Career of working to keep drinking water safe garners high honor for UofSC chemistry professor

In a world where microscopic germs can kill, maintaining a good source of clean drinking water is essential for life to flourish.

But the process of making the water clean by use of chemical disinfectants has some unintended consequences. And while those pale in comparison to the dangers of unclean drinking water, examining just what health hazards those disinfection byproducts cause for humans has been the focus of chemist Susan Richardson’s career.

“It’s really important to kill the pathogens in the water,” Richardson says. “It’s the whole reason we disinfect, and it has been hailed as a major triumph of the 20th century.

“These disinfection byproducts are totally an unintended consequence and we didn’t even know they existed until 1974. They’re accidentally formed depending on much organic matter you have in the water you are disinfecting.”

For her career of research in this area, Richardson has been elected a fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, an organization that seeks to advance science, engineering and innovation for the benefit of all people. The organization also produces the Science family of research journals.

Richardson found her field of expertise via a roundabout path.

“Most of my career has been on trying to solve the human health issues surrounding drinking water,” Richardson says.

Richardson credits her high school chemistry teacher with sparking her interest in the field in general. She earned her bachelor’s from Georgia College & State University in 1984, then went on to Emory University, where she completed her Ph.D. in 1989. After that, it was on to a post-doc role at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at a lab in Athens, Georgia.

“I had never done any environmental work before. I had never taken an environmental chemistry class at all,” she says. “When they saw I had this mass spectrometry background and training and I knew how to identify unknown chemicals, they kind of snapped me up as a post-doc because there was a federal hiring freeze on at the time.”

Richardson began her work on disinfection byproducts while at the EPA.

Most of my career has been on trying to solve the human health issues surrounding drinking water.

Susan Richardson, chemistry professor, fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science

“I learned environmental chemistry on the job,” she says. “I had a couple of good mentors there who taught me most of everything I know about environmental chemistry and I really liked this stuff a whole lot.

“It was that feeling like I could make a difference — not just publishing very nice rigorous chemistry papers, but also doing something to make a difference in the world.”

After nearly 25 years at the EPA in Athens, Richardson came to South Carolina in 2014 and is the Arthur Sease Williams Professor of Chemistry. She teaches analytical chemistry for chemistry majors and nonmajors, as well as mass spectrometry, the skill that made her so valuable to the EPA. She also helps teach graduate students how to give a seminar.

“We start with the 30-second elevator pitch, then train them on a 20-minute seminar, then a 40-minute seminar — that’s the job application speech,” Richardson says.

One area of research Richardson has worked on in her time at UofSC has focused on the disinfection byproducts in swimming pools. Studies had shown that heavy swimmers had an increased incidence of asthma and bladder cancer.

“Nobody had looked to see what was there,” she says. “We did a complete screening for unknowns.

“It was on a lark really, but it started that whole area for me.”

Now just like in her work with drinking water, Richardson is looking to make pool water safer as well.

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