Yes, There’s Icky Stuff in the Hudson. But Don’t Let That Scare You Away

There’s a pretty big ick factor in the Hudson River research done by Professor Gregory O’Mullan (GC/Queens College, Earth and Environmental Sciences). He and his colleagues have discovered widespread distribution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria associated with sewage in the river and its estuaries. They’ve found 16 types of pharmaceuticals in the water. And they’ve determined that mechanized aeration, designed to reduce pollution by adding oxygen to waterways like New York City’s Newtown Creek, can turn waterborne bacteria into airborne bacteria thanks to surface bubbles.
O’Mullan’s latest published research found that sediment at the shoreline is often loaded with fecal indicator bacteria, even when water samples from elsewhere in the river are clean. It turns out that bacteria thrive in the muck and sand at the water’s edge. And those bacteria are easily stirred up when people step in, kayak, fish, or swim, potentially increasing risks of infection.
And yet, O’Mullan says emphatically, “We don’t want to scare anybody off.” The Hudson is cleaner and more accessible now than it has been in decades, and “the more opportunities there are for the public to engage with the waterfront, the more improvements there will be. The more people get involved, the more they actually care about the water. … They start to see this as a resource to be managed. Once you understand the sources of contamination, there are actions we can take to improve that.”

Professor Gregory O'Mullan at work

But he does advise some caution, saying it’s “important to make informed decisions about where and when” to recreate in or near the Hudson and its estuaries. Fortunately, organizations like Riverkeeper and others closely monitor water quality for problems like sewage spills and make their reports available online. If you have young children who play near the shore where bacteria-loaded sediment is easily disturbed, be especially “aware of what goes into the mouth, and be aware of washing up afterwards.”
One of O’Mullan’s biggest takeaways is that differences in water quality can be “very local. The nearshore vs. mid-channel can be different. Two sides of a river can be different. And that’s actually good news for New Yorkers using the water. It means when the problems are local, the solutions can also be local. If there’s a pipe that leads to local contamination, we can put effort into improving that. And that’s an empowering message.” By documenting patterns and problems, and by providing better information about bacterial pollution and river ecology, O’Mullan’s research can help guide government agencies, advocates, and policymakers in taking steps to reduce contamination from sewage and other sources.
O’Mullan’s research partners include longtime collaborator Andrew R. Juhl of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory along with Riverkeeper, the environmental advocacy group. He also loves bringing students into his work, whether they’re undergrads carrying out simple studies at his lab at Queens College, or graduate students who “apply their skillsets to challenges” from a variety of perspectives, including public policy, computer science, and biochemistry.
He’s proud too that his work has a public impact. “Very often as academic scientists, we publish, we move on,” he said. But with this research, “we’ve connected to people who care and people who use the environment.”

Submitted on: MAR 27, 2019

Category: Earth and Environmental Sciences | Faculty | General GC News