UGA environmental health professor researches the impacts of discarded drugs and toiletries on coastal waters

For most people, washing clothes, dishes, and even their hands are a daily practice in good hygiene. To Erin Lipp, these common behaviors can be a threat to coastal ecosystems and to the people who live near them.

As a 2015-16 Public Service and Outreach Faculty Fellow, Lipp and her students study how products containing triclosan, an antibacterial ingredient found often in soaps, cosmetics and some plastics, affect the salt marsh along the Georgia coast.

“We’re concerned that they could be developing resistance to the (antibacterial), which could potentially increase the risk of (people) being exposed to pathogens in marine waters,” says Lipp, a professor of environmental health science in the College of Public Health.

The work Lipp is doing in conjunction with Marine Extension is valuable to Brunswick-Glynn County, says Mark Ryals, superintendent of the Waste Water Treatment Plant Operations Division for the consolidated city-county government.

It is important that the county educate residents about the consequences of flushing products containing chemicals down their toilets.

“We want to get that word out as much as possible,” Ryals says.

On a cold fall morning last year, Lipp and her students, including Keri Lydon, a 2015-16 Public Service and Outreach Graduate Assistant, leave on skiffs from a boat landing in Brunswick, Ga., to collect samples of water from the tidal creeks that connect to the Frederica River, near a wastewater treatment plant.

On the boat, they check the temperature, salinity and pH for each tube of water collected, which is then capped, documented and stored for later processing. They also collect sediment from the creek bottom. Samples of water and sediment are collected above and below the wastewater treatment plant, and near the point where water is discharged into the river.

Back at the lab in Brunswick, Lipp and the students do the initial processing of the water and sediment. At one table, water drips through a filter, where the bacteria will collect, a process that will take hours to complete, Lydon says. Once collected the researchers sequence the DNA for the entire community of bacteria to identify changes in the types and levels of bacteria that are present. This helps them understand how the changes are related to their proximity to the wastewater treatment plant and compare those findings to the data on the levels of triclosan in water from the same area.

Nearby, another of Lipp’s students uses a vacuum pump to filter bacteria onto membranes attached to agar, a jelly-like substance that holds the membranes in place and allows the bacteria to grow overnight. The next day, the team counts the bacterial colonies on the membrane to determine the number of Vibrio, and compare those numbers to the concentration of triclosan in the corresponding sediment and water sample. They also look for fecal matter, which would indicate the influence of wastewater on the sample and could mean a higher presence of triclosan.

Dr. Jia-Sheng Wang, UGA Athletic Association Professor in Public Health and head of the Department of Environmental Health Science, said: “We have been very pleased with the opportunities that Dr. Lipp’s PSO Fellowship has provided to Environmental Health Science. The ability to offer a field-based course at the coast was unique and offered an experience that many (Master of Public Health) students would not otherwise have.  Increasing interactions between our department and Marine Extension is important for building more collaborations on coastal health issues in the future and this fellowship was an important foundation for that work.”

Original published in Columns and by UGA Public Service and Outreach.

Posted May 10, 2016.