New tool predicts how long pollutants will stay in soil

Building on an idea developed by medicinal chemists, Johns Hopkins researchers have devised a new mathematical tool that accurately predicts how long certain pollutants -- including pesticides and pharmaceuticals -- will remain in soil.

The work is timely because researchers and public officials have become increasingly concerned about pharmaceuticals and personal care products that have been detected in soil and water. Environmental engineers are seeking better ways to track these emerging pollutants, which tend to be more complex and water-soluble than previous contaminants of concern, such as chlorinated solvents and petroleum byproducts.

This new modeling approach is important because environmental regulators and cleanup consultants need to know the extent to which hazardous contaminants will linger on a piece of land and the rate at which they will migrate toward critical water resources and supplies. The new approach will help them decide whether the pollutants need to be removed and how best to accomplish this, the researchers say.

"If we release chemicals into the environment, we need to know what will happen to them," said Thanh Helen Nguyen, a graduate student who played a leading role in adapting the math tool and demonstrating its effectiveness. "For many years, we've made predictions with a method that doesn't work very well on many chemical pollutants in soil. This new tool does a much better job."

Nguyen, who is working toward her doctorate in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, described the improved pollution predictor during an Aug. 26 presentation in Philadelphia at the 228th national meeting of the American Chemical Society.

Although her own training is in geology and environmental engineering, Nguyen said the new tool is based on a breakthrough by chemists who study how medications move from the bloodstream into human tissue. At an American Chemical Society meeting last year, Nguye

Contact: Phil Sneiderman
Johns Hopkins University

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