eNews November 2020

UNM Student Awarded an NM WRRI Student Water Research Grant to Study Reactivity of Microplastics with Heavy Metals

UNM Student Awarded an NM WRRI Student Water Research Grant to Study Reactivity of Microplastics with Heavy Metals

by Marcus Gay, NM WRRI Student Program Coordinator

In New Mexico, freshwater systems near abandoned mines have heavy metal concentrations above acceptable Environmental Protection Agency contaminant levels. Microplastics (plastic materials with a diameter <5 mm) can be introduced into these same freshwater systems by solid waste dumping, recreational activities, or wastewater treatment effluents. If microplastics are introduced into freshwater that is already contaminated with heavy metals, the interaction between these contaminants can enhance toxic effects.

The potential increased toxicity in aquatic ecosystems could be harmful to living organisms. Therefore, in order to assess the reactivity of microplastics with heavy metals, Jasmine Anne Quiambao, a graduate student in the Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering Department at The University of New Mexico, has been awarded an NM WRRI Student Water Research Grant entitled, Evaluation of Heavy Metal Adsorption onto Microplastics. Quiambao and her faculty sponsors, Dr. Jorge Gonzalez Estrella and Dr. Kerry Howe, are working on a project with two main tasks: first, to investigate the occurrence of microplastics in freshwater systems containing elevated concentrations of heavy metals; and second, to investigate the adsorption of heavy metals onto microplastics in laboratory experiments. Dr. Kerry Howe has been featured as this month’s Meet the Researcher, and a link to his interview can be found here. The project will analyze samples that have been taken from freshwater systems close to abandoned mines, ponds used for recreational activities, and the Rio Grande. Quiambao and her team will then evaluate the adsorption of arsenic and uranium onto microplastics.

The results from this study will inform New Mexicans about the occurrence of microplastics in New Mexico freshwater systems and their potential interaction with heavy metals. According to Quiambao, “This research is a relevant foundation for potential environmental contamination/pollutants in freshwater systems in the state of New Mexico. We could potentially contribute to protecting human health and the environment of New Mexico communities by conducting this research and getting reliable data.” Quiambao presented this project at the 65th Annual New Mexico Water Conference, which was held virtually this past October.  To view her poster, as well as others from the conference, please click here.

Quiambao, originally from the Philippines, received her bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering and plans on graduating with a master’s degree in Environmental Engineering in Fall 2021. After graduation, Quiambao plans on obtaining employment in New Mexico’s water sector focusing on water and environment-related projects. She is interested in applying to Intel, wastewater treatment plants, and the Albuquerque Water Utility Authority.