Missouri S&T Researchers Looking For Contaminants Left Behind By Spring Floods | St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri S&T Researchers Looking For Contaminants Left Behind By Spring Floods

Nov 25, 2019

ROLLA — The spring floods in Missouri and Illinois caused more than $1 billion in damage and may have left behind chemicals that could hurt the environment and end up in drinking water.

“A lot of times we don’t take measurements right after a flood. So we don’t have a really good idea of how long it takes for these things to get flushed out,” said Ryan Smith, a geologist at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla. 

Smith and his colleagues are part of the team that is taking soil samples around the state. They are looking for everything from nitrates to fertilizers to heavy metals that were trapped in the soil before floodwaters stirred them up and got them moving.

They are also looking for a new class of contaminants found in human waste. That includes things like hormones and medications.

“If you have a flood that goes through St. Louis, it can flush a lot of that out of the urban areas and make it available into the streams,” said geologist Jonathan Obrist-Farner. “We are seeing that increase in a lot of rivers and lakes around the world.”

Whether that is a problem around the Missouri and Mississippi rivers — and its severity — is at the center of the team’s research.

“What we’re trying to find out through this research is are there any natural traps in the St. Louis-area topography to concentrate these contaminants into toxic levels?” said Marek Locmelis, another geologist on the research team. “Once we know, we can help city planners understand what kind of countermeasures they can take.”

The study will also look at the well-known problem of agricultural runoff. Fertilizer from farm fields that ends up in streams and rivers can deplete the water of oxygen and kill plants and animals in the waterways.

The researchers will examine the extent that the 2019 flooding increased that problem.

The National Science Foundation gave the university a $45,000 grant to help pay for the research.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

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