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What’s in your water?

Exploring the public health aspects of drinking water.

What’s in your water? by Kathy Quirk

As a student researcher working in a Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health lab, Chelsea Weirich has had the opportunity to help analyze water samples from around the world, gather samples from water near local beaches for the Milwaukee Health Department, and use the laboratory’s mass spectrometer to detect toxins in the water for later analysis.

“I’m particularly interested in the public health aspects of drinking water,” she says.

Modern drinking water treatment processes remove toxins, but there is evidence that not all are removed.

“The thrust of the lab’s work is looking at how toxic chemicals – either natural, like blue-green algal growth fed by phosphorus and other factors in the lakes, or man-made, like those created from personal care products – affect the quality of the water,” says Todd Miller, assistant professor of environmental and occupational health.

Modern drinking water treatment processes remove some of the toxins, but there is evidence that not all are removed, says Miller.

Todd Miler

Todd Miller

While much of Weirich’s research work has focused on harmful blue-green algae and their toxins, she has also helped gather lake water samples that include antimicrobial ingredients from personal care products. Because these products are flushed into rivers, lakes and streams, Miller and his research team are looking at possible public health concerns.

“These antimicrobials are very hard to detect in drinking water,” says Miller. “We want to see if there is any impact on people who ingest them, and find ways to prevent their occurrence in drinking water. Another worry is that these may end up in food, since sewage sludge can be made into fertilizer, and 64 percent of it is applied to agricultural land.”

Weirich is among a number of students in Miller’s Laboratory for Aquatic Environmental Microbiology and Chemistry. She hopes to eventually work for an agency such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Natural Resources or the Environmental Protection Agency. Or, she may become a researcher in academia.

Weirich says the learning she’s done in the lab will help her in any of those careers.

“I’m sure I’ll use these experiences in the future.”