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Institute for Clean Water

Contaminants and Effects on Ecosystems

Researchers are discovering new water contaminants that have lethal effects on microorganisms in water bodies. These microorganisms are the supportive base of aquatic ecosystems, which means threats posed to them also impact surrounding wildlife and humans, leading to significant ecological risk.

Effects of Commercial and Biological Contaminants on Organisms at the Base of the Food Web

This research area focuses on measuring water quality in lakes across South Carolina to understand how the contaminants found in the water impact the aquatic microorganisms that make up all of life in South Carolina's ecosystems.

Each year, we will sample and measure water contaminants and their effects on phytoplankton in a different lake system in the state and at different concentration levels: Lake Marion, Lake Murray, Lake Wateree and one to be determined based on previous years' data.

Research Significance

  • Investigating the effects of these contaminants is critical for managing risk to ecosystems and providing evidence needed to establish regulatory guidelines and laws surrounding contaminants and water quality.

  • We supplement water quality measurements performed by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (SC-DHEC) and investigate, in particular:

    • Two common pharmaceutical contaminants, diclofenac and carbamazepine

    • Two emerging commercial contaminants, one a forever chemical (PFAS) and one a chemical resulting from tire manufacturing (6ppd-quinone)

    • We also investigate biological contaminants in water, including toxic algae.

Groundbreaking Research

To our knowledge, this research is the first statewide non-target analysis of chemicals in water bodies. This non-target approach will provide new information on contaminants in South Carolina water bodies, allowing a broader view compared to traditional targeted chemical-by-chemical approaches. This novel approach may lead to the discovery of chemicals not previously known to be present in South Carolina's waters.

Our research is also the most comprehensive assessment of PFAS in South Carolina and the first measurement of the new contaminant 6ppd-quinone in water bodies in the state.


Research Aim

The primary aim of this research component will be to investigate the sublethal and lethal effects of two common pharmaceuticals (diclofenac and carbamazepine) and 2 emerging contaminants (PFAS and 6ppd-quinone) on organisms at the base of the food web. We are conducting targeted studies of effects of selected contaminants on phytoplankton community composition and photosynthetic capacity.

Our research uses:

1. A broad screen, non-target approach using liquid chromatography (LC)-high resolution-mass spectrometry (MS) and gas chromatography (GC)-high resolution-MS to identify unknown chemicals in South Carolina water bodies.

2. A targeted quantitative approach to extensively quantify per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) and 6ppd-quinone in South Carolina water bodies.

Bioassays will be used to measure phytoplankton responses to 5 different concentrations (0, 1, 2.5, 5, and 10x reported environmental levels) of diclofenac, carbamazepine, PFAS and 6ppd-quinone 11.

Our deliverable will be effective concentrations for 50% mortality (EC50 values) for major phytoplankton groups (diatoms, dinoflagellates, cyanobacteria, chlorophytes and cryptophytes.)

Purpose: To investigate the impacts of contaminants on phytoplankton in different water bodies (and therefore the impacts on the surrounding ecosystems as a whole) 

Research vision: Our deliverable will be effective concentrations for 50% mortality (EC50 values) for major phytoplankton groups (diatoms, dinoflagellates, cyanobacteria, chlorophytes and cryptophytes.) Bioassays for each of the 4 compounds will be conducted seasonally for one lake system. 


SC Impact

This research will have a positive impact on the understanding of water quality and new ways to manage risks to ecosystems across South Carolina. While this is a state-wide research focus, certain areas of public interest will benefit greatly from this institute's work. 

Increased Awareness of Water Quality Issues

This research will lead to deeper and broader understanding of the water quality in our state while also seeking to educate the public about the safety and quality of water where they live, work and play.

Wildlife and Aquatic Ecosystems

Understanding the health of aquatic ecosystems leads to maintaining the health of animals and humans in water and on land. This research will help protect our local wildlife and aquatic ecosystems, enabling them to thrive. 

Tourism and Economic Development

This research will seek to understand the differences between objective measures of water quality and subjective perceptions, which will aid tourism and industry for the advancement of our state's economic development. 

Environmental Awareness

This research will raise overall awareness about the effects of water quality on the environment and why it is so important to protect our waterways as a state.

Notable Awards, Outcomes, and Practical Uses for this Research

We are constantly making progress with this research and planning real-world uses to improve water quality maintenance and understanding across South Carolina.


Institute for Clean Water

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