Something in the Water

Something in the Water

Wendy Cory and Vijay Vulava, College of Charleston

If you’ve ever considered buying a Brita water filter, professors Wendy Cory and Vijay Vulava will help push you into a purchase.

The pair has spent the last few years studying our waterways – and, in turn, our drinking water, which are filled with trace amounts of pharmaceuticals. Every time you turn on the tap, they say, you’re getting small amounts of drugs in your drinking glass. A water filter can help solve this problem, but it’s not fixing the source of the problem. What’s worse is that we as a society don’t have a very good idea of the depth of the pollution and its effect on the population. That’s where Cory and Vulava intend to help.

For the past four years, Cory, a chemistry professor, and Vulava, a geology professor, have been examining the presence of pharmaceuticals in our water. Unused medicine is disposed of improperly, for example, or humans excrete unmetabolized pharmaceutical traces into wastewater that is treated and then pumped into rivers. However it gets there, the pharmaceuticals undergo changes as they travel through different water environments. It’s these changes that Cory is exploring. Quite simply, she wants to know what the pharmaceuticals become when exposed to different variables, like sunlight or salt.

As her colleague Vulava explains, “They can break down into something nastier than the original chemical, or something benign; we don’t know.”

Vulava, then, explores the fate of these altered chemicals. Some stay in the water, while others find their way to the soil or are absorbed in the fat of fish. Unfortunately, many of these destinations are just way stations on a greater journey into humans. Because humans are at the top of the food chain, we ingest many things previously ingested by other organisms. What’s more, communities like Charleston are at the bottom of a watershed, meaning they are gutters for pharmaceuticals (many of which are known as disruptors to organisms’ endocrine systems) and other water pollutants.

Ultra-high–pressure liquid chromatograph-mass spectrometer

Ultra-high–pressure liquid chromatograph-mass spectrometer

Initial funding for Cory and Vulava’s studies were provided by the College, and this investment was critical for the professors’ recent award of more than $500,000 from the National Science Foundation to continue their studies over the next three years and to purchase expensive equipment, such as an ultra-high–pressure liquid chromatograph-mass spectrometer. The grant also allows for the employment of 18 student researchers over three years, beginning this summer. Students will work with either Cory or Vulava in the lab to study samples of pharmaceutical-tainted water that are influenced by a single variable at a time. By isolating these known variables (as opposed to using field samples, which contain a multitude of unknown variables), Cory and Vulava seek to obtain a better understanding of the transformations and destinations of pharmaceuticals in our waterways.

Critical to their experimentation is the help of the students who will perform essential research. And that experience working on an NSF–sponsored project is a boon to students seeking admission and scholarships to prestigious graduate study programs.

“Doing this kind of research gets their foot in the door to all sorts of things once they graduate,” says Cory, adding that, oftentimes, students extend their summer research into the academic year through independent study programs. They then accompany the professors on trips to conferences, where they present their results and get a taste of what it’s like to be in the company of scientists. Just as important, the students also help tackle a public health problem that remains murky and demands increased investigation.

And so, as Vulava and Cory say, until we understand everything about the pharmaceuticals in our drinking supply and aquatic environment, it doesn’t hurt to filter your drinking water.

Chemistry professor Wendy Cory

Chemistry professor Wendy Cory

Drug Detective

Before tracking the presence of drugs in our drinking water, Wendy Cory helped track illegal drugs around Charleston. The chemistry professor, along with students Phillip Mabe ’12 and Rainey Patterson ’11, worked with forensic chemist Nikki Mitchell ’99 at the Charleston Police Department to devise a test that more easily identifies the active ingredients found in prescription medicines like Viagra, Levitra and Cialis. These drugs, which are intended to treat male sexual dysfunction, are often illegally obtained and abused, sometimes in combination with other illegal drugs, such as Ecstasy.

Identifying such drugs in the laboratory is normally a complicated endeavor, made difficult by how little of the illegal substance is often recovered as evidence, as well as the fact that any lab results must stand up in court and be able to be reproduced by independent labs. To remedy this, Cory and her team developed a new, more user-friendly method of identifying the active ingredients in the prescription medicines.

“This collaboration was a very positive experience for the police laboratory,” says Mitchell. “With this new method we’re able to conclusively identify these substances and provide officers with more information for their investigation.”