What’s in the well water?
Besides two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay students and faculty are looking to find what else is in drinking water.
A groundwater study facilitated by UW-Green Bay and county governments in four Northeastern Wisconsin counties should determine if well water is being contaminated with pharmaceuticals and other bio-waste.
“We’re specifically looking for indications that the well water has been contaminated with either animal waste or human waste,” said Prof. Angie Bauer-Dantoin, professor of Human Biology and Nutritional Sciences. “So, we’re looking for different types of bacteria, we’re looking at nitrate levels, and we’re also looking for evidence that there are factors in the water that can act like hormones.”
One of the major interests in the study is evidence of hormones in groundwater, particularly estrogen.
It’s an area that hasn’t received much study, Bauer-Dantoin said.
UW-Green Bay students are using breast cancer cells to determine if there are elevated levels of estrogen in groundwater samples, which could come from pharmaceuticals in human waste or animal waste seeping into the ground. An elevated estrogen level will cause the cancer cells to replicate more rapidly.
“At this point what we’re mainly interested in is, if there any health implications of what’s happening,” said Prof. Kevin Fermanich, professor of Natural and Applied Sciences. “I think there’s a fair amount of interest in this particular topic… Peoples’ drinking water is of critical importance to everybody.”
The study could show that water is safe to drink in the sampling areas, or that land management practices need to be changed, researchers say.
What’s in the water?
A UW-Green Bay Groundwater Study
Prof. Angie Bauer-Dantoin
Human Biology and Nutritional Sciences
We are, right now, conducting a study to look for certain contaminants in the well water of four different counties in Northeastern Wisconsin—Brown County, Calumet County, Fond du Lac County and Kewaunee County. And we’re specifically looking for indications that the well water has been contaminated with either animal waste or human waste. So, we’re looking for different types of bacteria, we’re looking at nitrate levels, and we’re also looking for evidence that there are factors in the water that can act like hormones; we’re looking for endocrine disruptors.
One of our major interests is looking at whether or not there is hormonal activities in these well water samples. This is something that, to date, not many have paid attention to. It seems as though well water is becoming increasingly contaminated, either with factors that act as hormones that are coming from human waste, perhaps from pharmaceuticals that we use, or hormones that are coming from animal waste, perhaps from cattle manure that’s applied to the land as a fertilizer.
Basically, what we’re doing is we’re growing breast cancer cells in the lab. Breast cancer cells, this particular line anyway, are known to increase their rate of division; increase the rate at which they replicate themselves in the presence of estrogen. So if we throw some estrogen on the cells, they will proliferate at a more rapid rate. Likewise, if we put some extracts from these water samples on the cells that have perhaps hormones present within them, they would cause the cells then to proliferate more rapidly as well. That would give us some indication of the level of estrogenicity in the water samples.
Graduate student/Environmental Science and Policy
We’re looking at MCF7 breast cancer cells. Basically what happens is you add the samples to the cells that we have been growing for a long time, making sure they’re healthy and whatnot. And if the samples have something in them that’s an endocrine disrupter, then the cells will proliferate in such a way. The more highly concentrated the endocrine disrupter is in the water, the more the cells will grow.
Senior/Biology, Environmental Science
It could have an impact in the future on how our agricultural fields are managed, and things like that—potential (changes to) laws or regulations. I mean, if down the road we find out these things are harmful and that it is being put into their well, steps will have to be taken to prevent that. That’s why I think it’s important. Even though we don’t know all the impacts of endocrine disruptors and things like that, it’s important to find out if it’s there now so if we do find out there are impacts, we can do something about it.
Prof. Kevin Fermanich
Natural and Applied Sciences (Earth Science)
At this point, what we’re mainly interested in is, are there any health implications of what’s happening. I think there’s a fair amount of interest in this particular topic from the agricultural community, from the conservation and soil and water conservation offices throughout the area, and the local governments, because, obviously, peoples’ drinking water is of critical importance to everybody. If we know we have situations that maybe we shouldn’t be spreading manure, or times of the year we shouldn’t be spreading manure, or we have septic systems that are leaking into the groundwater, we need to change those if we’re going to protect people’s drinking water or supply them with another form of drinking water.
And so what we’re hoping to do then is connect the water quality data to the land use practices and find out where those connections are and where we can suggest changes to the (land) management.