Have you ever thought about what happens to the chemicals in your every day life after you are done using them? Soap, medication, household cleaners, and even the residue on that new plastic food container all contain chemical compounds which can be biologically active. Through a combination of wildlife biology and environmental chemistry, we will figure out the fate and impact of chemicals leaving suburban homes.
Our work has been inspired by our discovery that frogs living in backyard ponds often have deformities. In fact, 20 percent of suburban male green frogs have testicular oocytes: eggs in their testes. Their sperm quality may be affected as well. While this likely isn’t good for frogs, it may also mean something for us humans. There is an adage that ‘the solution to pollution is dilution.’ The problem in this case is that chemicals acting through hormonal pathways can have effects even at very low concentrations. And there are a startling number of potentially harmful chemicals out there.
The next step for our research is to find out what sorts of chemicals survive the trip through septic systems and whether any of them make it into the ground water and then potentially into drinking water wells. The testing is expensive. This is because instead of looking for a single chemical, we are looking for vanishingly small concentrations of many chemicals, including medications, detergents, and pesticides. While these chemicals may seem quite different, they can have similar effects inside a human body.
If you knew that the medication your next door neighbor was taking for his prostate condition was ending up in your tap water, would it matter to you?
The chemicals we are studying are known to have serious effects on the reproductive systems of both wildlife and humans. We won’t understand the risks they impose in suburban neighborhoods until we better characterize which chemicals are making it into the ground water and ponds where we live.
The chemical testing we need to carry out will rely on a high tech approach, POCIS samplers, to capture compounds which are present at very low concentrations. POCIS stands for Polar Organic Chemical Integrative Samplers. The heart of a POCIS is one or more special materials called sorbents which collect chemicals out of the water during an exposure of about one month. We will be placing POCIS samplers in neighborhood ponds and in wells drilled in backyards. POCIS samplers are amazing devices, but they are not cheap. We need $7000 to purchase the needed samplers. They are absolutely crucial to our research, as they let us detect these chemicals at very low concentrations.
Right now, we know that amphibians are much more likely to be deformed in suburban landscapes compared with other places like agricultural regions and forests. The kinds of deformities we find are exactly like the ones produced by exposure to estrogens. And we have evidence that estrogens as a group are more prevalent in suburban ponds. But we still know very little about what chemicals are present. And we have no data on the origin of estrogenic chemicals. We suspect that the discharge from septic systems will be important but we need to sample the groundwater to know whether this is true.
Geoff Giller is a graduate student at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He graduated cum laude from Amherst College with degrees in Biology and French. He is driven by a desire to study and reduce the impacts of pollution in freshwater ecosystems, and spends as much time as possible in and around ponds, streams, and lakes. When not trying to catch amphibians, Giller can usually be found either taking pictures or playing Ultimate Frisbee.
Max Lambert is an ecologist and a graduate student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He graduated with honors from UC-Davis with a degree in Wildlife Conservation Biology. His work has ranged from protecting and managing waterfowl, owls, and eagles to studying turtle, frog, and salamander communities in urban and suburban areas. He enjoys long walks through marshes, black coffee, and catching salamanders in the rain.
David Skelly is an ecologist, a professor, and an associate dean at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He is interested in the ways in which the human endeavor reshapes the environments where people live and how these changes affect us and the other species who live around us. Fostering a better understanding of these dynamics is absolutely critical as suburban development becomes the increasingly dominant mode of human settlement. When not being a research geek, Skelly loves getting outside with his kids and building boats.
For a video of our previous research see: “Sex and the Surburban Frog”
For more information about our lab, the people in it, and the work we do: Skelly Lab
WE DID IT!
All, thank you so much for your support! As of last night, we reached our goal- and we're continuing to get contributions! Thank you all so much for your help- we are thrilled!
Hey all- got a very special opportunity! If you are near New Haven, come to BAR Pizza (254 Crown St) at 7 p.m. this Tuesday, May 8. Our advisor, Dr. David Skelly, will be chatting and answering questions over beer and pizza. It's a great chance to meet a really smart, fun Yale professor and talk about science in an informal setting! More info here: http://news.yale.edu/2012/04/30/peabody-s-science-caf-launches-look-next-frontier-water-pollution
Very interesting and relevant post from Nicholas Kristof in the NYTImes today: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/03/opinion/kristof-how-chemicals-change-us.html
I did a guest post for the organization Frogs Are Green: Check it out!
We're in the last three weeks of the fund-raising! Thanks again to our supporters- I'm confident that we'll reach our goal by the deadline! Please feel free to share this project with your family and friends, as well!
Max and I have nailed down most of our sampling sites. The toads, frogs, and peepers we'll be studying should start breeding soon, so stay tuned!
Getting closer! Max and I are continuing to visit field sites and work out the details of our water sampling. As the summer approaches, we're looking forward to the fun part of the project, when we get to do the actual field work!
We (and some other projects on the site) were featured in a blog about innovation; our bit is near the end, after the interview with Matt Salzberg, the founder of PetriDish: http://kimmicblog.com/2012/04/13/dishing-up-science-to-the-public-one-project-at-a-time-the-innovation-interview-with-petridish-orgs-matt-salzberg/
75%! We're well on our way to being funded! Max and I have been scoping out our field sites, getting permission from landowners to sample on their properties. Almost all of them have been extremely supportive and interested in what we're doing, which is always exciting for us- it's great to be able to engage the landowners in the science.
Thanks again to all our funders and supporters!
Four days in, and already over half-way there! Thanks to everyone for your generosity thus far! As the weather warms up, some amphibians (like the wood frogs) have already started breeding. Soon Max and I will be out in the field collecting water samples and amphibian specimens for our research!
Tomorrow, we're headed out to some of the suburban field sites where we'll be doing our sampling over the next several months.