The Toxic Chemicals All Around Us

Nicolette Bugher has only given upward on a failed experiment.

After she’d spent weeks design it, and a few days running it, her material directly sit down idle inwards a fume hood inward the Parsons Laboratory for Environmental Science and Engineering, a visual reminder of the error.

Trial too error isn’t uncommon in science, of course, as well as Bugher shrugs it off. But she isn’t looking forward to the cleanup. That’second inward function because Bugher, a PhD student inward the lab of civil together with environmental engineering professor Desiree Plata, PhD ’09, specializes in nasty substances that are hard to get rid of. Her enquiry aims to identify the toxic contaminants all around us.

Industry constantly produces chemicals in addition to invents novel compounds, roughly of which “are harmful as well as toxic at real low levels,” says Bugher. “It’s of import that we’re able to take an environmental sample as well as say, ‘What’sec inward this?’”

Bugher’sec run is function of MIT’sec Superfund Research Program (SRP), a collaborative project the Institute launched inward 2017 to report the bear on of carcinogens stemming from toxic sites. Under this plan—i of nearly two dozen across the state—xi MIT professors and xviii trainees, including Bugher, collaborate on enquiry inward v project areas: H2O, air, systems biology, mutations, too genetic susceptibility. Plata serves every bit i of the projection leaders—a logical extension of her group’sec work analyzing the environmental impacts of industrial processes inwards hopes of encouraging companies to have sustainability into business relationship.

Plata’sec lab keeps the carcinogenic compounds it studies inward a small-scale refrigerator tucked under a lab bench, a cancerous minibar that Bugher uses to mix chemical cocktails she so compares amongst existent-globe samples. She’sec looking for contaminants similar n-nitrosodimethylamine, or NDMA, a manufacturing past-production together with likely man carcinogen. The chemic has of late been detected inwards pharmaceuticals, such equally the heartburn drug Zantac, as well as it tin can too class in drinking H2O systems as a by-production of municipal water handling.

Bugher’s failed experiment was intended to determine whether the plastic together with drinking glass vials she uses for her work comprise chemicals that can react to class NDMA, which could contaminate her samples as well as skew the results of hereafter tests. She’sec since redesigned the experiment and plans to go the modified version past sometime this winter. This is but a small-scale function of her overall enquiry, which zeroes inward on techniques to detect contaminants inwards tap water.

When she was an undergraduate, Bugher says, a career involving long hours at a lab bench running experiments that required noesis of complicated analytical chemistry was “the worst matter I could take ever—similar, always—imagined.” 

Before she went to college, Bugher wasn’t familiar alongside the contaminated locations known as Superfund sites, around of which are polluted alongside hazardous substances linked to cancers. The sites are designated and regulated past the United States of America Environmental Protection Agency under a 1980 constabulary that created a fund to make clean upward particularly polluted locations. Bugher’s coursework inward environmental technology led her to discover that her childhood dwelling inwards Newark, Delaware, was but 2 miles away from a Superfund site that had contaminated the groundwater. And her menage was correct downwardly the route from the site of an quondam Chrysler plant that used Pb in addition to other hazardous compounds. That site was cleaned up afterward the University of Delaware bought it inwards 2009; it now houses a enquiry building.

But Bugher’second business concern for the surround originated much before. For every bit long equally she tin can think, her family unit has vacationed at a lakeside cabin inward Ontario, Canada. The household has no running H2O or john; the family drinks filtered H2O from the lake in addition to catches fish to consume. At about point, a boat carried zebra mussels, an invasive species, into the water, as well as she noticed that the murky lake of her childhood turned “crystal clear.” The mussels ate the algae together with other nutrients that would have fed other species, and just about fish populations suffered.

That experience led Bugher to major in free energy in addition to environmental policy at the University of Delaware. Then a conversation with a professor helped her realize she could enact more modify past conducting scientific discipline herself, so she switched to environmental applied science. Another mentor encouraged her to assay work as a summertime researcher at MIT—a difference from the focus on civil infrastructure inward Delaware’s plan. Impressed past Plata’s run and her dynamism inwards talks plant online, Bugher applied to intern at her environmental applied science in addition to sustainability lab before her final yr of college. That summertime, she constitute herself inward her get-go moisture lab, organizing too analyzing groundwater samples shipped in from Ohio. It’sec the same lab she works inward today.

Bugher straight off recognizes that “Superfund sites are everywhere.” The United States of America regime’second current priority listing catalogues more than than i,300 of them, and exclusively 452 accept been completely cleaned upwardly. She has had to go at the skills required to assess the bear upon of this pollution. When she was an undergraduate, she says, a career involving long hours at a lab bench running experiments that required knowledge of complicated analytical chemical science was “the worst matter I could have always—like, ever—imagined.” But her function in the lab together with mentorship from Plata during her internship gave her confidence that she could hold it. That summertime, she says, changed her worldview on what environmental engineering science could live. Now she spends every twenty-four hours using the chemical science she one time dreaded.

Plata, the Gilbert due west. Winslow (1937) Career Development Professor in Civil Engineering as well as an associate professor of civil as well as environmental applied science, agrees that Bugher’s academic background wasn’t necessarily “ideal” when she beginning arrived equally a summertime researcher. But Bugher position inward the endeavour to become upward to speed. “Nikki will become to the origin of the job together with do the work that it takes to larn what she needs to learn, and then employ that learning,” says Plata. “It’second actually particular.” Last leap, Bugher earned a graduate research companionship from the National Science Foundation.

Nikki Burgher in the lab wearing safety glasses


Now inwards her tertiary yr inwards the Plata lab, Bugher spent many of her early on days equally a PhD educatee learning to go a gas chromatograph, a sometimes finicky device used alongside a detector to analyze the composition of a complex mixture, similar contaminated water. Samples are vaporized together with and then, past measurement how apace each chemical element of the mixture moves through the chromatograph, researchers tin can tease out the different molecules’ chemic properties to place them. She’s directly learning to function the lab’second high-operation liquid chromatograph.

But neither car tin discover NDMA inward minute quantities—together with precise testing is of import for Bugher’sec inquiry because NDMA tin touch homo wellness at extremely low levels. While the EPA has not set a boundary for the essence, which it classifies as a likely man carcinogen, Massachusetts drinking H2O guidelines specify a maximum of x nanograms per liter, an amount Bugher says is comparable to “a grain of sand inward an Olympic-sized swimming puddle.” Traditional analytical equipment often can’t discover compounds at levels that depression, peculiarly when a slurry of toxic chemicals makes “a mess of things” at a Superfund site, she says.

So Bugher is working on a method of extracting H2O samples inwards a fashion that concentrates them earlier she analyzes them. If successful, it volition let her to detect compounds like NDMA at lower levels so she tin can observe even delineate amounts in complex mixtures of contaminated H2O.

Less than twenty miles from the Plata lab, residents of Wilmington, Massachusetts, wait the results of MIT’s research. From 1953 to 1986, a serial of chemical manufacturers operated out of a 30-land department of Wilmington in addition to dumped contaminants inward unlined pits. The EPA added the site to the Superfund list in 2006, only not before contaminants reached wells supplying or so of the town’sec drinking water. Tests detected NDMA in the groundwater.

A 2021 written report from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health showed that children whose mothers were exposed to NDMA inward Wilmington while significant were iii times as probable to train cancer every bit those born to women who were not exposed. In Cambridge, a team of MIT’s Superfund Research Program researchers, including Bugher, was already working through the concerns. But inquiry definitively linking toxic contamination with cancer run a risk is relatively rare, in addition to the country written report on the Wilmington site confirmed the urgency of the researchers’ job.

Water analysis is a cornerstone of the SRP’second function, says biological technology professor Bevin Engelward, who heads MIT’s SRP. Without the operate of researchers like Plata together with Bugher, the other chemists and engineers on the projection wouldn’t know just what’second in the community’s H2O, much less sympathize its effects or how to bargain alongside them.

Bugher’s inquiry could have ramifications far beyond Wilmington, or fifty-fifty Massachusetts. NDMA and its grade of compounds are what Plata calls “slippery molecules”—they favor an aqueous grade too are difficult to separate from water. Engelward estimates that at least one% of the U.S.A. H2O furnish is contaminated amongst the chemical compound, potentially placing many lives at take a chance.

For Bugher, 26, the wellness implications of her research take already hit about domicile. In August 2021, she visited the physician for abdominal pain together with was rushed to the emergency room after an ultrasound showed that her appendix appeared ready to outburst. Although it wasn’t appendicitis, her surgeon later removed the organ—together with extracted a tumor along amongst it. Hers was an uncommon just “slowly” tumor that could be handled amongst a routine operation, together with fortunately, it was benign. She was back inward the lab three days afterward, only knowing how lucky she was that it wasn’t cancer changed her outlook.

Cancer—it’second unplanned, it’sec unexpected. You’re never prepared for it—yous don’t know where it comes from,” she says. “The operate that nosotros make is really important, because nosotros’re trying to aid toxicologists figure out where cancer is coming from in addition to how to solve it.”

affects communities together with their health has made Bugher appreciate the chemical science her work entails. “It turns out,” she says, “I actually like chemical science a lot.”