Professor fighting pollution

Biology professor received grant to continue research in Quinnipiac River

Katie Langley, News Editor

Quinnipiac University professor of biology Courtney McGinnis has been conducting research on the water quality in the Quinnipiac River for almost a decade. With a new $18,418 grant from The Community Foundation for a Greater New Haven’s Quinnipiac River Fund to support her work, she isn’t set to stop anytime soon.

Professor Courtney McGinnis received her eighth grant from The Community Foundation for a Greater New Haven’s Quinnipiac River Fund. (Photo contributed by Courtney McGinnis/ Autumn Driscoll/Quinnipiac University)

McGinnis conducts her research lab each summer with the help of science and engineering students from Quinnipiac. This will be the eighth grant that CFGNH has contributed to fund McGinnis’ efforts.

The group collects water samples and uses a gas chromatography-mass spectrophotometry, an instrument located in the university’s chemistry department used to test for pollutants in the water.

“The students and I are looking for several environmental pollutants, we look for really three different things, we look for phthalates, which are a part of the creating of plastic, we look for plasticizers in general, and these can be things like bisphenol A (which) is probably the most common,” McGinnis said. “And over the last several years we’ve started to find hydrocarbons and these hydrocarbons are typically from non-source pollutants, from roadways or other impervious surfaces and with stormwater it runs into the river.”

McGinnis said that though the Quinnipiac River is not a drinking water source, these materials can make the water unsafe to drink, swim in or consume fish from. Despite posted signs warning visitors, McGinnis said her research group has still seen people using the water in the river for various activities, which could have negative health effects.

“That’s what we’re trying to understand — is the river safe to utilize,” McGinnis said.

After collecting samples, McGinnis said her group investigates where the polluting compounds could be coming from. She said that businesses that have permitted discharges to dump “clean water” into the river may actually be polluting natural ecosystems.

“In the past, we have identified, there are other things (than clean water) from those companies actually in the river and so those have resulted in some fines from the (Department of Energy and Environmental Protection),” McGinnis said.

McGinnis said her research is driven in part by the Quinnipiac River’s classification as one of the “impaired rivers” in Connecticut. Though the water quality has improved in recent years, the river still has evidence of pollution, according to the Quinnipiac River Fund website.

The Quinnipiac River is over 40 miles long, running through towns such as New Britain, Southington, Wallingford, Hamden, North Haven and New Haven and flowing into the Long Island Sound.

“Having additional data on the health of the river will really help us understand what state it’s in and what we can do to help remedy some of those parameters (that indicate pollution),” McGinnis said.

The Quinnipiac River Fund distributes about $100,000 yearly to conservation-related projects, according to its website. With the help of the fund, schools like Quinnipiac, Yale University, the University of New Haven and the University of Connecticut have reported on river health. Some topics included looking at salt levels in the river and the levels of heavy metals within its fish.

The research group’s project this summer is titled, “Presence and distribution of pollutants and other water quality parameters.” McGinnis said that she is still in the process of choosing students who will join her during the break.

“This year, as part of the grant we will also be collecting other and testing for other water quality parameters, including coliform,” McGinnis said. “We’ll be looking at both fecal coliform and total coliform, as well as pH and dissolved oxygen.”

McGinnis said she was very excited to find out she received the grant because of the conservation work that she and her students plan on doing.

“I’m really invested in understanding how the health of the river changes over time as well and helping to continue to monitor the overall health of the river,” McGinnis said.