Corporate Banner
Satellite Banner
Chromatography
Scientific Community
 
Become a Member | Sign in
Home>News>This Article
  News
Return

Elucidating Odor Properties of Elk River Contaminants

Published: Tuesday, April 01, 2014
Last Updated: Wednesday, April 09, 2014
Bookmark and Share
Virginia Tech researchers utilized olfactory gas chromatography to pinpoint the concentrations of contaminants in the air.

In the more than two months since the Jan. 9 chemical spill into West Virginia’s Elk River, new findings reveal the nature of the chemicals that were released into the water and then into the air in residents’ houses.

“Based on our increasing understanding of the chemicals involved in the water crisis, the complexities and implications of the spill keep growing,” said Andrea Dietrich, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech. “People are still afraid to drink the water; odors persist in schools, residences, and businesses; data are still lacking for the properties of the mixture of chemicals in the crude MCHM that spilled.“

The lack of data motivated Dietrich and her research team to take on essential odor-related research that went beyond their National Science Foundation Rapid Response Research grant to better understand the properties of the chemical mixture called crude 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, the major component in the crude mix of the spilled chemicals into the Elk River. It is used in the separation and cleaning of coal products.

Rapid Response grants are the agency’s funding mechanism when a severe urgency exists in terms of the availability of data.

When Dietrich’s team first started, their goal was to conduct detailed scientific investigations to determine the long-term fate of the chemicals in the drinking water distribution system and in the environment. The spill had occurred upstream from the West Virginia America Water intake, treatment, and distribution center. Some 300,000 residents were affected, losing their access to potable water. The continued plight of West Virginia living day-to-day with the contaminant’s licorice odor resulted in Dietrich’s team unraveling the odor threshold problem.

As the ban was lifted on drinking water use, Virginia Tech researchers gathered their data and they realized that West Virginians were still complaining of an odor in their homes and in the environment.

“Like for many contaminants in water, chemicals leave the water and enter the breathing air, so that inhalation becomes a route for human exposure as well as drinking the water,” stated Daniel Gallagher,  also a faculty member in Virginia Tech’s Via Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a member of the research team.

The Virginia Tech researchers were able to pinpoint the concentrations of contaminants in the air that residents can detect because they have specialized equipment, uniquely available in the College of Engineering, but more commonly used in the food, beverage, and fragrance industries. Called olfactory gas chromatography, it allows the investigators to independently measure the concentrations and odors of the two isomers found in the 4-methylcyclohexane methanol.

This specific cyclohexane “consists of two isomers, a cis- and a trans- methylcyclohexane methanol. The isomers have the same chemical formula but a very slight shape difference that for many isomers, can have enormous effects on the physical, chemical, and biological properties. Only the trans isomer has the characteristic licorice-like odor. The cis isomer is significantly less odorous and has different descriptors,” Dietrich explained.

Dietrich added that they determined the odor threshold concentration of the trans-isomer to be “exceedingly low”, measured at 350 parts per trillion by volume in the air. This air odor threshold can be combined with a Henry’s Law Constant that relates the concentration in air to estimate the corresponding concentration in water. Based on an estimated Henry’s Law Constant from TOXNET, this odor threshold in water concentration is about seven parts per billion-water.

This is more than a hundred times lower than the one part per million health guideline recommended by the Center for Disease Control. Thus, the odor of MCHM is readily detectable even when the water concentration water meets the health guideline level.

This relationship now needs to be further understood through additional data collection and research.

An “important implication of the findings,” Dietrich said “is the critical need to independently measure the concentrations of the cis and the trans isomers, as was done in this study and is being done at the Virginia Tech labs. “The licorice odor will be proportional to the amount of the trans isomer, not the total amount of methylcyclohexane methanol. While there may be a tendency to measure ‘total methylcyclohexane methanol’, this could lead to misleading interpretations.”

“The cutting edge research instrumentation and support available for student and faculty research is extensive,” said lead graduate student Katherine Phetxumphou, of Woodbridge, Va., who is supported on a Virginia Tech Graduate school fellowship and is a member of Virginia Tech’s Water INTERface Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program.

“After our research protocol for human subjects received approval in February, we logged hundreds of hours of research that all boiled down to one number – the odor threshold for trans methylcyclohexane methanol. It is amazing we accomplished so much so fast; we were committed to do this for the people of West Virginia and the research community,” Dietrich said.

Of all the human senses, odor has been the most difficult to scientifically explain. Just ten years ago, Linda Buck and Richard Axel were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for being the first to decipher the genes that determine the sense of smell.

Dietrich is an expert on water quality and treatment, as well as its taste and odor assessment. Several years ago, the American Water Works Association and Research Foundation sponsored Dietrich to travel around the U.S. to educate utility staff and managers on how to use sensory analysis to detect changes in water quality. She is also a co-developer of three odor-testing methods for the daily monitoring of raw and untreated water. She is the current chair of the International Water Associations’ Specialty Group for Off-Flavors in the Aquatic Environment; she travels internationally to speak and train on detecting tastes and odors in drinking water.


Further Information

Join For Free

Access to this exclusive content is for Technology Networks Premium members only.

Join Technology Networks Premium for free access to:

  • Exclusive articles
  • Presentations from international conferences
  • Over 3,500+ scientific posters on ePosters
  • More than 5,000+ scientific videos on LabTube
  • 35 community eNewsletters


Sign In



Forgotten your details? Click Here
If you are not a member you can join here

*Please note: By logging into TechnologyNetworks.com you agree to accept the use of cookies. To find out more about the cookies we use and how to delete them, see our privacy policy.

Related Content

Superior Ability To Rapidly Detect Volatile Organic Compounds
Researchers develop a credit-card-sized gas chromatography platform that can analyze volatile compounds within seconds.
Wednesday, April 22, 2015
Scientific News
Impact of Emerging Contaminants in Our Water Supply
Emerging contaminants, any synthetic or naturally occurring chemical not commonly monitored in the environment, in our water supply are becoming of increasing concern due to their potential ecological and/or human health effects.
Collaboration to Develop Cannabis Testing Standards
SCIEX workflow solution enables cannabis labs to ensure product safety with robust, cost-effective analytical methods to facilitate routine testing.
Antibiotic Resistance Genes in Indoor Dust
Genetic analyisis of dust samples discovered antimicrobial chemicals and antibiotic-resistance genes.
Hacking Microbes
Startup’s engineered yeast helps clients produce fragrances and flavors more efficiently.
Identifying People Using Human Hair Proteins
In an important breakthrough for the forensic science community, researchers have developed the first-ever biological identification method that exploits the information encoded in proteins of human hair.
Peptide Mutants Help Identify Vulnerability in Tumor Cells
Researchers can detect mutant proteins based on MS data and the results of exome sequencing.
Diverse Fungi Secrete Similar Suite of Decomposition Enzymes
A recent study reveals different fungal species secrete a rich set of enzymes that share similar functions, despite species-specific differences in the amino acid sequences of these enzymes.
Lower Mortality with Polyunsaturated Fat
In a study from Uppsala University the fatty acid linoleic acid (Omega 6) in subcutaneous adipose tissue was linked to lower mortality among older men followed over a 15-year period.
How Cloud Connectivity Can Combat the Reproducibility Crisis
This infographic explains the reproducibility crisis, and how cloud connectivity can help overcome this problem.
Simplifying Drug Development
Scientists have for the first time revealed the nanostructure of the mesoporous magnesium carbonate Upsalite® and controlled pore size without organic molecules as templates or swelling agent.
SELECTBIO

SELECTBIO Market Reports
Go to LabTube
Go to eposters
 
Access to the latest scientific news
Exclusive articles
Upload and share your posters on ePosters
Latest presentations and webinars
View a library of 1,800+ scientific and medical posters
3,500+ scientific and medical posters
A library of 2,500+ scientific videos on LabTube
5,000+ scientific videos
Close
Premium CrownJOIN TECHNOLOGY NETWORKS PREMIUM FOR FREE!