FIU scientists lead the way in addressing emerging contaminants

Written by: Emma Odenweller

Henry Briceno
Piero Gardinali

Dr. Henry Briceño and Dr. Piero Gardinali were recently invited to attend and present on the state of emerging pollutants and technology advances in water quality testing at the United Nations’ World Water Week Conference. This conference took place from Aug. 25-30 at the UN headquarters in Stockholm, Sweden.

In the first session on innovation, Gardinali presented on using remote sensing via satellite imaging to gather water quality data in Miami. This method allows scientists to collect data without being present in an area, which is particularly useful in developing countries where there may not be infrastructure in place to support on-site work. While this procedure helps tell scientists when water quality is poor, it does not provide quantitative data and has other limitations.

One limitation of remote sensing data is not being able to sense emerging pollutants. These contaminants, such as caffeine and hormones, are of significant concern because they affect human and ecological health and are not regulated under the law in many countries, including the United States.

“Emerging contaminants are present everywhere in the world,” Gardinali, director of the Southeast Environmental Research Center, explains. “Developed countries have some framework on what they are and why they are important. Despite that, we do not have regulations for it yet. If a country like the US admits that they do not have a regulatory framework to deal with it, what can we expect from less developed countries?”

Panel discussion

FIU has become part of the UN Secretariat on emerging contaminant issues. Instead of each country developing their own procedures, FIU scientists would create standardized methods concentrating on a few pollutants that are simple to measure and have a meaningful impact.

After meeting with emerging regional contaminant coordinators, it was determined that an inventory of each region’s water quality infrastructure concerning emerging contaminants would need to be taken. Additionally, each region would need to identify a scientific lab to take on this project. Eventually, a workshop will take place where methods will be developed and distributed to each region for data collection. By developing these common procedures, the UN hopes to begin to address these dangerous contaminants and protect our water for generations to come.

Briceño and Gardinali are also working on an innovative water quality monitoring tool, the Water Wand. The tool is an easy to transport and inexpensive way to gather data to inform water quality and tidal flooding models. The Wand takes measurements of salinity, temperature and water depth and reports these measurements to an app, which forms a database. This will allow citizen scientists, like those who take part in the Institute’s Sea Level Solutions Day, to input data and relate remote sensing data to what is occurring on the ground.

FIU is leading in its efforts to address water quality concerns both locally and on a national and global scale. Scientists at the Institute have been working on water quality monitoring and management for over 25 years. In collaboration with new partnerships, like UNESCO, this important research will soon make a significant difference for countless people.