Columbia Environmental Research Center leads world in chemical and metal sampling

Sunday, December 8, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:16 p.m. CST, Tuesday, December 10, 2013
The Columbia Environmental Research Center has helped create some of the most cutting-edge tools in their field for analyzing pollutants in some of the most severe and inaccessible locations on earth. Data these researchers have collected could change the way the world sets water and air quality standards.

COLUMBIA — Carl Orazio and Jim Petty lowered the small metal canister into a hole that had been drilled through 9 feet of ice on the surface of Winter Quarters Bay, Antarctica.

The two environmental scientists based in Columbia, along with a team from McMurdo Station, the U.S. Antarctic research center, were working in temperatures of minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit to study chemical contaminants in the polluted water.

Inside the canister they lowered 70 feet down into the seawater in October 1995 was the newly patented Semi-Permeable Membrane Device  invented at the Columbia Environmental Research Center.

The design was one of the first passive samplers — a tool that absorbs contaminants over a long period of time with little to no maintenance — created to monitor chemicals in the environment.

The scientists left the devices submerged for several months and had them shipped back to the research center in Columbia for analysis.

The findings showed significant levels of poly-chlorinated biphenyls, chemicals found in electric motors and coolant fluids, the result of machinery and waste from McMurdo Station that was dumped into the bay for nearly 30 years. 

Orazio and Petty's work also demonstrated the capabilities of their new tool.

The passive samplers collected more accurate readings than existing sampling techniques that depended on caged fish or aquatic mussels to absorb chemicals, and it could do so in harsh and remote environments where other methods would have been logistically impossible. 

"There's no way to send caged fish down there," said Orazio, now the deputy director of the Columbia research center. “If you want to know what an organism is being exposed to, you send down an SPMD."

Since that time, the sampler has been adopted and utilized by environmental researchers on every continent, in some of the most severe and inaccessible locations on Earth. 

The success of the device led the U.S. Geological Survey researchers to invent and redevelop four other passive sampling systems, three that detect metal contaminants and another sampler that picks up water-soluble chemicals.

The reliability and relatively low cost of the five passive samplers has led to their widespread use, changing the way environmental researchers study chemical and metal contamination.

The samplers have played a role in several high-profile environmental disasters, including the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil spills.

The devices have even contributed to environmental pollution lawsuits, providing more accurate predictions of long-term environmental damages.

The data gained from the passive samplers could soon change the way government agencies around the world analyze and set water and air quality standards. 


Jim Huckins, inventor of the Semi-Permeable Membrane Device, got the idea after hearing about oil companies that had tried to use polyethylene plastics to clean up spills.  

Huckins and the staff at the research center built off that idea, creating a tool that would separate chemicals from water and store them until they could be analyzed. 

“In designing the SPMD, we were trying to mimic what fish do,” Huckins said, referring to the way fish collect chemicals in their fatty tissue. 

After several trial stages, the design was finished in 1989.

The plastic sleeve and fat that make up the sampler naturally attract non-water-soluble chemicals in pesticides, oil and gas.

"The chemicals and contaminants that we were looking at liked being in fat a hell of a lot more than they liked being in water,” said Huckins, who has since retired.

The device was more practical and reliable than traditional sampling methods that required researchers to routinely check cages of fish or transport gallons of water back to a laboratory.

The samples taken from fish are often skewed because fish metabolize and excrete chemicals, and analysis of the large samples of water cannot account for chemical accumulation over time. 

“If you go out and collect a water sample, it only gives you a snapshot,” Huckins said. 

But with the newer technology, researchers can detect minute amounts of chemicals in the environment over an extended period of time. 

“It was the start of the passive sampling program at the lab,” Huckins said.

In 1996, work on a second chemical sampler began. The primary inventor, David Alvarez, came up with the design while working with Huckins as a doctoral student at MU. 

The Polar Organic Chemical Integrative Sampler picked up chemicals from pharmaceuticals and synthetic hormones used in birth control, something the previous device could not do. 

Both chemical samplers are commercially produced by Environmental Sampling Technologies in St. Joseph. Terri Spencer, lab manager for Environmental Sampling Technologies, said sales of the samplers has spread by word of mouth without the need for advertising.

“The passive sampling community is pretty tight-knit,” Spencer said. “Everybody kind of knows what everybody is doing around the world."

Bill Brumbaugh, another environmental chemist based in Columbia, and the staff at the research center have developed three other devices that sample metal contaminants in soil, water and precipitation.

Like the chemical samplers, Brumbaugh's inventions have replaced more costly and less efficient methods of sampling and allowed researchers to work just about anywhere in the world. 

“We can document with these devices in very remote areas,” Brumbaugh said. “They fit a niche.”

Both the chemical and metal samplers have been used by federal and state agencies, foreign governments, universities and independent businesses.

“There is nothing really magical of why it happened here in Columbia," said Alvarez, inventor of the second chemical sampler. "People had good ideas at the time. We had success at doing it and gained a reputation for it."


When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, sending an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, Dana Wetzel was dispatched. 

For five weeks, Wetzel, an environmental scientist for MOTE Marine Laboratory in Florida, deployed chemical samplers along the Gulf coast from Florida to Louisiana. She also collected water and sediment samples. 

When she returned to the laboratory, Wetzel compared the samples from the water, soil and Semi-Permeable Membrane Device.

“When we were analyzing the large volumes of water, we couldn’t find detectable levels of oil,” Wetzel said. “But we found it in the SPMD.”

Those samples from 2009 have since allowed Wetzel and other researchers to better understand what aquatic organisms were exposed to during the spill.

“The SPMD is really a tool that gets to the questions of how much and how long and allows us then to use that information to say, ‘So what?’” Wetzel said.

The data gained from Wetzel's research has been used as evidence by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association in litigation over the Deepwater Horizon spill. 

She could not disclose how her research has been used because the litigation is ongoing, but said that "knowing more about exposure levels and being more specific about what animals are being exposed to are going to be critical in making assessments of long-term impacts on the environment."

Wetzel is not alone. The passive samplers designed in Columbia have allowed environmental scientists around the globe to narrow the gap between sound science and informed public policy.

Scientists have used the devices to determine the cause of fish kills in the Chesapeake Bay, and the Canadian government has used the chemical samplers to study pollutants in the Great Lakes. 

Results from metal samplers have been used as evidence in a lawsuit against a Canadian mining company that has been blamed for polluting the Columbia River in Washington.

The passive rain samplers have been deployed by helicopter in remote regions of Alaska to study metals in rain and snow, caused by expanded zinc and lead mining in the region. 

In Missouri, metal samplers have been used to study mine runoff in streams in Washington County, and researchers from the Columbia Environmental Research Center have used the chemical samplers to study pesticides and hormones from agricultural runoff. 

In Europe, there has been a push for a branch of the European Union to use passive samplers more frequently to regulate the quality of surface waters.

“That’s kind of like getting the European EPA to implement passive sampling as a monitoring tool,” said Christopher Harman, an environmental scientist for the Norwegian Institute for Water Research.

“It’s not going to work in every situation. It’s not the solution for every management problem, but in general, they have a lot to offer,” Harman said. “You get more information for less money, and normally, people are interested in that kind of solution.”

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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