The days of factories discharging heavy metals and homes flushing untreated waste directly into the Quinnipiac River are thankfully a thing of the past. But as industries and lifestyles have changed, so have their toxic byproducts. A new generation of chemical pollution is making its way into the river and surrounding watershed. By measuring these pollutants and tracking their effects on the ecosystem, local researchers are gathering the data needed to help create water protections for the 21st Century.
“If you don’t assess, you can’t address,” said Nancy Alderman, a long-time member of the Quinnipiac River Fund Advisory Committee. Supported by grants from the fund, scientists from area universities are working on separate studies that, when taken together, will compose a more complete picture of the river’s true health than what has been available to date.
“We are finally getting a handle on some of these pollutants that no one else is assessing," Alderman said.
One of the most widely used family of chemicals today, phthalates act as a softener in pipes, hoses, vinyl flooring, medical devices, and many other materials. While the health risks and the exposure levels that pose health risks still requires further study, phthalates are the suspected culprits of increasing rates of asthma, cancer, and obesity.
Taking water and sediment samples from various points in Wallingford and North Haven, chemists from Quinnipiac University have found several types of phthalates present in the river.
• Benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP), used to make foams, traffic cones, and conveyor belts, was found along the river between Toelles Road in Wallingford and Sackett Point Road in North Haven.
• Diethyl phthalate, used in personal care products such as detergents and cosmetics, was found in North Haven.
• Bis-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), used in syringes, IV bags, and other medical supplies was found near Sacket Point Road.
Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs)
Down at the end of the river, in New Haven Harbor, Yale researchers are looking at the environmental effects of phthalates and other chemicals known as endocrine disruptors. Found in virtually every personal care product in a typical home’s medicine cabinet, as well as in herbicides, endocrine disrupting chemicals are ubiquitous in the watershed. Previous studies have found some of the highest concentrations near suburban homes reliant upon septic systems.
“There is a halo of chemicals around everywhere we live,” said David Skelly, Ph.D.Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. “Wastewater treatment plants are not equipped to deal with these 21st EDCs.”
Skelly’s team has found evidence of endocrine disruption in local frog populations. One in five frogs sampled by the researchers had eggs in their testes. In its latest project, the team is studying mussel populations in Long Island Sound, the first such examination of endocrine disruption in this body of water.
In a complementary study, University of Connecticut researchers are studying the impact of municipal wastewater on local fish populations.
Elevated nitrogen levels are not a new problem, and they continue to plague New Haven Harbor. Too much nitrogen chokes the oxygen from the water, leading to algae blooms that kill off the marine plant, fish, and shellfish populations. Sources of nitrogen pollution include lawn and agricultural fertilizers and inadequate wastewater treatment.
With its shallow bay and weak tides, which do not thoroughly refresh the waters, New Haven Harbor is particularly susceptible to algae blooms in the summer. Working along the western harbor and Long Wharf Shore in 2011-12, University of New Haven researcher Roman Zajac recorded algae blooms at were larger and had significantly more mass than the largest algae blooms found in other coastal countries including Spain, Netherlands, and the Philippines.
The Quinnipiac River Fund was established in 1990 as a result of a court settlement between the National Resources Defense Council, the Connecticut Fund for the Environment and the Upjohn Corporation concerning wastewater discharges by the Upjohn Chemical Company of North Haven into the Quinnipiac River. The settlement was used to create the Quinnipiac River Fund, administered by The Community Foundation. The Fund is advised by a committee that meets once a year to make funding recommendations to The Community Foundation. Visit www.thequinnipiacriver.com to see other other projects funded by the Quinnipiac River Fund.