Greenville University students Hannah Frerker ’19 and Jonathon Adams ’18.

As part of the University’s Summer Research Experience, the students tested water from nine municipal sources and 25 private wells in the Greenville area. They examined levels of bacteria, metals and pharmaceutical and personal care products (PPCPs).

Bacteria in Well Water

While municipal samples showed no signs of bacteria, the samples from private wells told a different story. Sixty-six percent showed signs of coliform bacteria and nearly 30 percent showed signs of E. coli. 

Though the research revealed no threatening levels of bacteria, it showed conditions conducive to the growth of bacteria.Jonathan Adams Summer Research 2017

“EPA standards call for no coliform or E. coli bacteria,” said project supervisor Darrell Iler, director of STEM programs at the University. “Well water is not regulated. It is solely the responsibility of the property owner to get it checked.”

In cases where tests revealed bacteria and E. coli, the students advised property owners to pursue additional testing through county health departments or other agencies.

Flint-Inspired Research

The idea for the research initially flowed from student interest in the well-publicized water crisis in Flint, Michigan. There, water treated with chlorine to combat bacteria contributed to the corrosion of lead pipes and the release of lead into drinking water. 

Turning their attention to local water, Iler’s team sought reports on water quality for Greenville and surrounding communities. They discovered a deficit of information about well water in southern Illinois. The deficit presented an opportunity: this sparked the team's idea to test the water and gather data themselves (Pictured above, student researcher Jonathan Adams.)

Show and Tell From Notorious Flint Researcher

Marc Edwards, head of environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, gained notoriety when he and his team uncovered toxic levels of lead in Flint.

Iler, who earned his PhD in chemistry from Virginia Tech, contacted Edwards to see if the trio of researchers from Greenville might visit Edwards’ lab and learn about testing water samples for metals. Edwards agreed.

The visit exceeded Iler’s expectations. He and his students watched the processes Edwards’ team employed to assess the levels of 28 different metals. They also used the lab’s advanced instrumentation and assisted in testing 19 water samples they had carefully prepared and brought along. Eight of the samples exceeded at least one of the EPA’s standards. 

Hannah FrerkerAntibiotics in the Water

Just as Edwards’ group at Virginia Tech helped Iler’s team test the water samples for metal, Kevin Tucker, assistant professor of analytical chemistry at Southern Illinois University - Edwardsville, helped them test samples for pharmaceutical and personal care products (PPCPs), including antibiotics. 

Antibiotics are commonly added to animal feed to speed the animals’ growth. When the animals defecate, the antibiotics contained in the feces enter the groundwater.

The students tested seven samples for PPCPs and found 35 different antibiotics. “We don’t know what the health impact of this is,” says Iler. “It can’t be good.” (Pictured above, at left, student researcher Hannah Frerker.)

Researchers Helping Researchers

The students’ work has drawn interest from researchers elsewhere, including the Illinois State Water Survey, a division of the Prairie Research Institute of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“We have benefited so much from the generosity of strangers,” says Iler. “Marc Edwards’ group at Virginia Tech, the chemistry department at Virginia Tech—if you think of SIU-Edwardsville—they didn’t have to do all that for us. They’ve trained our students how to prepare the samples; they’ve run the analysis . . . they’ve given us their time, the instrumentation and training.”

The Greenville University team has already reduced the deficit of information about well water in southern Illinois. They will add a student researcher to their ranks this fall and continue testing and analyzing water samples.

Learn More:

Students’ Discovery Draws Interest From International Scientific Community
GC Pair to Help Shape Nation’s Science Education
Record Number of Students in Summer Science Research
GC Students Secure Competitive Science Research Internships

You can help fund experiential learning in the sciences with a gift to The Catalyst Fund.  Give today.



This story was published on August 23, 2017

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