It’s an unnerving sight. Clear blue waters turn blood red, like a danger sign thrown up by nature. A warning, washing up against the world’s shores.
They call it a ‘red tide.’ It is an algal bloom, created when pollutants wash into estuaries. And it can cause real harm to the marine food chain.
Some of the contaminants might come from your own house – the residue of products washed down the plughole.
Thankfully, help is at hand. Gary Fones, Professor of Environmental Aquatic Chemistry at the University of Portsmouth, is leading innovative research to help water companies and governments keep on top of the cleanliness of their waters.
But what’s the impact on the environment?
Through exploring what’s going on in both freshwater and seawater, Gary aims to answer that question. And by providing answers, he hopes his research can continue to influence the decisions and actions of businesses and policy makers around the globe.
His findings might even influence you to think twice about what you wash away.
Dishwasher fish shocker
Recognising the importance of Gary’s expertise, the National Environments Research Council (NERC) funded a significant project.
The team began by looking at how macronutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous (N&P), are affecting UK rivers and estuaries.
Lots of nitrogen enters our waters because it is used in farming, and washes off fields into running water. But it’s also found in products you may have used to feed your plants. And phosphates may well be found in your dishwasher tablets. So you may have played a part in creating this challenge.
When N&P make their way through rivers and arrive in estuaries, they feed phytoplankton – tiny creatures which are a key part of the marine ecosystem worldwide. This causes huge algal blooms – those ‘red tides’ (though they also come in other colours).
Either way, there’s a significant impact on life in our waters.
Gary’s research in this project grew to span estuaries, sediment and rivers. It has also expanded to look at organic contaminants – from pesticides, to antibiotics.
He explains, “Anything you use that ends up going down the toilet, the drain, the shower, bath, dishwasher, whatever, it goes out to sewage treatment works. It gets treated and goes into the waterways, but we need to understand the removal rates and how much ends up in the aquatic environment. We’re looking at the fate of all these contaminants from the rivers moving into estuaries and coastal seas.”
The next step seemed clear. So Gary started collaborating on research with water companies.
“The work we do now is very innovation-based,” says Gary. “We work with water companies, trying to answer problems for them. What is going on their catchment, in terms of contaminants? Where is it coming from, and how is it flowing through their rivers?
“The big thing is providing clean drinking water. You’ve got two ways to protect either the water supply or the waterways. One is the end-of-pipe solution, trying to clean everything up at sewage treatment and water supply works.
“The other way people look at it, and that’s where our work comes in, is called ‘Protect the Source.’ If water companies know what’s coming in, they can try and stop it. Our technology can help identify where and what’s coming in to the water.”
The technology Gary speaks of is something he’s been working with for over two decades. It’s known as a ‘passive sampler.’
A passive sampler has no moving parts, batteries or power supply. It’s a device you put into water or sediment, to accumulate contaminants over time. You then take it out of the water, bring it to your lab, extract the contaminants and work out what’s in the water.
He was drawn to the University of Portsmouth in part because it’s the home of a well-respected passive sampler called Chemcatcher. Gary has worked closely with its inventors, Professor Graham Mills and Professor Richard Greenwood.
“I’ve pushed the innovation side of Chemcatcher, working with the water companies on how we could use it as a monitoring tool for them,” Gary says.
Chemcatcher captures and isolates different contaminants and pre-concentrates them over time. By building them up in this way, it becomes easier to do analytical work – simply because there is more to work with.
The other key advantage Chemcatcher offers is to provide what’s called a ‘time-weighted average.’ Put simply, because Chemcatcher accumulates contaminants over time (one to two weeks), it offers an advantage over historical ‘spot sampling’ approaches (where you take random samples on a given day in various different connected waterways).
If there is a spike in contamination on a particular day, spot sampling can easily miss it. You might simply take your sample on a day before contamination has reached that stretch of water, or after it has passed on.
While Chemcatcher won’t tell you on what day the concentration of contaminants rose, it will show that contamination was above average during its time in the water. The water industry likes this, as it gives them a clearer view of how safe their water is overall.
Gary’s work is already highly valued in the UK. Now he aims to go global.
Water knows no borders
Gary played a part in a project led by colleague and Chemcatcher co-creator, Professor Graham Mills, in South Africa.
They explored the potential of Chemcatcher to be used by water companies and environment agencies, to track contamination from antiretroviral drugs in South Africa’s waters.
The drugs are used by people with HIV. Many of those people live in townships. Gary and Graham’s work complemented vital efforts to ensure clean water.
Next, Gary turned his sights to India. The nation has a huge monitoring programme, attempting to assess pollution from many different sources.
But the sheer number of official sites – more than 1,400 – mean it’s almost impossible not to miss some inputs. Gary aims to use passive samplers to help establish where all the pollution sources come from, and where they end up.
In everything he does, Gary is driven by two things – the thrill of making big discoveries (as he puts it, “understanding things we don’t know”), and the potential to innovate in ways that are helpful to human life.
“How do we reach good ecological status without understanding what’s happening in our aquatic environment? If we use passive samplers to further our understanding, then link that in to sewage treatment works and so on, can we help ultimately clean up rivers and coastal waters?”
Important as they are, those are not the only questions Gary is keen to tackle.
A different flow of knowledge
Gary has played a leading role in establishing a new, University-wide research and innovation theme at Portsmouth. The theme is Sustainability and the Environment.
As Theme Director, Gary has been bringing academics and researchers from across the University together, to start building interdisciplinary groups.
The big idea is that scientists can work with experts in creativity and culture, technology or business – or any broader discipline – to develop innovative new types of research, drawing on diverse strengths.
After all, issues of the environment and sustainability affect us all. So why should research be confined within the walls of separate disciplines?
In essence, it’s about building bridges wherever there is valuable expertise. And once the bridges have been built, Gary hopes people won’t just send messages from one side to the other, informing projects that remain essentially separate – instead, he hopes they’ll meet in the middle and explore how to genuinely answer questions together.
Naturally, water will be a key area of research within the theme. Gary explains that many different fields of research can and should come together, to shape answers to some of the planet’s most pressing questions:
“With sustainability and the environment, there’s the question of water pollution, use and re-use within sustainable cities. There’s also a socioeconomic side, looking at water resources and access to clean waters. That links to technology, for cleaning up or delivering water. Then you have questions of security and risk. And, of course, the impact on human health and well-being.”
Just as Gary’s research has empowered water companies to understand the cleanliness of the waters under their care, he now hopes to empower academics to take research and innovation further than ever before.
There’s no life without water. At the University of Portsmouth, this expert in water is giving research a refreshing new lease of life. And the whole planet could benefit.