Before collecting data through these small, yet vital organisms between August and October of 2020, Brase was inspired by his former Marist advisor Dr. Zofia Gagnon, associate professor of environmental science.
Brase was fortunate to be exposed to analytical chemistry and learn new techniques through Gagnon’s guidance. “Dr. Gagnon taught a small group of us as her research students, and we all learned the techniques together,” he said. That is when Brase got to use research instruments such as inductively coupled plasma optical emission spectroscopy (ICP-OES) and mass spectrometry.
Graduated from Marist in 2016, Brase has since branched out from his undergraduate work and used what he learned then and has applied it to his work today.
Brase and his team collected these bottom-dwelling critters and broke them down by eight taxa: mayflies, hellgrammites, water pennies, caddisflies, stoneflies, crayfish, dragonflies and true flies. All these taxa except for the crayfish were aquatic insect larvae used in the study. Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) were the most common PFAS that were found in these critters.
Mayflies and hellgrammites were tied for highest PFOS at the Hoosic downstream site and where Hellgrammites were the highest PFOS at the Hoosic upstream site. They are highly sensitive to pollution and generally leave a water body if it is poor quality. Other BMIs, like the mayflies and Hellgrammites, do the same thing.
Brase’s study differs from what other state agencies typically do when using BMIs for water quality assessment by directly quantifying levels of contaminants in the organisms. He suggests performing similar studies on a routine basis would allow researchers to collect larger amounts of data to better understand PFAS contamination in the environment.
Generally, many researchers put the collected organisms together in a plastic bag filled with ethanol to preserve them and would then count how many individual species there are. Brase says that a diverse group of macroinvertebrates will indicate good water quality. This method would not work well for PFAS testing if one is interested in breaking the BMI taxa down and comparing the levels in different species, which Brase and his team performed.
“We kind of figured out in an early experiment that if you put BMIs in a solution of alcohol, the PFAS begin to extract from their whole bodies, even before blending them up and turning them into bug juice for your PFAS extraction,” he said. “Because of this, one adaptation that would probably be necessary would be to essentially separate all the different taxa in the field prior to adding them to a solution of ethanol or methanol for preservation.”
Interestingly enough, Brase speculates that by breaking down the BMI taxa and the amounts of PFAS found in each, it could be possible to see where the contamination is coming from.
“You could start doing some interesting things with that data [such as] source tracking,” he said. “If we’re seeing these specific PFAS in these kinds of bugs, is there a way to determine where the contamination is coming from?”
Now, working for the New York State Department of Health after finishing his Ph.D. this December at the University at Albany School of Public Health, Brase is working on a grant that characterizes PFAS in landfills across the state and doing some work on drinking water analysis for PFAS.
After working a lot with these tiny, but visible critters for a year, Brase hopes his study will broaden public awareness about the kind of contaminants that can lurk in the aquatic environment and for state agencies to see if their current BMI protocols could be improved.
“I’m hoping that people see the value in the data that we’re showing here, and how we can gather more data to better understand PFAS contamination in the aquatic environment,” he said. “It’s imperative to understand what kind of things we as a population are exposed to and what that might mean for an individual’s health and for public health as a whole.”
“This paper is just another piece in that puzzle to help people gain awareness of what’s in the environment and why we should care about it,” he said.