Keeping Our Water Clean



By Simon Morrow
Dave Lampert

David Lampert, an assistant professor at Illinois Institute of Technology, works on projects relating to water quality. 

“I’m trying to understand what processes are happening in our water systems and trying to figure out how we can do better from an ecology point of view, a human health point of view, and sustainability point of view,” says Lampert. 

He recently received funding to tackle two different threats to water quality. 

Lampert was recently awarded competitive phase two funding in the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) People, Prosperity, and the Planet (P3) Student Design Competition, through which he’s leading students in a project aimed at stopping a class of compounds that can't be broken down in the environment from moving into waterways.  

Also, in a project funded by the U.S. Geological Survey, Lampert is working with Oklahoma State University to look at how algal blooms form and how to prevent them. 

The Compound We Can’t Get Rid Of

In the 1960s a new class of compounds created in the laboratory increasingly made its way into commercial products. Everything from non-stick pans to shampoo started to be manufactured using perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). 

But as PFAS were studied, concerns grew. Research showed that some types of PFAS could negatively impact health, including links to cancer. 

The use of some types of PFAS have decreased, but many still show up in products. What makes PFAS particularly dangerous is that they do not break down in nature, earning them the nickname “forever chemicals.” These days, PFAS is everywhere.

“If you take a blood sample of basically anybody and measure it, you can find a detectable level of these PFAS compounds,” says Lampert.

He is looking at strategies to prevent further movement of PFAS into water supplies, with a focus on certain areas where the soil and groundwater are highly contaminated with the compounds. A major culprit is fire training sites, often found at airports or military bases, where large amounts of fire extinguisher material was used, leaving the ground full of PFAS.

Lampert plans to test various materials for their ability to capture PFAS as it moves.

“There’s a complicated hydrological-environmental modeling question there to try to understand this whole process of how the PFAS gets from a contaminated area to the receptors and people who might be exposed to it,” says Lampert.

Lampert used phase I funding from the EPA’s P3 project to conduct a pilot study. He led a team of students in designing a laboratory experiment that could track the movement of PFAS through soil and groundwater over time. They also looked at the potential for various materials to contain the pollution and protect surface water resources.

The group designed plexiglass boxes with slots cut out at various heights, and which are covered in a membrane. Each box is put into soil with a PFAS-contaminated top layer. At different intervals over the course of several weeks, the boxes were removed from the soil and the PFAS levels were measured at each slot, indicating how far down the substances had migrated. 

The results that they found were consistent with computational models that they made of the system. 

In November 2022 the EPA announced that Lampert’s project was one of just three nationwide that was selected for P3’s phase II funding.  

For phase II of the project, Lampert says he plans to include water columns and worms to the soil system in order to see how water flow and animal burrowing impact the movement of PFAS. 

He also plans to test the soil for additional types of PFAS and to examine how the worms bioaccumulate the compounds, which is important for understanding how PFAS spreads to humans through bioaccumulation in fish.  

These results will allow him to start identifying and testing possible intervention strategies for stopping the PFAS movement. Lampert says he expects to also do a field test in an existing PFAS-heavy site. 

The project is aimed at finding a solution that can be implemented on larger scales, so Lampert says that he hopes to include students with business, social science, and entrepreneurial expertise on the team as the project progresses.

Understanding Algal Blooms

Harmful algal blooms are becoming a larger and larger issue. 

Increasingly, farms are overfertilized, and these nutrients make their way into the water, which allows algae to thrive. 

But the algae’s abundance tends to deplete oxygen levels in the water through a combination of overpopulation of the organisms that feast on the algae and the decomposition of dead algae. Oxygen levels can get so low that everything in the water dies.

“There's a huge dead zone every year in the Gulf of Mexico where the Mississippi River comes in and brings all these nutrients,” says Lampert. “It’s an issue all over the world.”

Algal blooms also regularly shut down swimming areas and increase the costs of water treatment plants that have to remove algae, plus some algae may produce toxins.

In 2014, algae blooms in Lake Erie caused Toledo, Ohio’s tap water to become unusable to residents for multiple days. Half a million people were told that they shouldn’t touch, much less drink, their tap water.

Something needs to be done to reduce these events, but the causes of the blooms are complicated, Lampert says.

“It depends on the weather. It depends on how people do farming. It depends on how they manage the wetlands around the lake. It depends on how they manage the lake. It depends on what was done 10 years ago,” says Lampert. “And climate change is expected to make all of this worse as waters get warmer.”

Lampert’s project takes a multifaceted approach to attempt to understand the big picture, with the hope being to start to determine which mitigation strategies are most likely to prevent harmful algal blooms. 

The project consists of data collection through sensors and cameras on aerial and boat drones, molecular analysis of water samples, and satellite data. 

In the summer of 2022, Lampert and some students started looking at Marion Reservoir in Kansas, where algal blooms happen predictably every summer. They started collecting data before the bloom began in the hope that they will be able to identify clues in their analysis to what factors triggered the bloom. 

Lampert will be combining all of these together into a model aiming to understand how the system works as a whole. 

“A big part of this is trying to develop mathematical models in order to understand different interventions,” says Lampert. “You have to have working models of how the system works so that you can use them to make predictions about alternative ways that you could manage them.”

Possible solutions may include making changes to farming practices, adding sand to the bottom of lakes to keep nutrients trapped where algae can’t reach them, changes to waterways to reduce runoff of nutrient rich water into lakes, or reclaiming wetlands that naturally remove these nutrients. 

“It’s hard to know which of those strategies will be the right approach,” says Lampert. “One of the challenges is that every place is a little bit different. But hopefully, we would have a better idea by the end of this project.”

Disclaimer: Research reported in this publication was supported by the U.S. Geological Survey under Award Number 2021OK006G. This content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the U.S. Geological Survey.

This content was developed under Assistance Agreement No. SU840180 and SV840421 awarded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to David Lampert. It has not been formally reviewed by EPA. The views expressed in this document are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Agency. EPA does not endorse any products or commercial services mentioned in this publication.

David Lampert, “Sorbent-Amended Caps for PFAS-Contaminated Sediments,” Environmental Protection Agency; Awards Number SU840180 and SV84042

Mark James Krzmarzick, Co-PI David Lampert, “Forecasting Harmful Algal Blooms using Molecular Methods and Unmanned Systems,” U.S. Geological Survey; Award Number 2021OK006G

Photo: Assistant Professor David Lampert (provided)