May 28, 2019

New Method for Tracking Water Pollution Developed

An agency and university have collaborated to develop a method to trace pollution in water sources

An agency and university have collaborated to develop a method to trace pollution in water sources

A new method has been developed to track pollution sources. The International Atomic Energy Agency and the University of Massachusetts developed a method to trace the origin of nitrogen pollution in lakes, seas and rivers.

According to Environmental Protection Online, the tool provides a safer and faster way to determine of nitrogen compounds in water stem from agriculture, sewer systems, or other aspects of the industry. This will help aid in prevention and remediation efforts.

Since the mid-1900s, nitrogen has been used as a fertilizer, according to Environmental Protection Online.

"One of the major global problems in terms of water quality is that we have been overfertilizing our landscapes for decades, either with manure or synthetic fertilizers," said Leonard Wassenaar, head of the IAEA Isotope Hydrology Section, according to Environmental Protection Online. "All of these nutrients, particularly nitrogen forms such as nitrates, are seeping into groundwater and eventually into rivers, lakes and streams."

Excessive nitrate levels increase algae growth that may lead to toxic blooms, according to Environmental Protection Online. These blooms sink to the bottom of lakes, creating bacteria and also creating “dead zones,” Wassenaar said.

“Scientists now see more fish kills, where thousands of fish float to the surface because of the bottom of the lake where they normally dwell is depleted of oxygen from this rain of organic material,” Wassenaar said to Environmental Protection Online.

The new method also measures the amount and proportion of nitrate stable isotopes in water. Nitrogen has two stable isotopes with different weights, according to Environmental Protection Online. The weight difference is not the same in human waste or fertilizers. For example, isotopes can be used to identify the source.

"Isotope tools are very powerful to measure nutrients in water, but historically their use has been very difficult, hampered by cost and accessibility. The new technique allows scientists to run more samples and much more cheaply for large-scale studies. I think it is a game changer," Wassenaar said to Environmental Protection Online.

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